Viniegra v. Town of Parker (CA1 10/6/16)

This is published for its holding that 12-821 (one-year limitation for suit against public entity) doesn’t violate equal protection. There is nothing novel about the analysis except that it apparently hasn’t been done yet for the present version of the statute. Preliminarily, the court addresses old arguments made by people who made old mistakes.

Plaintiff was injured in a fall at the town cemetery. He submitted, at the town’s request, a written notice of claim, though the town never responded to it; the town’s claims people did open a file and collect his medical bills. He filed suit just short of two years after the accident, which was a year too late. The trial court dismissed. He appealed. The Court of Appeals had to kick the case back to let the parties get Rule 54(b) language into the judgment. Now it affirms.

Plaintiff first argued equitable estoppel – that by dealing with the claim the town led him to expect that he wouldn’t need to file a timely suit. The court cites a few of the several cases on point in summarizing: a plaintiff bears the burden of presenting evidence of the defendant’s specific, affirmative acts that reasonably led the plaintiff not to file. In this case the town hadn’t done anything – hadn’t admitted liability, hadn’t negotiated, hadn’t mentioned the statute of limitations. And because there is a statute on point, by not responding to the notice of claim the town had denied it as a matter of law – which the plaintiff knew, also as a matter of law.

Plaintiff argued that he should be entitled to wait to bring suit until he finished treating (which was longer than one year) and knew the full extent of his damages. The court gets mixed up on whether this is an issue of tolling or accrual. The argument is wrong either way but the court analyzes it as accrual before concluding that “the statute is not tolled simply because he did not know the full extent of his damages.”

Plaintiff argued that the one-year statute is unconstitutional, first because it violates anti-abrogation. Like all of the above, this was settled long ago. Statutes of limitations are – surprise! — constitutional; they regulate, not abrogate.

Finally, Plaintiff relied on equal protection. He argued for strict scrutiny but the court applies rational basis, that being the test that applies to statutes that merely regulate the right to sue. The state has a legitimate interest in “protecting public entities from stale claims and in being able to investigate claims and plan budgets in light of a proposed suit.” For the most part this incorporates similar analyses that earlier cases had used to uphold the notice-of-claim statute (12-821.01). 

(Opinion: Viniegra v. Town of Parker)