Doe v. Marysville Joint Unified Sch. Dist.

Decision Date02 March 2023
Docket NumberC095253
PartiesM.D. DOE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MARYSVILLE JOINT UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

KRAUSE, J.

In 2002, plaintiffs M.D. Doe, A.J. Doe, and S. Doe (together plaintiffs) sued defendant Marysville Joint Unified School District (the District) and at least one District employee alleging their school counselor sexually abused them. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the District after finding that plaintiffs failed to timely file a government claim before filing their complaint. We affirmed the judgment on appeal (Doe v. Marysville Joint Unified School District (Nov. 9, 2005, C047771) [nonpub. opn.]), and the Supreme Court denied review.

In 2019, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 218 (2019-2020 Reg. Sess.) (Assembly Bill 218), which amended Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1[1] to extend the statute of limitations for victims bringing childhood claims of sexual assault. (Stats 2019, ch. 861, § 1.) Thereafter, plaintiffs filed this action against the District and certain individuals predicated on the same set of facts as their 2002 suit. The trial court sustained the District's demurrer without leave to amend as to plaintiffs, finding that the prior dismissal was res judicata, and that allowing section 340.1 to reopen a final judgment would run afoul of constitutional separation of powers principles.

Plaintiffs appeal, arguing the trial court erred because their prior claims were not "litigated to finality" within the meaning of section 340.1 and may therefore be revived, and because dismissing plaintiffs' claims violates equal protection. We will affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs allege that their school counselor, William Wayne Babcock (Babcock), sexually abused them for several years while they were students at an elementary school in the District.[2] Between June and August 2002, plaintiffs filed claims under the Government Claims Act. (Gov. Code § 810 et seq.) Plaintiffs then filed suit against the District and employee June Chiechi (Chiechi), alleging Babcock abused them between 1998 and 2002, and that the District and Chiechi breached various duties to plaintiffs and their parents related to Babcock's abuse. The trial court granted the District's and Chiechi's motions for summary judgment, finding that plaintiffs' causes of action accrued more than a year before they filed their government claims, and thus their causes of action were untimely. Plaintiffs appealed, and this court affirmed the trial court's ruling. The Supreme Court denied plaintiffs' petition for review and issued a remittitur in March 2006.

On January 1, 2020, Assembly Bill 218 took effect, extending the statute of limitations for victims bringing childhood sexual assault claims that had not been "litigated to finality." (§ 340.1, subd. (q).) In response to this statutory amendment, on October 8, 2020, plaintiffs, along with another alleged victim (J. Doe), filed this action against the District, Babcock, and Chiechi. Their complaint effectively alleged the same claims against the District as were alleged in the 2002 suit.

The District demurred to all 17 causes of action in the complaint on various grounds. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend as to plaintiffs on two grounds: (1) the prior action was res judicata; and (2) case authority which held that permitting the Legislature to reopen final judgments would violate separation of power principles, Perez v. Roe 1 (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 171 (Perez) and Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm (1995) 514 U.S. 211 (Plaut). The trial court entered a judgment of dismissal as to plaintiffs, and plaintiffs filed this appeal.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs argue that because their first action was dismissed as untimely under the Government Claims Act, it was not litigated to finality on the merits, and thus section 340.1 permits them to bring their claims anew. They assert that the Legislature has long been permitted to extend retroactively the statute of limitations for civil claims thereby reviving them, and may do so here without violating the Constitution. With respect to res judicata, they contend that terminating an action on statute of limitations grounds does not have a res judicata effect because it is not a determination on the merits. Finally, plaintiffs argue that reading section 340.1 to prohibit them from reopening their judgment in the 2002 case violates equal protection. We find plaintiffs' arguments unpersuasive.[3]

