Wednesday, July 13, 2011

For whom the statute of limitations tolls

Inmates are in jail for the long haul. This guy was in jail and filed an in-house grievance, a necessary prerequisite to a federal lawsuit over his prison conditions. The odds were against him, for any number of reasons. He prevails in the Court of Appeals.

The case is Gonzalez v. Hasty, decided on June 22. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates cannot bring suit in federal court without first grieving their disputes in the jail. These grievances are often futile, as jail officials are not keen to side with the inmate. Still, that's what Congress put in place in 1996, when it passed the PLRA to reduce inmate lawsuits. If Gonzalez knew that his grievance, filed in 2001 or 2002, would take this long to wind its way through administrative and judicial processes, he might not have bothered. But he did.

Gonzalez was confined in solitary for nearly 1100 consecutive days. He says this confinement was for no good reason. After waiting out the administrative process triggered by his grievance, Gonzalez filed suit in federal court in May 2005. Since you have three years to bring a civil rights case, the government argued that the case was time-barred, since the solitary confinement ended more than three years earlier. (The operative date in determining the timeliness of this lawsuit is July 24, 2001). The district court threw out the case under Rule 12. Gonzalez's lawsuit did not even get out of the starting gate.

The Court of Appeals (Hall, Jacobs and Pooler) reinstates the lawsuit. It took two years for the Second Circuit to issue a decision, which means that once discovery begins, Gonzalez will be litigating issues that happened ten years ago. The case is revived under the doctrine of "equitable tolling." The statute of limitations was tolled until Gonzalez fully exhausted his PLRA administrative remedies in August 2002. Other federal appeals courts have already resolved this issue. The Second Circuit notes, "our sister circuits that have squarely confronted the question presented here is applicable" have held that "tolling is applicable during the time period in which an inmate is actively exhausting his administrative remedies." This may seem like common-sense, but looming over this case, I'm sure, was Congress's desire to cut off these cases at the knees. Equitable tolling is bigger than the PLRA, and it's bigger than all of us.

What complicates this case further is the Second Circuit's determination that "the applicable three-year statute of limitations is tolled only during that exhaustion period and not during the period in between the accrual of those claims and when Gonzalez began the administrative remedy process." In other words, if plaintiff waited too long to file the grievance, this case may be time-barred after all. No one seems to know when Gonzalez could have filed the grievance. The case is remanded to the district court to figure that out.

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