Statute of Limitations

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A type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.

Statutes of limitations, which date back to early roman law, are a fundamental part of European and U.S. law. These statutes, which apply to both civil and criminal actions, are designed to prevent fraudulent and stale claims from arising after all evidence has been lost or after the facts have become obscure through the passage of time or the defective memory, death, or disappearance of witnesses.

The statute of limitations is a defense that is ordinarily asserted by the defendant to defeat an action brought against him after the appropriate time has elapsed. Therefore, the defendant must plead the defense before the court upon answering the plaintiff's complaint. If the defendant does not do so, he is regarded as having waived the defense and will not be permitted to use it in any subsequent proceedings.

Statutes of limitations are enacted by the legislature, which may either extend or reduce the time limits, subject to certain restrictions. A court cannot extend the time period unless the statute provides such authority. With respect to civil lawsuits, a statute must afford a reasonable period in which an action can be brought. A statute of limitations is unconstitutional if it immediately curtails an existing remedy or provides so little time that it deprives an individual of a reasonable opportunity to start a lawsuit. Depending upon the state statute, the parties themselves may either shorten or extend the prescribed time period by agreement, such as a provision in a contract.

Criminal Actions

A majority of states have a statute of limitations for all crimes except murder. Once the statute has expired, the court lacks jurisdiction to try or punish a defendant.

Criminal statutes of limitations apply to different crimes on the basis of their general classification as either felonies or misdemeanors. Generally, the time limit starts to run on the date the offense was committed, not from the time the crime was discovered or the accused was identified. The running of the statute may be suspended for any period the accused is absent from the state or, in certain states, while any other indictment for the same crime is pending. This suspension occurs so that the state will be able to obtain a new indictment in the event the first one is declared invalid.

Civil Actions

In determining which statute of limitations will control in a civil action, the type of cause of action that the claim will be pursued under is critical. States establish different deadlines depending on whether the cause of action involves a contract, personal injury, libel, fraud, or other claim.

Recovered Memory: Stopping the Clock

Statutes of limitations are intended to encourage the resolution of legal claims within a reasonable amount of time. Courts and legislatures have had to reconsider the purpose of time limits in dealing with the controversial issue of recovered memory by child sexual abuse victims. For the most part, the clock has been stopped until a victim remembers the abuse.

In the 1980s some mental health therapists began exploring the nature of child sexual abuse. They contended that memories of childhood trauma are so disturbing that the child represses them. Many years later, while in therapy or by happenstance, the person remembers the traumatic events. Therapists built on this concept, working with patients to fully recover these memories.

Victims of child sexual abuse who sought to sue their abusers for damages faced a statute of limitations question: Had the time expired to file a civil lawsuit because the memory of abuse was not recovered until many years after the actual abuse? Courts that faced this issue for the first time sought ways to circumvent the time barrier. One method was to apply the "discovery rule" found in tort law. The discovery rule applies if the injury is one that is not readily perceptible as having an external source. Thus, a person who has serious mental health problems but does not know the cause will be allowed to toll (suspend the running of) the statute of limitations until he or she discovers that the injury was caused by the defendant's tortious conduct.

Legislatures have been urged to amend their statutes of limitations to permit recovered memory plaintiffs to sue their abusers. Between 1989 and 1995 24 states had amended their laws. By 2003, 42 states had codified some form of a recovered-memory law on their books, while one state admitted recovered-memory evidence pursuant to its common law rules. Typically recovered-memory laws provide that the action must be filed within a certain number of years after the plaintiff either reaches the age of majority or knew or had reason to know that sexual abuse caused the injury. Because of these judicial and legislative changes, many lawsuits have been filed alleging child sexual abuse that occurred many years before, sometimes as long as 20 years earlier.

further readings

Isaac, Rael Jean. 2001. "Down Pseudo-Memory Lane." Priorities for Health 13.

Pezdek, Kathy, and William P. Banks, eds. 1996. The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. San Diego: Academic Press.


Child Abuse; Sexual Abuse; Sex Offenses.

