Nolde v. Frankie

Decision Date17 September 1998
Docket NumberNo. CV-97-0276-PR,CV-97-0276-PR
Citation964 P.2d 477,192 Ariz. 276
Parties, 129 Ed. Law Rep. 837, 278 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 17 Mary Ella NOLDE; Mya Johnson and Kathleen Andersen, Plaintiffs-Appellants. v. Bruce FRANKIE; Glendale Union High School District, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

McGREGOR, Justice.

¶1 The plaintiffs appeal the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants on grounds that the statute of limitations bars this action. Because the trial court erred in its application of the law, we reverse and remand for the trial court to determine whether an issue of material fact exists as to whether defendant Frankie induced plaintiffs to delay filing their action, and whether their delay was reasonable.


¶2 Each of the three plaintiffs in this action alleges she became sexually involved with defendant Bruce Frankie while she was still a minor. 1 Frankie was, at all relevant times, a teacher and athletic coach at Washington High School (the school), and coached each of the plaintiffs. The school operates within the defendant Glendale Union High School District (the district).

¶3 Plaintiff Kathleen Andersen attended the school from 1972 through 1976. Frankie began a sexual relationship with her when she was a 17-year-old senior. The relationship continued until she was 19 years of age.

¶4 Plaintiff Mary Ella Nolde attended the school from 1981 through 1985. During her freshman year, when Nolde was 14 years old, Frankie initiated a sexual relationship with her. Frankie discontinued the relationship with Nolde during the early part of her senior year, in 1984.

¶5 Frankie began a sexual relationship with plaintiff Mya Johnson in 1983, when Johnson was 14 years old. This relationship continued through Johnson's graduation from the school in 1987 and thereafter for four more years.

¶6 Each of the plaintiffs came from a broken family and initially considered Frankie a father-figure. Frankie devoted personal attention to the girls and made them feel special and loved. Before they became sexually involved with Frankie, each of them developed a strong emotional attachment to him. Even after the sexual relationship began, each desired to please Frankie and to maintain her emotional relationship with him.

¶7 During his sexual abuse of Nolde and Johnson, Frankie instructed them never to disclose the sexual nature of his relationships with them. He warned them that he would lose his job and family if anyone were to learn of the relationships. Although none of the plaintiffs personally experienced physical abuse at the hands of Frankie, they all perceived him as intimidating and as prone to using violence against anyone who crossed him. They all asserted that Frankie made them feel special and loved and that they saw themselves as being at fault for allowing a sexual relationship to occur. In addition, the plaintiffs believed that Frankie emotionally and psychologically dominated them during and after their relationships with him.

¶8 During the years following their sexual relationships with Frankie, the plaintiffs experienced various effects of the abuse, including depression, dysfunctional personal relationships, and physical illness. In July 1993, Nolde and Johnson, ages 25 and 24 respectively, filed a complaint against Frankie and the district. The complaint alleged claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, outrage, invasion of privacy, assault, battery, and breach of fiduciary duty. Andersen joined the action as a plaintiff in February 1994, at age 36.

¶9 The defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds that the statute of limitations bars the action. In response, the plaintiffs asserted three arguments. First, they argued that their causes of action did not accrue until they knew or should have known of the causal connection between their injuries and Frankie's conduct. They contended that an issue of material fact exists as to when the causes of action accrued based on this "delayed discovery." Second, they argued that expert testimony established that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which prevented them from bringing a timely action. Third, they argued that because of Frankie's conduct toward them, equity precluded the defendants from asserting the statute of limitations defense.

¶10 After holding that Arizona law does not provide any basis for equitable tolling of the statute of limitations and that the plaintiffs were not under any disability that would toll the statute, the trial court granted the defendants' motions. The court of appeals affirmed and the plaintiffs filed a petition for review to this court. We granted review and have jurisdiction pursuant to Arizona Constitution, article VI, section 5.


