When allegations of historical abuse surface, the stories of harm may be ten, twenty, or thirty years old—sometimes even older. Do victims have a legal remedy against their abusers? In the civil context, those cases are difficult for victims to bring because the statute of limitations may have run. Statutes of limitations are statutory restrictions on how long a plaintiff may wait before bringing a claim against a defendant. However, some cases are able to proceed if there is a statutory tolling provision that applies to give the plaintiff more time. Tolling can play an important role in a case where the statute of limitations might be a bar to a lawsuit. In Colorado, several tolling provisions are provided for by statute and can extend the time for filing a lawsuit. But not all these provisions have been the subject of a published case explaining their meaning and reach. One such provision is the one that tolls the limitations period if the plaintiff was under “other legal disability.” A recent published case from the Colorado Court of Appeals explores, for the first time, what it means to have a “legal disability” in the context of Colorado’s tolling statute.
T.D. v. Wiseman: “Other Legal Disability” and Tolling Colorado’s Statute of Limitations1
The matter involved T.D.—who is now in her early forties—who brought claims against her former stepfather for alleged sexual abuse she claims he perpetrated during her childhood. She claimed that the abuse began when she was seven years old, and continued until about 1990, when she was in high school. T.D. claimed the abuse caused her to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to suffer a host of psychological issues, including PTSD and depression. In 2005, T.D. disclosed the abuse to health care professionals who were treating her for these issues.
But, it was not until ten years later in 2015—the year her mother and stepfather divorced—that T.D. filed a lawsuit based on her childhood abuse. The stepfather moved for summary judgment, arguing that the statute of limitations had run. He argued that T.D.’s claims accrued, at the latest, in 2005, when she disclosed the abuse to her doctors. Citing Colorado’s six year statute of limitations, the stepfather claimed she was required to have filed any action no later than 2011.
In Colorado, civil claims involving sexual abuse of a child must be brought within six years of when the action accrues, or, for a person under a disability, when that disability has been removed.
A plaintiff is a “person under disability” for the purposes of tolling the statute of limitations if she is (1) “a minor under eighteen years of age”; (2) “declared mentally incompetent”; (3) “under other legal disability and who does not have a legal guardian”; or (4) “in a special relationship with the perpetrator of the assault” and “psychologically or emotionally unable to acknowledge the assault or offense and the resulting harm.”2
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the stepfather, finding that lawsuit had not been timely filed. T.D. appealed, and a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals addressed each one of the provisions of the statute, including the argument that she was “under other legal disability.”
No Colorado cases had previously defined what was meant by the term “other legal disability,” so the panel turned to construing the statute for the first time. The panel looked to the legal dictionary to define the term “legal disability.” That exercise uncovered several “plain” meanings to the term, and thus, the panel turned to which meaning was most appropriate within the context of the statute.
First, the panel concluded, “legal disability” does not mean infancy or unsoundness of mind because those two situations are dealt with under different provisions within the statute: “minor” and “mentally incompetent.” To interpret legal disability this way would render these terms superfluous. Second, it didn’t mean incapacity to contract, since that is not a hindrance to filing a timely lawsuit. So the panel landed on this definition: that legal disability is a disability which may relate to the power to bring suits out of policy of the law. In other words, there is some public policy that pertained to the person. Accordingly, the Court held “that ‘legal disability’ under section 13-80-103.7(3.5)(a) denotes an inability to bring a lawsuit, based on some recognized policy of the law.”3
Turning to the facts of the case, the division concluded that there were no facts demonstrating that T.D. had failed to bring a timely lawsuit because of some legal rule or policy. The Court of Appeals also rejected T.D.’s other tolling arguments, finding that she was not a minor when the statute of limitations was running; she was not “mentally incompetent” as a matter of law because she had not submitted sworn documents to that effect in support of her position in response to the motion for summary judgment; and she could not take advantage of the “special relationship” provision of the tolling statute because there was no triable issue that, after her 2005 disclosure to her doctors, T.D. was unable to acknowledge the abuse. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the stepfather.
Understanding the Importance of the Applicable Statute of Limitations
The T.D. case is the latest explanation about how Colorado’s tolling statute will be interpreted, particularly in the context of allegations of childhood sexual abuse brought by adults many years later. In addition to being informative on the meaning of “other legal disability,” it is also a helpful reminder to be sure to add analysis about the statute of limitations to any pre-litigation checklist. For plaintiffs, the statute of limitations is a necessary hurdle; for defendants, it may be a way to end the litigation if it bars a claim. No matter which side of the “v” your client is on, the statute of limitations can make or break a case and is something that should be closely examined.
The T.D. case is also worth a read for litigators to see what information is going to be necessary to overcome a motion for summary judgment when tolling is at issue. For example, in this case, the plaintiff submitted unsworn expert reports in support of her claim that she was “mentally incompetent” during the tolling period. But as the appellate court pointed out, that evidence could not support a reversal because unsworn expert witness reports are not admissible to oppose a motion for summary judgment.
1 T.D. v. Wiseman, 2017 COA 111.
2 Id. at ¶ 18 (quoting § 13-80-103.7(3.5)(a)).
3 Id. at ¶ 47.
Featured Image: ”Unnamed” by María Victoria Heredia Reyes on Unsplash.
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