Once the cause of action is determined, the date of the injury must be fixed. A cause of action ordinarily arises when the party has a right to apply to the proper court for relief. Some states, for example, require a person to bring a lawsuit for breach of contract within six years from the date the contract was breached. The action cannot be started until the contract has actually been violated, even though serious disagreements between the parties might have occurred earlier. Conversely, the time limit within which to bring an action for fraud does not begin until the fraud has been discovered.

Waiving the Defense

A court cannot force a defendant to use a statute of limitations defense, but it is usually in the person's best legal interests to do so. Nevertheless, defendants do sometimes waive the defense. The defense may be waived by an agreement of the parties to the controversy, provided that the agreement is supported by adequate consideration. For example, a debtor's agreement to waive the statute of limitations in exchange for a creditor's agreement not to sue is valuable consideration that prevents the debtor from using the defense.

A defendant may be unable to use the limitations defense due to her agreement, conduct, or representations. To be estopped, or prevented, from using this defense, a defendant need not have signed a written statement, unless required by statute. The defendant must, however, have done something that amounted to an affirmative inducement to the plaintiff to delay bringing the action. Statements that only attempt to discourage a person from bringing a suit or mere negotiations looking toward an amicable settlement will not estop a defendant from invoking the statute of limitations.

Tolling the Statute

Statutes of limitations are designed to aid defendants. A plaintiff, however, can prevent the dismissal of his action for untimeliness by seeking to toll the statute. When the statute is tolled, the running of the time period is suspended until some event specified by law takes place. Tolling provisions benefit a plaintiff by extending the time period in which he is permitted to bring suit.

Various events or circumstances will toll a statute of limitations. It is tolled when one of the parties is under a legal disability—the lack of legal capacity to do an act—at the time the cause of action accrues. A child or a person with a mental illness is regarded as being incapable of initiating a legal action on her own behalf. Therefore, the time limit will be tolled until some fixed time after the disability has been removed. For example, once a child reaches the age of majority, the counting of time will be resumed. A personal disability that postpones the operation of the statute against an individual may be asserted only by that individual. If a party is under more than one disability, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until all the disabilities are removed. Once the statute begins to run, it will not be suspended by the subsequent disability of any of the parties unless specified by statute.

Mere ignorance of the existence of a cause of action generally does not toll the statute of limitations, particularly when the facts could have been learned by inquiry or diligence. In cases where a cause of action has been fraudulently concealed, the statute of limitations is tolled until the action is, or could have been, discovered through the exercise of due diligence. Ordinarily, silence or failure to disclose the existence of a cause of action does not toll the statute. The absence of the plaintiff or defendant from the jurisdiction does not suspend the running of the statute of limitations, unless the statute so provides.

The statute of limitations for a debt or obligation may be tolled by either an unconditional promise to pay the debt or an acknowledgement of the debt. The time limitation on bringing a lawsuit to enforce payment of the debt is suspended until the time for payment established under the promise or acknowledgment has arrived. Upon that due date, the period of limitations will start again.

further readings

Corman, Calvin W. 1991. Limitation of Actions. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hamilton, Marcie. 2003. "The Case for Abolishing Child-Abuse Statutes of Limitations." Law Center. Available online at <> (accessed September 30, 2003).

Lazo, Joy. 1995. "True or False: Expert Testimony on Repressed Memory." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 28 (June).

Levy, Adolph J. 1987. Solving Statute of Limitations Problems. New York: Kluwer Law.

Statute of Limitations

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A type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.

Graham County Soil & Water Conservation District v. Wilson

Statutes of limitations are intended to put potential litigants on notice that a lawsuit must be filed within a specified time following the action that caused an alleged injury. However, some statutes that create causes of action are not explicitly tied to a particular statute of limitation. This ambiguity forces courts to interpret which statute of limitation should be applied. At the federal level, courts must determine whether a federal statute of limitations is directly applicable; if not, the federal courts will apply a state statute of limitation that is analogous to the federal cause of action . The downside of this approach is the application of different statutes of limitations for every state and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Graham County Soil & Water Conservation District v. Wilson, __U.S. __, __S.Ct. __, __ L.Ed.2d __ 2005 WL 1421316 (2005), ruled that a retaliatory-discharge case brought under the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C.A. §§3729-3733, was not governed by the statute of limitations provisions of the statute. Therefore, a shorter state statute of limitations was applied.