¶11 Under most circumstances, we would affirm the trial court's judgment because the limitations statute would bar plaintiffs' action as a matter of law. See Garza v. Fernandez, 74 Ariz. 312, 316, 248 P.2d 869, 871 (1952) (court will affirm summary judgment if no material issue of fact exists and moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law). The statute of limitations period for a personal injury action is two years, commencing on the date the action accrues. A.R.S. § 12-542.1 (1992). Because a cause of action that arises during a plaintiff's minority does not accrue until the plaintiff reaches eighteen years of age, A.R.S. § 12-502.A. (1992), the plaintiffs had two years from the date they reached majority to bring their respective causes of action. As plaintiffs admit, they did not file their action within the two-year time period.

¶12 The statute of limitations serves an important purpose. The statute protects defendants and the courts from litigation of stale claims in which "plaintiffs have slept on their rights and evidence may have been lost or witnesses' memories faded." Brooks v. Southern Pac. Co., 105 Ariz. 442, 444, 466 P.2d 736, 738 (1970). The policy underlying the limitations statute "is sound and necessary for the orderly administration of justice." Id.

¶13 However, a defendant may not use the statute of limitations as a shield for inequity. See Hosogai v. Kadota, 145 Ariz. 227, 231, 700 P.2d 1327, 1331 (1985); Waugh v. Lennard, 69 Ariz. 214, 221, 211 P.2d 806, 810 (1949). Hence, notwithstanding the important policy served by the limitations statute, Arizona courts have recognized equitable exceptions to the application of the statute when necessary to prevent injustice. Hosogai, 145 Ariz. at 231, 700 P.2d at 1331.

¶14 One such exception applies when a defendant induces a plaintiff to forbear filing suit. In Certainteed Corporation v. United Pacific Insurance Company, 158 Ariz. 273, 762 P.2d 560 (App.1988), for instance the court estopped a defendant insurer from raising the limitations defense because the insurer had induced its claimant to delay filing suit. The insurer repeatedly delayed in responding to a legitimate insurance claim filed by the claimant, and represented that the claimant need not initiate litigation for the insurer to settle the claim. 158 Ariz. at 278, 762 P.2d at 565.

¶15 The Certainteed court held that "[a]n estoppel with respect to a contractual limitation period will exist if an insurer by its conduct induces its insured to forego litigation, by leading him to reason and believe a settlement or adjustment of his claim will be effected without the necessity of bringing suit." Id. at 277, 762 P.2d at 564. Similarly, in Roer v. Buckeye Irrigation Company, 167 Ariz. 545, 547, 809 P.2d 970, 972 (App.1990), the court held that estoppel applies if a defendant engaged in conduct that induced a plaintiff to forego litigation by leading the plaintiff to believe his claim would be settled without the necessity of litigation. Cf. Hall v. Romero, 141 Ariz. 120, 126, 685 P.2d 757, 763 (App.1984) (declining to apply the estoppel doctrine to bar the limitations defense because the defendant did not engage in conduct to induce the plaintiffs to forbear filing suit).

¶16 We agree, as decisions such as those summarized above recognize, that equitable considerations may estop a defendant from claiming the protection provided by a limitations statute. To benefit from estoppel by inducement, however, a plaintiff must establish four factors. First, the plaintiff must identify specific promises, threats or inducements by the defendant that prevented the plaintiff from filing suit. See Floyd v. Donahue, 186 Ariz. 409, 413, 923 P.2d 875, 879 (App.1996) (stating that estoppel does not apply in the absence of evidence of "concealment, a specific threat or demonstrable duress"). Vague statements or ambiguous behavior by the defendant will not suffice.

¶17 Second, estoppel by inducement will preclude a defendant from raising the limitations defense only if the defendant's promises, threats or representations actually induced the plaintiff to forbear filing suit. See Roer, 167 Ariz. at 547, 809 P.2d at 972 ("In order to create an estoppel the conduct of the defendant must be so misleading as to cause the plaintiff's failure to file suit.") (emphasis added). Thus, when determining whether to apply the estoppel doctrine, a court must inquire into the plaintiff's subjective reasons for failing to file a timely suit.

¶18 Third, the doctrine applies only if the defendant's conduct reasonably caused the plaintiff to forbear filing a timely action. See id. at 547-48, 809 P.2d at 972-73 (holding...

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