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Quarry v. Doe

February 10, 2009

TERRY QUARRY ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
DOE 1, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



(Alameda County Super. Ct. No. HG07313640). Trial Judge: Honorable Kenneth Mark Burr.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rivera, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Six brothers claim they were sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the 1970's, when they were children. They sued defendant Doe I in 2007 for damages due to adult-onset psychological injuries allegedly caused by that abuse.*fn1 When they sued, they ranged in age from 43 to 49. They alleged they did not discover until 2006 that the cause of their adulthood psychological injuries was the childhood sexual abuse.

The Bishop demurred to the complaint. He argued that plaintiffs' causes of action were barred under earlier limitations periods and that later expansions of the statute of limitations did not revive their lapsed claims. Plaintiffs contended that the current statute (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.1) applied, pursuant to which their claims did not accrue until 2006, when they discovered the cause of their injuries. The trial court sustained the Bishop's demurrer and dismissed the complaint.

We reverse and hold that the prior limitations periods did not extinguish claims that had not accrued while those limitations were in effect, and that the timeliness of the complaint is to be measured by the statute in effect at the time the complaint was filed.*fn2

I. BACKGROUND

On March 2, 2007, plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Bishop alleging that they suffered childhood sexual abuse in 1972 and 1973 at the hands of a priest employed by the Bishop. They alleged that they developed various psychological coping mechanisms that prevented them from ascertaining the causal connection between their childhood sexual abuse and the adult-onset psychological injuries. As a result, they did not discover that their injuries were the result of the sexual abuse until within the year preceding the filing of the complaint. The Bishop demurred to the complaint, arguing that the complaint was barred by the statute of limitations of Code of Civil Procedure*fn3 section 340.1. The trial court sustained the demurrer with leave to amend.

Plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint on July 12, 2007. They alleged that they did not discover the wrongfulness of the abuse they suffered until the latter half of 2005 and did not discover that their psychological injuries were caused by the molestation until March 2006. The Bishop again demurred. He contended that plaintiffs' claims were barred by the statutes of limitations in effect prior to 2003, were revived for a one-year period (2003) by section 340.1, subdivision (c), and after 2003 were again time-barred. The Bishop also argued that plaintiffs could not rely on the common law delayed discovery rule because it had been abrogated by the statute.

The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, and entered judgment dismissing the complaint with prejudice.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review and Principles of Statutory Construction

We here review the narrow question of whether a complaint is time-barred by the terms of a statute and the statute's prior iterations. No factual issues are in dispute. After dismissal is entered on a demurrer sustained without leave to amend, we must accept as true all of the facts alleged in the complaint. (Marshall v. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 1397, 1403.) Accordingly, our review is de novo.

" '[I]t is well settled that the interpretation and application of a statutory scheme to an undisputed set of facts is a question of law [citation] which is subject to de novo review on appeal." (Bodell Construction Co. v. Trustees of Cal. State University (1998) 62 Cal.App.4th 1508, 1515 (Bodell).) In cases "involving matters of law, the appellate court is not bound by the trial court's decision, but may make its own determination. [Citations.] Statutory construction is such a question of law for the courts . . . ." (Evans v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (1985) 39 Cal.3d 398, 407.) "The applicable canons of statutory construction which guide our interpretation of [statutes] are also well settled. 'The fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citations.]' [Citation.] In determining that intent, we first examine the words of the statute itself. [Citation.] Under the so-called 'plain meaning' rule, courts seek to give the words employed by the Legislature their usual and ordinary meaning. [Citation.] If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for construction. [Citation.]" (Bodell, supra, 62 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1515-1516; see also Wolski v. Fremont Investment & Loan (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 347, 351 [where statutory language is unequivocal, " 'we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the plain meaning of the statute governs' "].) "If, however, the statutory language lacks clarity, we may resort to extrinsic sources, including the ostensible objects to be achieved and the legislative history. In such situations, we strive to select the construction that comports most closely with the Legislature's apparent intent, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the statute's general purposes." (In re Travis W. (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 368, 371.)

With these principles in mind, we turn to our examination of the statute's history and meaning.