The FCA imposes civil liability on any person or entity who submits a false or fraudulent claim for payment to the United States government. It also applies to fraud involving any federally funded contract or program, with the exception of tax fraud. Although the federal government usually pursues FCA claims, individuals and corporations may file qui tam whistleblower lawsuits on behalf of the government against anyone who uses government funds in a fraudulent way. Qui tam also allows the whistleblowers who filed the suit to receive part of any funds that are recovered by the qui tam lawsuit. In 1986, Congress amended the FCA to establish a private cause of action for any employee who is discharged, demoted, harassed, or otherwise discriminated against because of lawful acts by the employee in pursuing an FCA claim. The 1986 amendments also modified the statute of limitations for FCA actions, which had originally been no more than six years after the date on which the violation was committed. The act was amended to give an alternative time limit: no more than three years after the date when facts material to the FCA action are known or reasonably should have been known by the appropriate federal government official.

In January 2001, Karen Wilson filed FCA qui tam and retaliation actions against her employer, the Graham County Soil and Water Conservation District, other local North Carolina government entities, and a host of local and federal officials. Wilson, who worked as a secretary, claimed that the entities and officials had made false claims for payments from a federal disaster-relief program. She also alleged that Graham County District officials had retaliated against her for cooperating with federal officials investigating the false claims. Wilson had alerted federal officials about the suspected fraudulent claims in December 1995 and resigned in March 1997. She claimed that her supervisors had induced her resignation by repeatedly harassing her.

The defendants moved the federal district court to dismiss Wilson's retaliation action, arguing that she had filed her lawsuit too late. They convinced the district court that the six-year limitation did not apply to retaliatory actions, but only to the fraudulent-claim provisions. The district court then applied North Carolina's three-year statute of limitations for retaliatory discharge actions, which meant that Wilson would have had to file this part of her FCA lawsuit by March 2000. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed this decision, ruling that the FCA's six-year limitations period did apply to retaliation actions. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted review to resolve this issue, which had split the circuit courts.

The Court, in a 7-2 decision, reversed the Fourth Circuit and held that the FCA's statute of limitations provisions did not apply to a retaliation action. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his majority opinion, found that the limitations-period language was ambiguous, in large part due to poor legislative drafting. The six-year limitations period was triggered by the starting point of a fraudulent act, while the retaliation action only required an allegation that an employer had retaliated "in furtherance of an FCA action filed or to be filed." Justice Thomas pointed out that this provision "protects an employee's conduct even if the target of an investigation or action to be filed was innocent." He rejected Wilson's argument that, in a retaliation action, the six-year limit should run from the date of the FCA violation. This would start the time limit running before the retaliatory conduct. In addition, it would leave an employee unprotected if the employer were to discover, after the six-year limit, that the employee had aided in the FCA action and then retaliated. The better course was to apply a state statute of limitations period "most closely analogous" to the federal retaliation action.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that Congress had crafted a strange limitations period as applied to retaliation actions yet "Congress has written such a statute here, and we should respect its decision." The Court's decision meant that a uniform six-year limitations period had been replaced with "a crazy-quilt of limitations periods stitched together from the laws of 51 jurisdictions." In some states, a plaintiff would have only 90 days to file a retaliation lawsuit.

Statute of Limitations

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Statute of Limitations

A type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.

