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Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego

November 6, 2009


APPEAL from the judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Emilie H. Elias, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. JCCP Nos. 4286 & 4297).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rubin, Acting P. J.


Fifteen plaintiffs from the coordinated statewide clergy sex abuse cases appeal from the judgment of dismissal entered after the trial court sustained defendants‟ demurrers without leave to amend because plaintiffs‟ did not bring their previously time-barred claims against various Catholic Church entities during the one-year revival window for such claims. (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.1, subd. (c).) We reaffirm our decision in Hightower v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 759, and conclude again that childhood sexual molestation victims whose claims were time barred before January 1, 2003, had to sue during the ensuing one-year revival period regardless of whether they had yet discovered the link between the earlier abuse and their adult onset of psychological injuries from that abuse.


Until 1998, child molestation victims had until their 19th birthday to sue nonabuser entities or persons for their tortious conduct in connection with the incident.*fn1 Beginning in 1998, that limitations period was extended to the earlier of three years from the time a plaintiff discovered that adult-onset psychological injury was caused by the molestation, or by his 26th birthday. No such actions were permitted after that time. Effective January 1, 2003, the Legislature scrapped the age 26 cut-off for actions against a limited group of nonabuser defendants -- those who negligently failed to safeguard the victim from molesters under their control -- extending the limitations period for those cases to the later of age 26 or three years from discovery of the cause of adult-onset emotional harm. For all such claims that were otherwise time barred by January 1, 2003, the Legislature provided a one-year revival window that ended on December 31, 2003. (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.1, subds. (b), (c).)*fn2

At issue here is whether plaintiffs, who were 26 or older as of January 1, 2003, and who did not sue during the revival window, may do so now if they allege they did not discover the causal link between the molestation and their adult-onset emotional harm until after the new limitations period took effect. As we previously held in Hightower v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th 759 (Hightower), they may not.


Plaintiffs allege they were sexually molested by priests, employees, or other persons under the control of various archdioceses or other entities affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church..*fn3 The earliest alleged abuse took place in 1957. The latest occurred in the mid to late 1980s. Most of the plaintiffs alleged they were abused during the 1960s and 1970s. By January 1, 2003, the youngest was in his mid thirties and the oldest was most likely in his mid to late fifties. Plaintiffs sued after January 1, 2004, alleging they had only recently discovered that psychological injury occurring after turning 18 was caused by the sexual abuse they suffered years before.*fn4

After allowing for an omnibus demurrer, where the plaintiffs and defendants appeared collectively, the trial court ruled that despite plaintiffs‟ claims of recent discovery of the cause of their adult-onset emotional harm, their actions were time barred because they did not bring them during the 2003 revival period. (§ 340.1, subd. (c).) Defendants‟ demurrers were sustained without leave to amend, and plaintiffs‟ actions were dismissed. Plaintiffs then appealed.


In reviewing a judgment of dismissal after a demurrer is sustained without leave to amend, we give the complaint a reasonable interpretation, and treat the demurrer as having admitted all material facts that were properly pleaded. Because the only issue raised concerns the interpretation of section 340.1, we exercise our independent judgment and apply the well-known rules of statutory construction. (Shamsian v. Department of Conservation (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 621, 631 (Shamsian).)

The fundamental rule of statutory construction is to determine the Legislature‟s intent in order to carry out the purpose of the statute. We look first to the words of the statute and try to give effect to the usual and ordinary meaning of the language in a way that does not render any language mere surplusage. (Pasadena Metro Blue Line Const. Authority v. Pacific Bell Telephone Co. (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 658, 663-664.) "Surplusage" means words or phrases that are unnecessary or lack meaning. (Reno v. Baird (1998) 18 Cal.4th 640, 657.) The words must be construed in order to achieve a reasonable and commonsense interpretation when viewed in context and in light of the statute‟s obvious nature and purpose. Statutes must be harmonized both internally and with other related statutes. (Ibid.) Use of a statute‟s legislative history is proper only if the statute is ambiguous. (Kaufman & Broad Communities, Inc. v. Performance Plastering, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 26, 29-30.) If the language is clear and unambiguous, however, there is no need for construction, and it is not necessary to resort to the legislative history as an interpretive aid. (Shamsian, supra, 136 Cal.App.4th at p. 631.)


1. The Statutory Relevant History of Section 340.1

Until 1986, the statute of limitations for sexual molestation claims was one year. (§ 340.) If the victim was a minor, however, that period was tolled by section 352 until the victim‟s 19th birthday. In 1986, the Legislature added section 340.1, which increased the limitations period to three years, but only for abuse of a child under age 14 by a household or family member. (Hightower, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at p. 765.) Section 340.1 was amended in 1994 to extend the limitations period to the later of either age 26 or three years from the plaintiff‟s discovery that psychological injury occurring after adulthood had been caused by the sexual abuse. (Former § 340.1, subd. (a).) The 1994 amendment applied to only the perpetrator, meaning that claims against entities that employed or otherwise exercised control over the perpetrator were still subject to the one-year limitations period and the ultimate age 19 cut-off for victims who were minors when the abuse occurred. (Hightower, at p. 765.)

In 1998, the Legislature amended section 340.1 to include causes of action for sex abuse against nonabusers whose negligent or intentional acts were a "legal cause" of a child‟s sexual abuse. (§ 340.1, subd. (a)(2) & (3), added by Stats. 1998, ch. 1032, § 1.)*fn5

The limitations period for those claims was set at the earlier of three years from discovery that the abuse caused adult-onset psychological harm, or the plaintiff‟s 26th birthday. (Hightower, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at pp. 765-766.) In 1999, the Legislature amended section 340.1 to clarify that the 1998 amendment relating to the liability of nonabuser persons or entities was prospective, and applied only to actions begun on or after January 1, 1999, or, if filed before then, to actions still pending as of that date, "including any action or causes of action which would have been barred by the laws in effect prior to January 1, 1999." (§ 340.1, subd. (u), added by Stats. 1999, ch. 120, § 1; Shirk v. Vista Unified School Dist. (2007) 42 Cal.4th 201, 208 (Shirk).)*fn6

In short, until January 1, 1999, child molestation victims had until they turned 19 to sue nonabuser persons or entities. As of that date, the limitations period for claims against nonabusers was extended to three years from the discovery that adult-onset psychological injury had been caused by the molestation, with a plaintiff‟s 26th birthday serving as the absolute cut-off.

The legislative amendment at issue here was passed in 2002 and took effect on January 1, 2003. It retained the limitations period for actions against childhood sex abuse perpetrators at the later of age 26 or three years from discovery of the causal link between adult-onset psychological injury and the molestation. The age 26 cap from the 1998 amendment was retained against nonabuser entities or persons (ยง 340.1, subds. (a)(1)-(3), (b)(1)), with an exception carved out for one category of such defendants. "[I]f the person or entity knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in ...

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