42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the primary legal tool to challenge civil rights violations. The statute creates a cause of action for money damages or injunctive relief against state officials, local officials, or local governments when they violate the Constitution or federal law. Section 1983 suits are instrumental in holding government actors like police departments constitutionally accountable.
But Section 1983 plaintiffs face significant hurdles. All individual officers can raise absolute or qualified immunity as a defense when sued for money damages under Section 1983. And to bring a Section 1983 suit against a local government, a plaintiff must prove that the challenged conduct was pursuant to a municipal policy. In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May 2020, the public and lawmakers have focused on enhancing police accountability by abolishing these barriers to Section 1983 suits.
But there is another obstacle that blocks many Section 1983 plaintiffs from ever challenging qualified immunity or municipal policy: state statutes of limitations (SOLs). Because Section 1983 does not specify how much time a plaintiff has to file their complaint, courts look to state law SOLs, with the Supreme Court instructing courts to default to a state’s catch-all personal injury SOL.
This blog argues it is time to rethink applying state law to Section 1983 claims. Defaulting to a state’s catch-all limitations period leads to inconsistent civil rights enforcement from state to state and undermines state legislatures’ decisions to give victims with certain types of injuries more time to file suit. And in states that happen to have very short catch-all limitations periods, defaulting to the catch-all imposes significant burdens civil rights plaintiffs. As Congress considers reform to enhance police accountability, it should also enact a federal Section 1983 SOL.
State Limitations and Section 1983
SOLs are found in nearly every civil and criminal code and exist to balance competing interests. In the civil context, capping the time in which a plaintiff can file suit protects defendants from frivolous claims based on unreliable evidence. But on the other hand, victims must have sufficient time to file claims. In recent years, there has been a push to extend SOLs for victims of sexual assault to bring civil claims, and even calls to abolish SOLs entirely.
Section 1983 does not specify how long a plaintiff has to file suit. Rather, 42 U.S.C. § 1988 instructs courts to look to the most analogous state SOL. But as Section 1983 suits proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s, it quickly became apparent that this rule provided little guidance to litigants. Plaintiffs and defendants in Section 1983 cases battled over the applicable limitations period, and courts were forced to make case-by-case decisions and imperfect analogies between federal civil rights claims and state law claims. The Supreme Court attempted to streamline the Section 1983 litigation process in Wilson v. Garcia by holding that courts should borrow and apply to all Section 1983 claims the state’s most similar personal injury SOL.
But Wilson’s solution spawned another problem. Because many states have different limitations periods for different kinds of personal injuries, Section 1983 plaintiffs would analogize their claims to the injury with the longest time frame. Defendants would counter that the claim was closer to an injury with the shortest limitations period, and limitations litigation continued to clog the courts.
A few years after Wilson, the Court clarified its solution in Owens v. Okure, holding that when a state has multiple personal injury SOLs, federal courts should apply a state’s catch-all personal injury SOL to Section 1983 actions rather than attempting to find the most similar personal injury. The Court reasoned this bright-line rule would provide greater consistency for Section 1983 litigants and reflect the broad scope of Section 1983 actions. But in practice, Owens has failed to achieve either result.
Inconsistencies and Unfairness in Catch-All Limitations Periods
First, Owens created a patchwork of inconsistent state limitations periods for civil rights claims because states have a range of “catch-all” personal injury SOLs. For example, a plaintiff abused by police in Missouri has five years to file a Section 1983 suit, but a plaintiff who suffers the same abuse just over the state line in Arkansas has three years to do so. And one state south in Louisiana, plaintiffs have just one year to file a Section 1983 claim for the same injury. Owens results in a dependence on state law that conflicts with the basic rationale for permitting Section 1983 claims: that federal law should provide remedies for violations of federal rights. Owens may provide a convenient default rule for district courts, but it has cemented nationwide inconsistency.