Savory v. Lyons

Statutes of limitations are intended to put potential litigants on notice that a lawsuit must be filed within a specified time following the action that caused an alleged injury. These deadlines serve as an absolute bar and therefore must be clearly defined so litigants have a fair change of complying with these deadlines. Occasionally the courts are called upon to settle a dispute over when the clock starts running for an appeal. The federal civil rights law 42 U.S.C.A. §1983 does not have a statutory limitations period. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the personal injury statute of limitations of the state in which the plaintiff resides will govern the time period. In Savory v. Lyons, 469 F.3d 667 (7th. Cir.2006), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Illinois prisoner convicted of murder had waited too long to sue under §1983 seeking the release of physical evidence for DNA testing. The Illinois personal injury statute of limitations was two years. The prisoner's attempts to qualify for exceptions to this time period proved fruitless.

Johnny Lee Savory II was convicted of murdering a man and a woman in 1977 and was sentenced to a term of 40 to 80 years in prison. Savory, who was fourteen at the time of the murders, was convicted in part on the testimony of three of his friends and in part on the physical evidence. This evidence included hairs found at the crime scene that were similar to Savory's, a knife found in his home with a trace of blood on it, and a pair of pants Savory may have worn bearing a bloodstain of the same type as the female victim's blood. Savory challenged his conviction and sentence on direct appeal and then in state post-conviction proceedings and federal habeas corpus proceedings. All his efforts were unsuccessful.

In 1998 he changed course and filed a motion in state court seeking DNA testing of the physical evidence presented at trial. The Illinois circuit court denied his request in July 1998. The Illinois Court of Appeals upheld the decision in December 1999 and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court decision in October 2001. There things stood until April 2005, when Savory filed a §1983 lawsuit in Illinois federal district court. In his complaint he alleged his procedural and substantive due process rights had been violated by the Peoria prosecutor, the clerk of court, the chief of police, the city, and the county by refusing to give him access to the physical evidence. He sought from the court an order that would compel the production of hair samples, pants, pocketknife, and blood samples taken from Savory, his father, and others. The district court dismissed his lawsuit after determining that the statute of limitations had expired. The court concluded that the two-year statute of limitations began to run in July 1998, after the circuit court denied his motion for access to testing. Based on this date, Savory's action was almost five years too late.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision. The appeals court first looked at whether Savory had a right to file a §1983 action seeking this particular type of relief. The Supreme Court has ruled that claims by state prisoners challenging the fact or duration of their confinement cannot be heard using §1983. Such challenges are limited to the habeas process. The court concluded that Savory could use §1983 because if he prevailed he would not be released from prison or have his sentence shortened. At best he would gain access to the physical evidence for DNA testing that might be used in a future proceeding. As to the statute of limitations question, Savory tried to escape the 1998 accrual date by arguing that the denial of access to the physical evidence was a continuing violation, one that constituted a fresh act each day. Therefore, his action was timely when he filed in 2005. The appeals court agreed with the district court that the clock started ticking in July 1998 and rejected the continuing violation doctrine. This doctrine could only be applied when "the plaintiff could not reasonably be expected to perceive the alleged violation before the limitations period has run, or when the violation only becomes apparent in light of later events." In this case Savory was notified on a specific day, July 7, 1998, that his request for testing had been denied. He was "certainly aware of it on that date" and his "continued lack of access to the evidence is not a fresh act on the part of Peoria. Rather, it was the natural consequence of the discrete act that occurred when Peoria first denied access to the evidence."

Savory also offered an alternative theory called "equitable tolling." This is a court-ordered suspension of the statute of limitations where the plaintiff, through no fault of his own or lack of diligence, was unable to sue before the expiration of the time period. Typical situations justifying equitable tolling include the inability of the plaintiff to determine who caused his injury, inadequate notice, or the pending appointment of legal counsel. If such extraordinary circumstances are found, the court must balance the plaintiff's rights against any prejudice that the delay might cause the defendant. The appeals court found that Savory had failed to identify any extraordinary circumstances. Savory argued that the recent developments in DNA testing technology was an extraordinary circumstance but the court concluded that his claim "did not accrue until after he surely was aware of how DNA technology might apply to his case." By waiting seven years Savory undercut his argument for equitable tolling. The court also pointed out that a plaintiff in a §1983 action is not required to exhaust all remedies in state court before filing the federal action. Even if the appeals court agreed with his point, the final decision of the Illinois Supreme Court occurred in 2001. Savory would still be over two years late in filing his action. Therefore, the appeals upheld the dismissal of his lawsuit.

