E.Y. v. United States

Decision Date10 July 2014
Docket NumberNo. 13–2854.,13–2854.
Citation758 F.3d 861
PartiesE.Y., A Minor, by his Mother and Next Friend Tenille WALLACE, et al., Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Keith A. Hebeisen, Attorney, Clifford Law Offices, P.C., Chicago, IL, for PlaintiffsAppellants.

Kurt Lindland, Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Chicago, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before KANNE, TINDER, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge.

Tenille Wallace brings this suit on behalf of herself and her young son, E.Y., who has been diagnosed with diplegic cerebral palsy. She alleges that E.Y.'s illness resulted from medical malpractice by two separate healthcare providers: the federally-funded Friend Family Health Center, where she received her prenatal care, and the private University of Chicago Hospital, where she gave birth. The present appeal involves the timeliness of her suit based on the actions of the Friend Center.

The Friend Center and its doctors are federally funded, and as explained below, federal law makes Ms. Wallace's suit against the Center a suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). She needed to file suit against the Friend Center within the FTCA's two-year statute of limitations. See 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). The district court denied the government's motion to dismiss because Ms. Wallace's claim could have accrued less than two years before she filed suit. Eventually, though, the district court granted summary judgment for the government, finding that Ms. Wallace's suit against the Friend Center and thus the United States was filed about two weeks too late.

Ms. Wallace appeals, arguing that although she was aware she might have a claim against the University Hospital more than two years before filing this suit, she remained unaware that the Friend Center might be involved until she received a partial set of medical records from the Center on December 14, 2006, making her suit timely. Although Ms. Wallace's claims against the University Hospital and other non-federal-remain pending in the district court, the district court properly entered a separate final judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) on the claims against the United States, so we have jurisdiction over the appeal.

We reverse. Reading the evidence in Ms. Wallace's favor as we must at summary judgment, a reasonable trier of fact could find that Ms. Wallace was unaware and had no reason to be aware of the Friend Center's potential involvement in her son's injuries until less than two years before she filed her suit. Although Ms. Wallace soon suspected that the University Hospital might have caused her son's injuries during delivery, the evidence does not show beyond reasonable dispute that she similarly suspected or should have suspected that the Friend Center's prenatal care had contributed to her son's injuries until she and her lawyers received incomplete records from the Center suggesting that something was amiss. That did not occur until December 14, 2006. She filed suit less than two years later, on December 10, 2008, so her suit should not have been dismissed on summary judgment as untimely. In essence, we think the district court was correct at the motion to dismiss stage when it denied the government's motion to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds using the same reasoning we adopt here.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Ms. Wallace appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment for the government, so we construe all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from that evidence in her favor. Gil v. Reed, 535 F.3d 551, 556 (7th Cir.2008); Del Raso v. United States, 244 F.3d 567, 570 (7th Cir.2001).

In 2004, Tenille Wallace became pregnant with her first child, E.Y. She received her prenatal care at the federally-funded Friend Family Health Center. Her last prenatal appointment took place on March 29, 2005. A week later, on April 4, 2005, Ms. Wallace went to the University of Chicago Hospital for delivery. Things did not go smoothly. Her son, E.Y., was eventually delivered by caesarean section. E.Y. was born limp and purple. Ms. Wallace was not allowed to hold him. Soon thereafter (we are not told exactly when), a doctor at the University of Chicago Hospital told Ms. Wallace that E.Y. might have suffered oxygen deprivation during delivery.

E.Y. remained at the hospital for many weeks before Ms. Wallace could take him home. He developed slowly. In May 2006, a doctor at La Rabida Children's Hospital diagnosed E.Y. with diplegic cerebral palsy and explained the diagnosis to Ms. Wallace. There is no indication in the record that the doctor told Ms. Wallace that E.Y.'s injuries could have been caused by prenatal complications. That same month, Ms. Wallace discussed what she had learned with her uncle, a Chicago attorney. Based on the information Ms. Wallace shared with him, her uncle told her that she might have a case and recommended that she consult an attorney.

