Thursday, May 15, 2008

federal courts - 11th Amendment - statute of limitations - continuing violation

Larsen v. State Employee Retirement System - MD Pa. - May 15, 2008

In this § 1983 action by a former state supreme court justice concerning his pension, the court discuss two issues of general interest -- the Eleventh Amendment and the continuing-violations doctrine, as applied to the issue of the statute of limitations.

A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity
The Eleventh Amendment “has been interpreted to make states generally immune from suit by private parties in federal court.”... “This immunity extends to state agencies and departments.”...Eleventh Amendment immunity also extends to state officials sued in their official capacity because in such a case the state is the real party in interest.... Suits against state officials in their personal or individual capacity, however, are not barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

“Eleventh Amendment immunity is, however, subject to three primary exceptions: (1) congressional abrogation, (2) waiver by the state, and (3) suits against individual state officers for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief to end an ongoing violation of federal law.”
Under the third exception, the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), a suit against a state officer seeking prospective relief designed to end a continuing violation of federal law is not barred by the Eleventh Amendment under the theory that the action is not against the state because the alleged violation of federal law strips the officer of his official authority....Thus, for the doctrine to apply, the plaintiff must allege an ongoing violation of federal law....In addition, “[t]he relief sought must be prospective, declaratory, or injunctive relief governing an officer’s future conduct and cannot be retrospective, such as money damages.”

In determining whether the request relief falls within the Ex parte Young exception, a court must “look to the substance rather than the form of the relief sought.”....The doctrine applies only against state officials sued in their official capacities, not against states or state agencies....Further, “Young does not apply if, although the action is nominally against individual officers, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and the suit in fact is against the state.” ....“In determining whether the Ex parte Young doctrine avoids an Eleventh Amendment bar, the Supreme Court has made it quite clear that ‘a court need only conduct a ‘straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.’” The Supreme Court has also recognized, however, that “[f]or Eleventh Amendment purposes, the line between permitted and prohibited suits will often be indistinct.”

B. Statute of Limitations - the continuing-violations doctrine
“Actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are governed by the personal injury statute of limitations of the state in which the cause of action accrued.”... The applicable Pennsylvania statute of limitations for personal injury actions is two years....

Although the applicable statute of limitations is borrowed from state law, “the accrual date of a § 1983 cause of action is a question of federal law that is not resolved by reference to state law.” ... Rather, accrual of a § 1983 cause of action is “governed by federal rules conforming in general to common-law tort principles. Under those principles, it is the standard rule that accrual occurs when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action, that is, when the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief.”....Generally, therefore, “[a] section 1983 cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which its action is based.”....

Under Pennsylvania law, the limitations period is computed from the time an action accrues....A cause of action accrues when the plaintiff could have first maintained the action to a successful conclusion, and therefore the statute of limitations begins to run as soon as the right to institute and maintain a suit arises....Generally, this right arises when the plaintiff’s injury is inflicted....

[T]he untimeliness of the [plaintiff's] claims is apparent from the face of the complaint....[Plaintiff] argues, however, that his claims are saved from the statute of limitations by the continuing violations doctrine. This doctrine is an “equitable exception to the timely filing requirement”....Under this doctrine, “when a defendant’s conduct is part of a continuing practice, an action is timely so long as the last act evidencing the continuing practice falls within the limitations period; in such an instance, the court will grant relief for the earlier related acts that would otherwise be time barred”....The doctrine is a narrow exception to the statute of limitations that is frequently invoked but rarely found.

“To establish that a claim falls within the continuing violations theory, the plaintiff must do two things. First, he must demonstrate that at least one act occurred within the filing period: The crucial question is whether any present violation exists. Next, the plaintiff must establish that the [alleged wrong] is more than the occurrence of isolated or sporadic acts”....

In examining this second step, “courts should consider at least three factors: (1) subject matter – whether the violations constitute the same type ..., tending to connect them in a continuing violation; (2) frequency – whether the acts are recurring or more in the nature of isolated incidents; and (3) degree of permanence – whether the act had a degree of permanence which should trigger the plaintiff’s awareness of and duty to assert his/her rights”....The third factor, permanence, is the most important....In considering this third factor, the court “must consider the policy rationale behind the statute of limitations. That is, the continuing violations doctrine should not provide a means for relieving plaintiffs from their duty to exercise reasonable diligence in pursuing their claims”....The burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the continuing violations doctrine applies to toll the statute of limitations....