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Allen v. Hall

February 28, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garnett Thomas Eisele United States District Judge


Defendants have filed a Motion for Reconsideration therein requesting that the Court reconsider its previous Order rejecting Defendants' assertion that the Plaintiff's official capacity § 1983 claims are governed by a two year statute of limitations, and therefore time-barred.*fn1

Because this Court's ruling conflicts with prior rulings by a fellow district judge in Arkansas' Western District,*fn2 the Court has carefully reconsidered its prior legal conclusion. The Court stands by its prior decision and leaves it to a higher court to resolve the conflict.


Section 1983 actions in Arkansas are normally governed by Arkansas' three year statute of limitations for personal injury actions.*fn3 Arkansas also has a statute that calls for the application of a two-year statute of limitations for actions "against sheriffs and coroners upon any liability incurred . . . in their official capacity." Ark. Code Ann. § 16-56-109(a). The issue before the Court is whether a limitation period of two years or three years applies to Plaintiff's official capacity § 1983 claims against the County Defendants.*fn4

The question before the Court is one of federal law rather than state law. Where Congress has provided a civil rights remedy without a limitations period, the gap is to be filled by borrowing a state law limitations provision, but only where the borrowed state law "is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 42 U.S.C. § 1988. As the Supreme Court instructed in Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 269 (1985):

The importation of the policies and purposes of the States on matters of civil rights is not the primary office of the borrowing provision in § 1988; rather that statute is designed to assure that neutral rules of decision will be available to enforce the civil rights action, among them § 1983. Congress surely did not intend to assign to state courts and legislatures a conclusive role in the formative function of defining and characterizing the essential elements of a federal cause of action.

This Court concluded in its prior Order that applying Arkansas' two-year statute of limitations to Plaintiff's official capacity claims in this case would be contrary to the decision in Wilson. In Wilson, the Supreme Court sought to end the "conflict, confusion and uncertainty" about which state law limitations period to borrow and apply in § 1983 actions.*fn5 Stressing the need for uniformity within each State, the Court held that courts must borrow and apply "the one most appropriate statute of limitations."*fn6

Several years later, the Supreme Court considered the issue again. In Owens v Okure, 488 U.S. 235 (1989), the Court refused to apply New York law a specifying a one year limitations period for assault, battery, false imprisonment, and five other intentional torts to the plaintiff's § 1983 claim against police officers alleging unlawful arrest and excessive force. Instead, the Court applied New York's three year residual statute of limitations for personal injury claims, reaffirming Wilson's promise of "an end to the confusion over which statute of limitations to apply to § 1983 actions."*fn7 As the Court further noted, "the very idea of a residual statute suggests that each State would have no more than one."*fn8

Defendants contend that the Supreme Court's decision in Wilson is not controlling on the limitations issue now before the Court. In fact, Defendants assert that "Wilson and its progeny are not adverse, directly or indirectly," to the issue of whether a two or three year statute of limitations applies. Defendants argue that Wilson does not foreclose the possibility of applying two different "general" and "residual" statutes of limitation. Defendants thus contend that Arkansas has two residual statutes, two years for sheriffs and coroners sued in their official capacities and three years for all other defendants.

The Court rejects this argument. First, there is nothing general or residual about Ark. Code Ann. § 16-56-105(a). The provision carves out special protection for a select class of state actors -- sheriffs and coroners. In the § 1983 context, a three year statue of limitations would apply to all state actors except sheriffs and coroners acting in their official capacity, to whom a two year statute of limitations would apply. Is there any justification for treating coroners and sheriffs more favorably than all other state actors? Should the length of time a plaintiff harmed by a law enforcement official has to file suit be different depending on whether the official is employed as a sheriff or a police officer? The questions are rhetorical, and to be answered by the state legislature, but asking them proves the point -- the two year statutory provision in question is not a general or residual statute. Accordingly, its application is foreclosed by Wilson's directive to apply "the one most appropriate statute of limitations."*fn9

Additionally and alternatively, the Court concludes that the application of the two year limitations provision to this subset of § 1983 claims would be contrary to the federal principles underlying § 1983. Even prior to Wilson, the Supreme Court had rejected a mechanical and automatic borrowed application of state statutes of limitation to federal statutes. "State legislatures do not devise their limitations periods with national interests in mind, and it is the duty of the federal courts to assure that the importation of state law will not frustrate or interfere with the implementation of national policies."*fn10 Accordingly, a state limitation period will not be borrowed if its "application would be inconsistent with the underlying policies of the federal statute."*fn11

Application of the Arkansas statute would require the application of different limitations periods in the same lawsuit for the same violation of federal or constitutional law. A plaintiff whose federal civil rights were violated by a sheriff might be permitted to recover damages against the sheriff in his individual capacity, while having no right to prospective injunctive relief against the sheriff in his official capacity. In every § 1983 case against a sheriff or a coroner in both capacities, two limitations periods would have to be considered. The application of multiple limitation periods to one § 1983 cause of action undermines the federal principles underlying such actions. Indeed, the Wilson Court deemed it highly unlikely that Congress "would have sanctioned [an] interpretation of its statute" that permitted multiple periods of limitations to apply to the same case.*fn12

Other courts have reached similar conclusions. In Sullivan v. Bailiff, 867 F.Supp. 992, 995 (D. Wy. 1994), a district court in Wyoming refused to apply a state statute establishing a two year limitations period for "[a]ll actions upon a liability created by a federal statute . . . for which no period of limitations is provided in such statute" to a plaintiff's ยง 1983 claim. Instead, the court applied Wyoming's four year statute of limitations period for ...

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