In mid-November 2006, Ms. Wallace met with attorneys at Clifford Law Offices and signed a retainer agreement. On November 28, 2006, her attorneys requested her medical records from both the University Hospital and the Friend Center. On December 14, 2006, the Center provided a partial set of Ms. Wallace's prenatal records to her attorneys. The Center did not provide Ms. Wallace's attorneys with all of her prenatal records until October 2007.

Ms. Wallace filed this suit on December 10, 2008. She alleges that the University Hospital, a Hospital doctor, the Friend Center, and a Center doctor had all committed medical malpractice that caused E.Y.'s injuries. After the case was removed to federal court and the United States was substituted as defendant for the Center and its doctor, the district court dismissed the case against the United States because Ms. Wallace had failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. She then presented her claim to the Department of Health and Human Services, exhausted all available remedies, and re-filed her case in November 2010. (Despite the dismissal, Ms. Wallace's case is still considered to have been filed on December 10, 2008 because she filed her claim with the Department within 60 days of the dismissal. See 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d).)

The government then moved to dismiss Ms. Wallace's refiled suit on statute of limitations grounds. It argued that Ms. Wallace's claim against the Friend Center had accrued at the latest in November 2006 when her lawyers requested her medical records from both the University Hospital and the Friend Center. That would make Ms. Wallace's December 10, 2008 suit untimely by about two weeks beyond the FTCA's two-year statute of limitations. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, reasoning that requesting medical records from the Center did not necessarily mean that Ms. Wallace suspected that the Center had contributed to E.Y.'s injuries: “it makes sense to obtain all records with respect to a pregnancy and childbirth in pursuing a cause of action.” The court concluded that the pleadings did not show that Ms. Wallace's claim accrued before she received the partial set of medical records from the Center on December 14, 2006, making her December 10, 2008 lawsuit timely under the FTCA.

At the close of discovery, the government moved for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds. The motion repeated many of the same arguments it had made in its motion to dismiss. This time, the court agreed with the government, concluding that Ms. Wallace's claim against the Center accrued by November 2006 when she requested records from both the Center and the Hospital. According to the court, requesting records from the Center “indicated that she understood that the actions of Center doctors could be related to E.Y.'s injuries,” so her claim against the Center had accrued by that time. Since Ms. Wallace had not filed her suit until December 10, 2008, her suit was untimely under the FTCA. The court accordingly granted summary judgment in favor of the United States. This appeal followed.

II. Analysis

The Friend Family Health Center is a federally-funded public health center. Federal law treats Ms. Wallace's suit against the Center and one of its doctors as a tort action against the United States. See 42 U.S.C. § 233(g) (federally-funded health centers and their doctors are considered federal employees for purposes of tort claims). The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and its two-year statute of limitations thus apply to Ms. Wallace's suit against the Center. See 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). Ms. Wallace filed her lawsuit on December 10, 2008, so her claim must have accrued on or after December 10, 2006 for her suit to be timely. Federal law governs when a claim accrues under the FTCA. McCall v. United States, 310 F.3d 984, 987 (7th Cir.2002).

Our circuit's case law regarding when a medical malpractice claim under the FTCA accrues has been evolving over the past several decades. Beginning with Stoleson v. United States, 629 F.2d 1265, 1268 (7th Cir.1980), we have said repeatedly that a claim accrues when the plaintiff discovers, or a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would have discovered, that she has in fact been injured by an act or omission attributable to the government. E.g., Arroyo v. United States, 656 F.3d 663, 668 (7th Cir.2011); Jastremski v. United States, 737 F.2d 666, 669 (7th Cir.1984). That standard has two alternative tests: a subjective one focused on the plaintiff's actual knowledge, and an objective one based on the knowledge of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position. Arroyo, 656 F.3d at 669. Either form of knowledge is sufficient to start the clock on the statute of limitations. To determine when a claim accrued, we must consider both when the plaintiff knew her injury's cause and when a reasonable person in the...

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