Second, Owens forces the broad range of Section 1983 claims into a single limitations period. For starters, this undermines state legislatures’ decisions to allow victims of certain types of injuries more time to bring a lawsuit. In Louisiana, for example, victims of crimes of violence have two years to file a civil suit, and victims of sexual assault or child abuse have three years. Yet when a plaintiff in Louisiana uses Section 1983 to sue a state or local official for assault, sexual abuse, or abuse of a minor, Owens treats that suit as a generic personal injury claim subject to the state’s catch-all one-year limitations period. This flies in the face of Louisiana’s decision to give victims of serious offenses extra time to complete criminal proceedings and recover from their trauma before beginning a civil suit.
In addition, Owens unfairly burdens plaintiffs who happen to live in states with short catch-all limitations periods. The Owens opinion left open the question of whether a state SOL as short as one year would be consistent with the federal interests underlying Section 1983 claims, and no court has taken up the issue since. But the reality is that for many victims of police misconduct, one year is not nearly enough time to file a federal lawsuit. Most victims of serious violent crimes report experiencing socio-emotional problems as a result of their trauma. Victims’ feelings of isolation and distress are exacerbated by fact that most incidents of police misconduct are never publicly revealed. Moreover, members of marginalized groups are disproportionately victims of police violence and lack access to civil justice. A victim of police brutality faces a stressful and unfair sprint to the courthouse if they are required to file a complicated federal civil rights claim within one year of the date of their injuries.
Owens’s attempt to fit Section 1983 claims to state limitations periods has resulted in inconsistency and unfairness that keeps many victims of police misconduct from ever having their day in court. And because overcoming qualified immunity—the level of immunity granted to police officers—requires a plaintiff to show a “clearly established law” in an earlier case, Owens’s closure of the courthouse doors perpetuates the ability of officers to violate civil rights with impunity.
Federalizing the Section 1983 Statute of Limitations
Owens initially attracted criticism for its inconsistency and the burden it places on Section 1983 plaintiffs who live in states with short limitations periods. But as courts settled into a routine of applying catch-all periods, there has been almost no discussion of revisiting Owens. Given the current broad support for lowering the burdens on plaintiffs challenging unlawful police conduct, however, it is time to rethink defaulting to catch-all SOLs.
Rather than relying on the Court to devise more default rules, Congress has the power to fix the Section 1983 limitations period mess. As it has done for other federal claims including civil rights actions, Congress should enact a federal SOL for Section 1983 suits.
Congress could amend Section 1983 to bring it under the ambit of the four-year federal catch-all SOL for “actions arising under an act of Congress enacted after December 1, 1990.” In 1991, Congress amended 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which protects employees from racial discrimination. Because the amendment occurred after the time trigger for the four-year SOL period, the Supreme Court held actions pursuant to Section 1981 have a four-year time limit. Congress could similarly amend Section 1983 to make it clear that the four-year federal catch-all limitations period applies.
Alternatively, Congress could adopt a limitations period specific to Section 1983 actions. A two-year SOL would be consistent with state and federal tort claims: the majority of states have catch-all personal injury limitations periods of two years, and the Federal Tort Claims Act likewise has a limitations period of two years.
Regardless of the specific time limit adopted, a federal SOL for Section 1983 would achieve Owens’s goals of consistency for litigants and consistency with federal interests without creating an arbitrary jumble of limitations periods. Though overcoming qualified immunity and proving municipal policy still present significant barriers to plaintiffs bringing Section 1983 suits, creating a standard time limit for federal civil rights claims is a critical step in the direction of police accountability.
Dani Kritter: Associate Editor, California Law Review, and Berkeley Law Class of 2021.
Dani Kritter, The Overlooked Barrier to Section 1983 Claims: State Catch-All Statutes of Limitations , Calif. L. Rev. Online (Mar. 2021),https://www.californialawreview.org/the-overlooked-barrier-to-section-1983-claims-state-catch-all-statutes-of-limitations.