B. The Statute and Its Amendments

Section 340.1 was enacted in 1986. (Stats. 1986, ch. 914, § 1, pp. 3165-3166.) It sets forth the statute of limitations for an action seeking damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse. Prior to 1987, the limitations period for such claims was one year from the date of the wrongful act, as then prescribed by section 340, subdivision (3) (Stats. 1982, ch. 517, § 97, pp. 2334-2335), or one year after reaching the age of majority, pursuant to section 352, subdivision (a) (Stats. 1986, ch. 1161, § 1, p. 4148). The 1986 statute extended the limitations period to three years, but only for sexual abuse by a relative or household member. (Dutra v. Eagleson (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 216, 222.)

In 1990, the Legislature amended section 340.1, extending the limitations period to "within eight years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority or within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual abuse, 'whichever occurs later.' " (Lent v. Doe (1995) 40 Cal.App.4th 1177, 1182 (Lent); Stats. 1990, ch. 1578, § 1, pp. 7550-7552.) The amendment also expanded section 340.1 to govern actions against all perpetrators, not just household or family members. (Ibid.) The new provision applied to " 'any action commenced on or after January 1, 1991.' " (David A. v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 281, 284, fn.5 (David A.).)

In 1993, Division Two of the First District Court of Appeal construed the above-quoted phrase to mean that the 1990 amendment was intended to apply prospectively only and did not revive any claims that had become time-barred under prior law. (David A., supra, 20 Cal.App.4th at pp. 286-288.) In response, the Legislature adopted amendments in 1994 making explicit its intention to revive claims that had lapsed under prior limitations periods. (Former § 340.1, subd. (o); Stats. 1994, ch. 288, § 1, p. 1930; currently § 340.1, subd. (r).)*fn4

The 1990 and 1994 amendments applied only to perpetrators and not to entities that employed or otherwise supervised a perpetrator. (Former § 340.1, subd. (b); Stats. 1990, ch. 1578, § 1, pp. 7550-7551; Stats. 1994, ch. 288, § 1, p. 1928.) "Effective 1998, that defect was remedied when the Legislature amended section 340.1, subdivision (a) to include causes of action for sex abuse against persons or entities other than the perpetrator." (Hightower v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 759, 765-766 (Hightower); Stats. 1998, ch. 1032, § 1, No. 13 West's Cal. Legis. Service.) Such claims, however, had to be brought before the plaintiff's 26th birthday. (Former § 340.1, subd. (b); Stats. 1998, ch. 1032, § 1, No. 13 West's Cal. Legis. Service; currently § 340.1, subd. (b)(1).) In 1999, the Legislature again amended section 340.1 to provide that the 1998 amendments to subdivision (a) "shall apply to any action commenced on or after January 1, 1999, . . . including any action or causes of action which would have been barred by the laws in effect prior to January 1, 1999." (Former § 340.1, subd. (s): Stats. 1999, ch. 120, § 1, No. 4 West's Cal. Legis. Service.)

In 2002, the Legislature further expanded the limitations period of section 340.1*fn5 as against certain nonperpetrator defendants by removing the cutoff date of the 26th birthday. (Id., subd. (b); Stats. 2002, ch. 149, § 1, No. 4 West's Cal. Legis. Service.) Accordingly, the statute now permits an action against a nonperpetrator defendant to be brought within three years of discovering that the psychological injuries were caused by the childhood abuse (§ 340.1, subd. (a)) if that defendant "knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee . . . or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person, including, but not limited to, preventing or avoiding placement of that person in a function or environment in which contact with children is an inherent part of that function or environment" (id., subd. (b)(2)). The amendment also revived for a period of one year, commencing January 1, 2003, any claims "permitted to be filed [under the amendment] that would otherwise be barred as of January 1, 2003, solely because the applicable statute of limitations has or had expired . . . ."*fn6 (§ 340.1, subd. (c).)

