488 U.S. 235 (1989), 87-56, Owens v. Okure

Docket Nº:No. 87-56
Citation:488 U.S. 235, 109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594
Party Name:Owens v. Okure
Case Date:January 10, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 235

488 U.S. 235 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594




No. 87-56

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 10, 1989

Argued November 1, 1988




Twenty-two months after respondent was allegedly unlawfully arrested and beaten by petitioners, two State University of New York police officers, he brought suit against them in the Federal District Court, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the ground that he had sustained personal injuries, mental anguish, shame, humiliation, legal expenses, and the deprivation of his constitutional rights. In denying petitioners' motion to dismiss the suit as time-barred, the court rejected their contention that § 1983 actions were governed by New York's 1-year statute of limitations covering assault, battery, false imprisonment, and five other intentional torts. The court concluded instead that the State's 3-year residual statute of limitations for personal injury claims not embraced by specific statutes of limitations was applicable. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Where state law provides multiple statutes of limitations for personal injury actions, courts considering § 1983 claims should borrow the State's general or residual personal injury statute of limitations. Pp. 239-250.

(a) Although Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, held that 42 U.S.C. § 1988 requires courts to borrow and apply to all § 1983 claims a State's personal injury statute of limitations, Wilson did not indicate which statute of limitations applies in States with multiple personal injury statutes. Pp. 239-242.

(b) In light of Wilson's practical approach of eliminating uncertainty by providing "one simple, broad characterization" of all § 1983 actions, id. at 272, a rule endorsing the choice of the state statute of limitations for intentional torts would be manifestly inappropriate, since every State has multiple intentional tort limitations provisions. In contrast, every State has one general or residual personal injury statute of limitations, which is easily identifiable by language or application. Petitioners' argument that intentional tort limitations periods should be borrowed because such torts are most analogous to § 1983 claims fails to recognize the enormous practical disadvantages of such a selection in terms of the confusion and unpredictability the selection would cause for potential § 1983 plaintiffs and defendants. Moreover, the analogy between § 1983 claims and state causes of action is too imprecise to justify such a result,

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in light of the wide spectrum of claims which § 1983 has come to span, many of which bear little if any resemblance to a common law intentional tort. Pp. 242-250.

816 F.2d 45, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261 (1985), we held that courts entertaining claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 should borrow the state statute of limitations for personal injury actions. This case raises the question of what limitations period should apply to a § 1983 action where a State has one or more statutes of limitations for certain enumerated intentional torts, and a residual statute for all other personal injury actions. We hold that the residual or general personal injury statute of limitations applies.

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On November 13, 1985, respondent Tom U. U. Okure brought suit in the District Court for the Northern District of New [109 S.Ct. 575] York, seeking damages under § 1983 from petitioners Javan Owens and Daniel G. Lessard, two State University of New York (SUNY) police officers. Okure alleged that, on January 27, 1984, the officers unlawfully arrested him on the SUNY campus in Albany and charged him with disorderly conduct. The complaint stated that Okure was "forcibly transported" to a police detention center, "battered and beaten by [the police officers] and forced to endure great emotional distress, physical harm, and embarrassment." App. 5-6. As a result of the arrest and beating, Okure claimed, he

sustained personal injuries, including broken teeth and a sprained finger, mental anguish, shame, humiliation, legal expenses and the deprivation of his constitutional rights.

Id. at 6.

The officers moved to dismiss the complaint, which had been filed 22 months after the alleged incident, as time-barred. They contended that § 1983 actions were governed by New York's 1-year statute of limitations covering eight intentional torts:

assault, battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, libel, slander, false words causing special damages, [and] a violation of the right of privacy.

N.Y.Civ.Prac.Law § 215(3) (McKinney 1972).

