In a brief per curiam opinion on November 22, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals made what, perhaps, should have been an obvious ruling: that where a Texas limitations tolling statute does not contain an exception, a federal judge cannot simply create one. However, in Clyce v. Butler, the trial judge decided otherwise, and was reversed by the Fifth Circuit.
In Clyce, 13-year-old Chance Clyce suffered serious injuries and a staph infection during a sixteen-day-stay at the Hunt County Juvenile Detention Center. The next year, Chance’s parents filed a lawsuit on their own behalf and on behalf of Chance as his “next friends” against Hunt County and several other defendants under the Texas Tort Claims Act and under section 1983 of the Enforcement Act of 1873 for violation of Chance’s civil rights. The parents lost this case when the federal court dismissed claims against two defendants without prejudice and granted summary judgment in favor of the remaining defendants.
In 2014, after Chance became an adult, he filed a section 1983 suit in his own right against several defendants for the same incident, including one of the defendants from his parents’ suit, and brought some of the same claims his parents brought. The district court dismissed the case, however, on the basis that Chance’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
Section 1983 allows a person to file suit against anyone who acts under “color of law” and violates the person’s federally-protected rights. While it is a federal law, suits under section 1983 are governed by the forum state’s statute of limitations for tort claims. Under Texas law, the statute of limitations for most personal injury tort lawsuits is two years from the time the cause of action “accrues,” which normally means when the injury happens. However, the law also provides that a person “younger than 18 years of age” is “under a legal disability,” and that where a person “is under a legal disability when the cause of action accrues, the time of the disability is not included in a limitations period.” This is commonly called the “tolling statute,” and effectively means that a person injured as a minor may normally file suit at any time until he turns 20.
The federal judge, however, held that there was an exception when “a next friend, represented by counsel, aggressively prosecutes a minor’s claims on his behalf.” Essentially, the judge held that because Chance’s parents filed suit previously, Chance had already had an opportunity to vindicate his rights and the purpose of the tolling statute was fulfilled. However, this exception appears nowhere in the Texas statute-as the Fifth Circuit noted, the “Texas code itself gives no indication that a next-friend lawsuit affects the tolling provision.” The Fifth Circuit held that Texas courts had declined to hold that the tolling statute could be waived, and concluded that “the district court erred by ‘fashioning a rule of [its] own making.'” The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Chance’s claims.