This is the current state of the law, and is the law that was in effect when the complaint was filed. The core statutory provisions are succinctly summarized in Aaronoff v. Martinez-Senftner (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 910. "Section 340.1 provides that an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse must be commenced within three years of discovering that injury occurred as the result of the abuse, or within eight years after the plaintiff attains the age of majority, whichever is later. (§ 340.1, subd. (a).) This limitations provision applies whether the defendant is the perpetrator of the abuse, or a third party whose liability stems from a negligent or intentional act which was the legal cause of the abuse that resulted in the injury. (§ 340.1, subd. (a)(1)-(3).) [¶] In the case of a third party defendant, the action must be commenced before the plaintiff's 26th birthday unless the third party defendant 'knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee . . . or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person' in which case the action must be commenced within three years of discovering the injury was caused by the abuse. (§ 340.1, subd. (b)(2).) The one-year revival period for the year 2003 applies only to these actions, reviving any such claim previously barred by the statute of limitations, unless the claim was litigated to finality on the merits. (§ 340.1, subd. (c).)" (Id. at pp. 919-920.)

The question presented is how to interpret and apply the statute to actions filed after 2003 by plaintiffs who are over the age of 26.

C. Application and Analysis

1. The Parties' Contentions

The parties do not dispute that plaintiffs' claims for injuries from the alleged sexual abuse originally lapsed between 1976 and 1982, when each turned age 19, under the law as it then stood. (Former § 340, subd. 3; Stats. 1973, ch. 20, § 1, p. 32.) The Bishop also concedes that in 1999 all lapsed claims against both perpetrators and third parties were revived by the 1998/1999 amendments to section 340.1, subdivision (a), which applied to "any action commenced on or after January 1, 1999." (Former § 340.1, subd. (s); Stats. 1999, ch. 20, § 1, No. 4 West's Cal. Legis. Service.) The Bishop argues, however, that the age 26 cutoff date for claims against third parties in effect from 1999 to 2003 precluded the revival of plaintiffs' claims because they had already reached age 26 before 1999. According to the Bishop, effective 2003 the Legislature opened a one-year window in which plaintiffs' claims were revived, and because plaintiffs did not commence an action in that time window their claims are now forever barred.

Plaintiffs contend that their claims could not have been barred by the age 26 cutoff because the statute of limitations on their claims did not even begin to run until 2006, when they first discovered their "psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual abuse." (§ 340.1, subd. (a).) According to plaintiffs, because the timeliness of a complaint is measured by the limitations period in effect at the time the complaint is filed, their claims are not barred. We agree.

2. Plain Meaning of Section 340.1

The statute is neither ambiguous nor obscure. We need not resort to extrinsic aids for its interpretation because its meaning is plain.

The 1998/1999 amendments to section 340.1 revived all previously lapsed, unadjudicated claims against perpetrators and third parties, and provided for two alternative limitations periods: A claim must be filed (1) within eight years after reaching majority or (2) within three years of discovering that the cause of the psychological injury occurring after the age of majority was the childhood abuse, whichever occurs later (id., subd. (a)); as against third parties, however, the outside limit was age 26 (id., subd. (b)). Thus, under the prior law, any person discovering after age 26 that childhood abuse was the cause of his or her adulthood injuries was barred from suing responsible third parties. Effective 2003, however, the Legislature deleted the age 26 cutoff as against a narrow category of third party defendants who had both the knowledge and the ability to protect against abusive behavior but failed to do so. Anyone discovering that childhood abuse was the cause of their injuries after 2003 could sue these-more culpable-defendants without regard to the age 26 cutoff. (Ibid.) And, for those who had previously discovered the cause of their injuries but could not sue under the prior law because of the age 26 cutoff (id., subd. (b)(1)), the Legislature offered a one-year window in which they could file their claims (id., subd. (c)).

It therefore follows, and we hold, that under section 340.1 the complaint in this action is not time-barred because plaintiffs have alleged they did not discover the cause of their psychological injuries until 2006. In so holding we respectfully disagree with our colleagues in the Second Appellate District. (Hightower, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th 759.) The court there rejected the same argument made by plaintiffs here-that the delayed discovery rule applies to any cases filed after 2003, even those of persons who are well past the age of 26. The court concluded that with the 2002 amendments, "[t]he Legislature . . . drew a clear distinction between claims that were time-barred and those that were not. Hightower's interpretation would obliterate that distinction by allowing his time-barred claim to take advantage of the new limitations period." (Id. at pp. 767-768.) The court's conclusion in Hightower appears to rest on the premise that all causes of action of persons over age 26-those already triggered as well as those not yet discovered-were extinguished under prior limitations periods. As we explain, we disagree and have concluded, instead, that ...


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