Small v. Inhabitants of City of Belfast

Decision Date27 June 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-1861,85-1861
Citation796 F.2d 544
PartiesJong Hee SMALL, Personal Representative of the Estate of Delbert Small, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. The INHABITANTS OF the CITY OF BELFAST and James Murphy, etc., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Thomas B. Benjamin, Lewiston, Me., with whom Stephen P. Sunenblick and Sunenblick, Fontaine & Reben, Portland, Me., were on brief, for plaintiff, appellant.

James D. Poliquin, with whom Norman & Hanson, Portland, Me., was on brief, for defendants, appellees.

Before CAMPBELL, Chief Judge, COFFIN, Circuit Judge, and PETTINE, * Senior District Judge.

PETTINE, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff, Jong Hee Small, personal representative of the estate of Delbert Small, appeals the district court's dismissal of her section 1983 action (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983) against the City of Belfast, Maine, and James Murphy, city manager of Belfast. Plaintiff's testate Delbert Small ("Small"), filed suit alleging violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. His allegations stemmed from his claim that he was discharged from his position as a security guard at the Waldo County General Hospital as a result of a communication from defendant Murphy informing the hospital that Small had been found in possession of a stolen snow plow and that Small's appointment as a special police officer would be revoked.

By order dated September 23, 1982, the district court dismissed Small's liberty interest claim as barred by a borrowed Maine two year statute of limitations. Small v. Inhabitants of the City of Belfast, 547 F.Supp. 761 (D.Me.1982). On October 2, 1985, the court granted summary judgment on Small's amended complaint which asserted a property interest claim; it held that Small did not possess a constitutionally protected property interest in his special officer appointment, and alternatively, that the defendants had not revoked Small's special officer appointment. The court at the same time ruled that the defendant City of Belfast was entitled to dismissal on the additional theory that the plaintiff had made no allegations that the unconstitutional actions of the city manager were undertaken pursuant to any official policy. Small v. Inhabitants of the City of Belfast, 617 F.Supp. 1567 (D.Me.1985). We reverse and remand as set forth below.

Statute of Limitations

Defendants assert that both plaintiff's liberty and property interest claims are barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations borrowed from Maine state law. The district court judge accepted defendants' arguments and dismissed the liberty claim as untimely, having been filed beyond the two-year period. As for the property interest claim, while the judge found that the two-year period was equally applicable as to that count, he refused to apply his holding retroactively. 1

The recent decision of Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985) establishes the method for determining the appropriate statute of limitations for purposes of section 1983 actions. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that in identifying the most analogous state statute of limitations to be applied in section 1983 cases, 2 a single limitations period is to be selected and that limitations period should be the one applicable to tort actions for recovery of damages for personal injury. The issue here is which Maine statute fits the criteria of Wilson so as to provide the appropriate limitations period.

The district court judge ruled that the Maine two-year statute of limitations applicable to defamation, assault and battery false imprisonment, and medical malpractice, 14 M.R.S.A. Sec. 753, was the appropriate single limitations period to be selected for all section 1983 actions. In so doing, he rejected adoption of the Maine six-year statute of limitations applicable to all other "personal injury" claims, except for those instituted against certain professionals, 14 M.R.S.A. Sec. 752. Relying on Jones v. Preuit & Mauldin, 763 F.2d 1250 (11th Cir.1985), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 893, 88 L.Ed.2d 926 (1986), the district court judge reasoned that while the Maine statutes of limitations do not explicitly distinguish between "trespass" actions and "actions on the case," the Maine statutory scheme does distinguish most "intentional" torts for the invasion of personal rights (covered by section 753) from all other personal injury actions, principally "unintentional" torts (covered by section 752). Therefore, he concluded that as in Jones, section 1983 claims arising in Maine are more appropriately governed by the two-year limitations period applicable to intentional torts because they "directly infringe upon personal rights; as such, they are more akin to 'the paradigmatic wrong' intended to be addressed by the 1871 congressional enactment of section 1983--'direct acts of violence against black citizens'...." 617 F.Supp. at 1573 (quoting Jones, 763 F.2d at 1256).

