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Statute of Limitations on “Continuing Wrongs” by Public Employee

Posted by Ted A. Schmidt | Feb 12, 2016 | 0 Comments

Watkins v. Arpaio, 731 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 36 (App. Div. I, February 2, 2016) (J. Johnsen)

ACCRUAL OF STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS OF 1 YEAR FOR NEGLIGENT INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS CLAIM AGAINST PUBLIC EMPLOYEE OCCURS WHEN PLAINTIFF REASONABLY SHOULD KNOW OF THE HARM AND ITS CAUSE

Plaintiff actively opposed Sheriff Joe Arpaio's reelection and alleges that as a result Arpaio launched a sweeping investigation of him and his towing company in March 2005. Records and computers were seized and “false” charges were made to the media.  Arpaio allegedly continued to say the investigation was ongoing until October 2010 when the county attorney indicated there was “nothing that could be prosecuted” against plaintiff. Plaintiff filed suit in September 2011. The complaint alleged abuse of process, intentional interference with contractual and economic relationships, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false-light invasion of privacy, all premised on the alleged politically motivated investigation. All but intentional infliction of emotional  distress and invasion of privacy were dismissed and the dismissal upheld on appeal.  After remand  and discovery on the remaining theories the superior court dismissed the remaining claims, finding them barred by the one-year statute of limitations in Arizona Revised Statutes section 12-821 (2016). The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.

The concept of continuing torts extending the accrual date on the statute of limitations on intentional infliction of emotional distress claims has not been addressed by Arizona appellate courts. With respect to public employees:

[Plaintiff's] claim, however, is subject to Arizona statutes that expressly govern the accrual of "all actions" against a public entity or public employee. Under A.R.S. §12-821, "All actions against any public entity or public employee shall be brought within one year after the cause of action accrues and not afterward." In turn, A.R.S. §12-821.01(B) (2016) states, "For the purposes of this section, a cause of action accrues when the damaged party realizes he or she has been damaged and knows or reasonably should know the cause, source, act, event, instrumentality or condition that caused or contributed to the damage.

Plaintiff here claimed that his emotional distress continued indefinitely and long after the onset of the investigation. The court, however, distinguished cases that have upheld the ongoing tort theory as they involved ongoing acts where each successive act, in and of itself, constituted an actionable tort. Where, as here, virtually all the alleged wrongful acts and much of the claimed resulting  damages occurred within months of March 2005, the statute of limitations accrued shortly after the initiation of the investigation.

No case has been found applying the ongoing tort concept to a false light invasion of privacy claim. There was no evidence of any statements made by Arpaio within a year of the filing of this action concerning the plaintiff.  Therefore the statute  of limitations has run on all remaining claims.

About the Author

Ted A. Schmidt

Ted's early career as a trial attorney began on the other side of the fence, in the offices of a major insurance defense firm. It was there that Ted acquired the experience, the skills and the special insight into defense strategy that have served him so well in the field of personal injury law. Notable among his successful verdicts was the landmark Sparks vs. Republic National Life Insurance Company case, a $4.5 million award to Ted's client. To this day, it is the defining case for insurance bad faith, and yet it is only one of several other multi-million dollar jury judgments won by Ted during his career. He is certified by the State Bar of Arizona as a specialist in "wrongful death and bodily injury litigation".

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