A. Section 340.1

Enacted in 1986, "[s]ection 340.1 governs the period within which a plaintiff must bring a tort claim based upon childhood sexual abuse." (Quarry v. Doe I (2012) 53 Cal.4th 945, 952.) The Legislature has since repeatedly amended the section to further expand the statute of limitations and decrease other barriers to victims seeking to bring their claims of abuse. (Ibid.) Effective January 1, 2020, Assembly Bill 218 again extended the statute of limitations to permit an "action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual assault" to be brought by age 40 or within five years of when the plaintiff discovered (or reasonably should have discovered) the resulting psychological injury or illness. (§ 340.1, subds. (a), (c).) As relevant here, the amended statute also provides for a three-year revival period for all claims for damages brought under subdivision (a) that had "not been litigated to finality and that would otherwise be barred as of January 1, 2020, because the applicable statute of limitations, claim presentation deadline, or any other time limit had expired." (§ 340.1, subd. (q).)

Subdivision (r), which also addresses claim revival, states: "The changes made to the time period under subdivision (a) as amended by [Assembly Bill 218] apply to and revive any action commenced on or after the date of enactment of [Assembly Bill 218], and to any action filed before the date of enactment, and still pending on that date, including any action or causes of action that would have been barred by the laws in effect before the date of enactment." (§ 340.1, subd. (r).)

B. Statutory analysis

As the trial court's ruling on demurrer presents a question of statutory interpretation, we review the matter de novo. (California Apartment Assn. v. City of Fremont (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 693, 699.) In doing so, we conclude that the plain language of section 340.1, subdivisions (q) and (r), particularly in view of Assembly Bill 218's amendments to the statute's revival language, does not support plaintiffs' interpretation.

When construing statutes, our purpose is to discern the Legislature's intent so that we best effectuate the purpose of the law. (People v. Albillar (2010) 51 Cal.4th 47, 5455.) "When interpreting statutes, we begin with the plain, commonsense meaning of the language used by the Legislature. [Citation.] If the language is unambiguous, the plain meaning controls. [Citation.]" (Voices of the Wetlands v. State Water Resources Control Bd. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 499, 519.) If the language of the statute is ambiguous, a court "can look to legislative history [citation] and to rules or maxims of construction" to resolve the ambiguity. (People v. Smith (2004) 32 Cal.4th 792, 798.)

We turn first to the plain language of the statute. As set forth above, section 340.1, subdivision (q) provides that it only revives a claim for damages "that has not been litigated to finality." (Italics added.) Similarly, subdivision (r) states that the statute revives any action that has commenced but is "still pending on [the date of enactment]." (Italics added.) Thus, the statute only revives claims that have not already reached final adjudication. Here, there is no dispute that plaintiffs' claims were litigated to finality long ago; they were adjudicated by the trial court on summary judgment, which we affirmed on appeal, and finally, the Supreme Court denied review. (See Perez, supra, 146 Cal.App.4th at p. 188.) According to the unambiguous statutory language, plaintiffs' claims therefore cannot be revived. (See Safechuck v. MJJ Productions, Inc. (2020) 43 Cal.App.5th 1094, 1100 ["The import of section 340.1, subdivisions (q) and (r) is clear: the Legislature intended to preserve and revive all nonfinal claims"].)

Nonetheless, plaintiffs urge us to read the phrase "not been litigated to finality" to include the phrase "on the merits." And because a disposition based upon a limitations period violation is not a determination on the merits, plaintiffs contend that their claims- which were summarily adjudicated as untimely under the Government Claims Act-are not barred from revival. As support for reading this language into subdivision (q), plaintiffs repeatedly cite to a purported quote from the report of the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing Assembly Bill 218:" 'Termination of a prior action on the basis of the statute of limitations Plaintiffs not constitute a claim that has been litigated to finality on the merits.' "

Although this text is not found in the legislative history, we presume that plaintiffs are referring to the following statement in the Senate Judiciary Committee's analysis: "Termination of a prior action on the basis of the statute of limitations does not constitute a claim that has been litigated to finality on the merits." (Sen. Com. on Judiciary, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 218 (2019-2020 Reg. Sess.) July 2, 2019, p. 2.) This citation does not help plaintiffs. In fact, this quote is a description of the prior version of section 340.1, which is laid out before the discussion of Assembly Bill 218's amendments.

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