We are in agreement with the plaintiff that the district court erred in adopting the Maine two-year statute of limitations, 14 M.R.S.A. Sec. 753, and find that the Maine six-year statute of limitations, 14 M.R.S.A. Sec. 752, is the appropriate one to be used for section 1983 cases in the state of Maine. We reach this conclusion based on a reading of the Wilson v. Garcia case, an evaluation of the various Maine limitations periods, and an analysis of other federal cases adopting a single limitations period for section 1983 cases.

In determining that all section 1983 actions should be characterized as "involving claims for personal injuries," the Supreme Court in Wilson v. Garcia indicated that it made such a characterization so as to be sure to encompass the broad range of potential tort analogies section 1983 has been used to invoke. 105 S.Ct. at 1948. Indeed, the Court even enumerated the "numerous and diverse topics and subtopics," id. at 1946, which have been the subject of section 1983 suits: "discrimination in public employment on the basis of race or the exercise of First Amendment rights, discharge or demotion without procedural due process, mistreatment of schoolchildren, deliberate indifference to the medical needs of prison inmates, the seizure of chattels without advance notice or sufficient opportunity to be heard," id. (footnotes omitted), loyalty oath requirements in state law, prohibitions on the wearing of armbands in protest of government policy in Vietnam, restraint of prosecution of "subversive" activities, bans on lawyer advertising, spending limitations on the public education activities of charities, deprivation of welfare benefits and utility service without adequate notice or hearing, mandatory maternity leave policies, state restrictions on social security benefits, state restrictions on the right to vote and right to marry, and prison inmate and mental patient First Amendment and due process rights within institutions, id. at 1946 n. 31.

This myriad assortment of section 1983 claims illustrates the reason the Wilson v. Garcia Court chose the broad category, "personal injuries," as the appropriate statutory analogy for statute of limitations purposes. These suits are not easily characterized as "trespass" claims or "trespass on the case" claims, nor does the "intentional"--"unintentional" dichotomy contribute to the analysis of many claims, such as those based on challenged legislation or regulations. These suits are not primarily or even nearly analogous to assault and battery, false imprisonment, or defamation. At best, these suits can only be characterized very generally as claims involving "personal injuries." In fact, the Court admitted that, as to the specific suit before it, the section 1983 claim was "arguably analogous to distinct tort claims for false arrest, assault and battery, or personal injuries," 105 S.Ct. at 1945; and yet, the Court rejected a more specific and narrow characterization and chose the broad category of "personal injuries" as the characterization to be given section 1983 suits for statute of limitations purposes.

Bearing in mind the language and direction of the Wilson v. Garcia case, we turn next to an evaluation of the various Maine limitations periods. Section 572 provides that:

All civil actions shall be commenced within 6 years after the cause of action accrues and not afterwards, except actions on a judgment or decree of any court of record of the United States, or of any state or of a justice of the peace in this State, and except as otherwise specially provided.

It is plainly apparent from the language of this provision as well as from its application by the Maine courts that section 752 is applicable to all tort actions, including personal injury tort actions, except where the Maine legislature has specifically provided otherwise in a separate statutory provision. See, e.g., Ouellette v. Strum, Ruger & Co., 466 A.2d 478, 483 (Me.1983) (action to recover for personal injuries alleged to have resulted from accidental discharge of revolver encompassed under general six-year statute, section 752); Anderson v. Neal, 428 A.2d 1189, 1190 (Me.1981) (personal injuries resulting from legal malpractice covered by section 752); Hossler v. Berry, 403 A.2d 762, 766 (Me.1979) (personal injury damages for pain and suffering as a result of an automobile accident governed by section 752); Williams v. Ford Motor Company, 342 A.2d 712, 718-19 (Me.1975) (plaintiff's claim for personal injuries from tort product liability covered by section 752). 3

By contrast, section 753 is a narrow exception to the general limitations statute and is only applicable to a few specific, enumerated torts:

Actions for assault and battery, and for false imprisonment, slander, libel and malpractice of physicians and all others engaged in the healing art shall be commenced within 2 years after the cause of action accrues.

It is true, as the...

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