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Warren v. Alabama Department of Mental Health

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division

April 6, 2017

WAYNE WARREN, by and through his Mother, next friend and legal guardian, Polly Robinson, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is before the court on the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 6) filed by Defendants Alabama Department of Mental Health ("ADMH") and Estate of Perry Walker ("the Estate"). The parties have fully briefed the motion. (Docs. #9, 11, 16-17). This motion presents the issue of whether the court may be compelled to apply a state statute of limitations but disregard a directly relevant tolling provision for that statute of limitations, based on the court's finding that the tolling provision is inconsistent with the purposes of federal law. Surprisingly, ADMH, an Alabama state agency, is asking the court to selectively apply state law. The court concludes that it cannot. Accordingly, for the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. # 6) is due to be denied.

         I. Procedural Background and Relevant Facts

         In October 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants ADMH and the Estate. (Doc. # 1). The complaint charges that ADMH violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). (See Id. at ¶¶ 34-49, 71-74). Moreover, ADMH allegedly committed negligence or wanton conduct by failing to protect Plaintiff from harm. (See Id. at ¶¶ 75-78). Plaintiff alleges that Perry Walker, a mental health worker at Partlow Developmental Center ("Partlow"), deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional liberty interest in personal safety and bodily integrity, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-33). Plaintiff also presents state law claims of outrage, assault, negligence, and wantonness against the Estate, along with an ADA claim. (See Id. at ¶¶ 66-78).

         According to the complaint, Plaintiff "suffers from mild to moderate retardation" and has an IQ score in the 50s. (Id. at ¶ 4). Plaintiff resided at Partlow before it was closed. (Id. at ¶ 6). While living at Partlow, Plaintiff shared an apartment with another patient, referred to as R.G. (Id. at ¶¶ 12, 17). On April 2, 2005, R.G. threw feces at Walker. (Id. at ¶ 20). In response, Walker instructed Plaintiff to assault R.G., and Plaintiff punched R.G. in the face. (Id. at ¶ 21). Walker's instruction to Plaintiff allegedly violated Partlow Policy 19-10 and constituted abuse, exploitation, and mistreatment. (Id. at ¶ 22). ADMH is alleged to have violated its own policies by failing to report Walker's assault instruction to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25).

         Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all claims in this action as time barred. (Doc. # 6 at 2-3). Defendants note that neither the Rehabilitation Act nor the ADA has an independent statute of limitations. (Id. at 2). As such, those claims are subject to the most analogous statute of limitations under Alabama law: the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. (Id.). That statute of limitations also applies to Plaintiffs negligence, wantonness, and outrage claims. (Id.). A six year statute of limitations applies to Plaintiff s assault claim. (Id.). As Defendants note, the incident at issue occurred over eleven years before this action was filed, well outside of the ordinary limitations periods. (Id. at 3).

         Plaintiff responds that this case falls under the tolling provisions of Alabama Code § 6-2-8(a) because of his mental incompetence. (Doc. # 9 at 1). ADMH petitioned the Probate Court of Tuscaloosa County to appoint a legal guardian for Plaintiff in February 2005. (Id. at 2). In April 2005, the probate court found that Plaintiff was incapacitated because of his intellectual disability and appointed Plaintiffs mother as his guardian. (Id. at 3). Plaintiff argues that Section 6-2-8 tolls the statute of limitations for all claims brought by him for twenty years because he has been mentally incapacitated for his entire life. (Id. at 5). He notes that the court's application of the tolling provision is not affected by the appointment of a guardian for him. (Id. at 4-5) (discussing Emerson v. S. Ry. Co., 404 So.2d 576 (Ala. 1981)). As this case was filed eleven years after the incident in question, Plaintiff requests that the motion to dismiss be denied. (Id. at 7).

         Defendants' reply brief does not contest Plaintiffs claim that his disability qualifies him for tolling under Section 6-2-8(a). (See Doc. # 11 at 3-4 n. 2). Defendants' reply also withdraws their earlier request to dismiss all claims in this action as untimely. (See id.). Rather, Defendants now argue that the state tolling provision in Section 6-2-8 does not apply to the federal law claims in Plaintiffs case (i.e., the claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA). (Id. at 5). In support, Defendants cite a case from the former Fifth Circuit, Miller v. Smith, 615 F.2d 1037 (5th Cir.) (Miller F), amended on rehearing, 625 F.2d 43 (5th Cir. 1980) (Miller IF). (Id. at 3-4). Relying on Miller I, Defendants insist that the court should not apply the tolling provision in Section 6-2-8 because it is inconsistent with the purposes of Section 1983, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA. (Id. at 5). This is so because "the filing of this action so long after the alleged event in question . . . accomplishes very little, if anything, with respect to addressing or vindicating the Plaintiffs civil rights." (Id.). Moreover, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs guardian could have brought this suit earlier. (Id.).

         II. Standard of Review

         A statute of limitations defense is an affirmative defense, and a plaintiff is not obligated to negate a timeliness defense in his or her complaint. La Grasta v. First Union Securities, Inc., 358 F.3d 840, 845 (11th Cir. 2004). "A Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal on statute of limitations grounds is appropriate only if it is facially apparent that the claim is time-barred." Baker v. Sanford, 484 F.App'x 291, 292 (11th Cir. 2012).

         III. Analysis

         Defendants argue that the federal claims in this suit are time-barred, notwithstanding the complaint's allegations of Plaintiff s intellectual disability. The court disagrees.

         The federal statutes pursuant to which Plaintiff is asserting claims (42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA) do not contain independent statutes of limitations; therefore, those claims are governed by the most analogous state statute of limitations. In this case, the most analogous limitations period is Alabama's two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. See Ala. Code § 6-2-38(1) ("All actions for any injury to the person or rights of another not arising from contract and not specifically enumerated in this section must be brought within two years."). Thus, the statute of limitations in Alabama for Section 1983 claims is two years. Owens v. Okure,488 U.S. 235, 249-50 (1989) (holding that Section 1983 actions are governed by the residual or general personal injury statute of limitations in states with more than one statute of limitations). And, the statute of limitations in Alabama for ...


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