The District Court denied the motion to dismiss. 625 F.Supp. 1568 (NDNY 1986). Borrowing "a narrowly drawn statute which is applicable only to certain intentional torts," id. at 1570, the court stated, was inconsistent with this Court's endorsement of "a simple, broad characterization of all § 1983 claims." Ibid. (citing Wilson, supra, at 272). Moreover, a 1-year statute of limitations on § 1983 claims "would improperly restrict the scope of § 1983 and controvert federal policy." 625 F.Supp. at 1571. The court concluded

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that New York's 3-year residual statute of limitations for claims of personal injury not embraced by specific statutes of limitations, N.Y.Civ.Prac.Law § 214(5) (McKinney Supp.1988),1 was applicable to § 1983 actions, and that Okure's complaint was therefore timely. The court then certified an interlocutory appeal on this question pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) (1982 ed., Supp. IV) and Rule 5(a) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted permission for the appeal, and affirmed. 816 F.2d 45 (1987). It stated that Wilson's description of § 1983 claims as general personal injury actions required a statute of limitations "expansive enough to accommodate the diverse personal injury torts that section 1983 has come to embrace." Id. at 48. As between the two New York statutes of limitations, the court observed:

By nature, section 214(5) is general; section 215(3) is more specific and exceptional. This dichotomy survives no matter how many similar intentional torts are judicially added to those enumerated in section 215(3).

Ibid. The Court of Appeals favored § 214(5) for another reason: its 3-year period of limitations

more faithfully represents the federal interest in providing an effective remedy for violations of civil rights than does the restrictive one-year limit.

Id. at 49. Injuries to personal rights are not "necessarily apparent to the victim at the time they are inflicted," the court explained, and "[e]ven where the injury itself is obvious, the constitutional dimensions of the tort may not be." Id. at 48.

The dissent argued that § 1983 actions are best analogized to intentional torts, id. at 51, and that, because § 215(3) governs "almost every intentional injury to the person," [109 S.Ct. 576] id. at

Page 239

50, it is more appropriate for § 1983 claims than § 214(5), which it contended had been confined primarily to negligence claims. Ibid. The dissent added that using § 215(3)'s 1-year limitations period is not "inherently inconsistent with the policies underlying the Civil Rights Act." Id. at 54. We granted certiorari, 485 U.S. 958 (1988), and now affirm.



In this case, we again confront the consequences of Congress' failure to provide a specific statute of limitations to govern § 1983 actions. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1988 endorses the borrowing of state law limitations provisions where doing so is consistent with federal law; § 1988 does not, however, offer any guidance as to which state provision to borrow.2 To fill this void, for years we urged courts to select the state statute of limitations "most analogous," Board of Regents, Univ. of New York v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 488 (1980), and "most appropriate," Johnson v. Railway Express Agency Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 462 (1975), to the particular § 1983 action, so long as the chosen limitations period was consistent with federal law and policy. Occidental Life Ins. Co. of California v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355, 367 (1977); Johnson, supra, at 465.

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The practice of seeking state law analogies for particular § 1983 claims bred confusion and inconsistency in the lower courts and generated time-consuming litigation. Some courts found analogies in common law tort, others in contract law, and still others in statutory law.3 Often the result had less to do with the general nature of § 1983 relief than with counsel's artful pleading and ability to persuade the court that the facts and legal theories of a particular § 1983 claim resembled a particular common law or statutory cause of action. Consequently, plaintiffs and defendants often had no idea whether a federal civil rights claim was barred until a court ruled on their case. Predictability, a primary goal of statutes of limitations, was thereby frustrated.

In Wilson, we sought to end this "conflict, confusion and uncertainty." 471 U.S. at 266. Recognizing the problems inherent in the case-by-case approach, we determined that 42 U.S.C. § 1988 requires courts to borrow and apply to all § 1983 claims the one most analogous state statute of limitations. Ibid. See id. at 275 ("[F]ederal interests in uniformity, certainty, and the minimization of unnecessary litigation all support the conclusion that Congress favored this simple approach"); see also id. at 272 ("[A] simple, broad characterization of all § 1983 claims best fits [109 S.Ct. 577] the statute's remedial purpose"). We concluded, based upon the legislative history of § 1983 and the wide array of claims now embraced by that provision, that § 1983 "confer[s] a general remedy for injuries to...

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