Statute of Limitations

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A type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought.

John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States

Statutes of limitations are laws that place a time limit on filing lawsuits for a specific injury or claim. The amount of time varies by the type of law that is involved, be it contract, tort, or other legal fields. Because of the federalist system of government in the United States, there are both state and federal statutes of limitations. Courts usually enforce an untimely lawsuit by dismissing it. A defendant is most likely the person to bring it to a court's attention but a court could discover the late filing and dismiss the case of its own volition. Most statutes of limitations can be “tolled” (the time limit can be suspended for a time) if the plaintiff can show a compelling reason. However, there are certain statutes of limitations where there is no authority for a court to toll a statute . Moreover, if a court discovers that a case governed by such a hard-line limit is untimely, it must dismiss the case even if the defendant has waived the timeliness issue. The Supreme Court, in John R. Sand & Gravel Company v. United States,—U.S.—, 128 S. Ct. 750, 169 L. Ed. 2d 591(2008), reaffirmed these rules as applied to an action in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, finding that case precedents reaching back to 1883 remained valid.

John R. Sand & Gravel Company held a 50-year mining lease on certain land. It filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims contending that the ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA) had performed tasks on the land, such as building and moving fences, that constituted an unconstitutional taking of its leasehold rights. Congress established the Court of Federal Claims to hear property rights lawsuits involving the federal government. The federal statute of limitations for a Court of Federal Claims action is six years from the first time the claim accrues. The government first asserted that the company's claims were untimely, but as the litigation proceeded it conceded that certain claims were in fact timely. The government prevailed on the merits of the case and the company appealed to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears all Court of Federal Claims cases. The government brief did not raise the statute of limitations argument but an amicus's (an interested person not a party to the lawsuit who files a legal brief on certain issues in the case) brief brought it to the court's attention. The appeals court believed it was obliged to address the issue and ruled that the action was untimely.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, upheld the Federal Circuit's ruling. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, noted the difference between the common form of statutes of limitations, which a defendant will waive if not asserted as an affirmative defense , and “jurisdictional” injunctions. Jurisdictional injunctions do not seek to protect a defendant's case specific interest in timeliness but rather are used to facilitate the administration of claims, limit the scope of a governmental waiver of sovereign immunity , or promote judicial efficiency. Courts have generally read the time limits in these statutes as more absolute. Justice Breyer pointed out that the Court had interpreted the court of claims limitations statute as a jurisdictional statute since the 1880s.

An 1883 Supreme Court decision on the court of claims statute barred a lawsuit as untimely, even though the CIVIL WAR made it impossible for the claimant to file within the six-year period. The Court refused to toll the statute due to the war, instead ruling that the statute did not permit tolling. In 1887 another decision by the Court reaffirmed the earlier one, stating that the Court of Claims could not waive a limitations period. A number of other cases in the 1890s followed this reasoning about the absolute nature of the court of claims limitations statute. Though the statute's language had been modified, Justice Breyer concluded that the changes were small and did not make a difference in the present case. Therefore, the company had to convince the Court to overturn this long-held precedent.

The company did not succeed. Justice Breyer dismissed the idea that the Court had already overturned the precedent in a 1990 case, ruling that it involved a different limitations statute. Moreover, the Court in that case said nothing about overturning the precedent. Breyer quipped that “Courts do not normally overturn a long line of earlier cases without mentioning the matter.” As for taking a fresh look at the precedent, Justice Breyer declined. The importance of adhering to case precedents, stare decisis, obligated the Court to honor its previous rulings on the statute of limitations.

statute of limitations

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stat·ute of lim·i·ta·tions • n. Law a statute prescribing a period of limitation for the bringing of certain kinds of legal action.

limitations, statute of

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limitations, statute of a statute prescribing a period of limitation for the bringing of actions of certain kinds.