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What a Difference a Year Makes (for a civil rights case in Louisiana)

There’s an old saying you sometimes here—“What a difference a year makes.”  That’s no where more true than when bringing a § 1983 civil rights complaint in Louisiana.

Section 1983 provides a cause of action anytime someone violates your federal civil rights under color of law.  Common examples of § 1983 cases include police brutality or excessive force claims, claims against jail or prison guards for excessive force, and claims for denial of medical care to prisoners or pre-trial detainees.  State actors and even municipalities can also violate § 1983 by engaging in practices, promulgating policies, or establishing conditions that infringe on federally guaranteed rights (e.g., First Amendment right of free speech and association, right to privacy, right against cruel and unusual punishment, etc.).

There are, however, strict rules governing when a person can bring a claim for an alleged § 1983 violation.  These rules are commonly called “statutes of limitations,” but in Louisiana, because of our civil code heritage, they are called “liberative prescriptive” periods (or, sometimes, peremptory periods).

In Louisiana, the general rule is that you must bring a § 1983 lawsuit within one (1) year from the date of your injury.  The reason for that short, one-year period is that federal courts determine the deadline for a § 1983 law suit by looking at the deadline for personal injury actions in the state where the suit is brought.  That means that the deadline for a § 1983 claim differs depending on what state you are in.  In Louisiana, state law provides for one year to bring a personal injury action and so there is just one year in which to bring a § 1983 claim in this state.

This apparently simple rule contains many complexities that can be traps for the unwary.  Here are a few examples that highlight the importance of talking to a lawyer quickly if you think your rights have been violated:

1. The Time May Run Even When You Don’t Have Actual Knowledge of Your Injury

Note that the general rule provides that the time for a § 1983 suit begins to run from the date of injury.  It does not say that you must be aware of your injury.

In practice, courts have interpreted the general rule to mean that the time starts to run when you knew or should have known of your injury (ie., the civil rights violations).  This is called the “discovery rule.”  The discovery rule provides that the clock starts ticking when the plaintiff either actually discovers that he or she has been injured or knows of facts that should have alerted him or her to the injury.  Again, note that the rule does not require actual knowledge; it just requires knowledge of facts that would have put a reasonable person on alert that their rights have been violated.

A civil rights injury is often obvious—if a police officer or prison guard beats you without cause or justification, you’ll probably know it at the time.  Sometimes, however, the time of injury for a civil rights violation can be less obvious, such as where conditions of confinement at a particular prison or jail have grown so bad that they systematically violate prisoners’ rights.  The discovery rule means that a plaintiff has the duty to actively investigate potential claims even where he or she isn’t sure about their viability.  Even where you only think you might have a civil rights claim, you have to seek out the true facts of a situation and, if appropriate, file suit before a year from the date of injury.

2. The Time Runs Even if You Don’t Know Who Caused Your Injury


It would be reasonable to think that the one-year clock would not start ticking on a § 1983 action until the plaintiff discovered who it was that injured him or her.  Courts have, however, taken a stricter approach.  For cases in Louisiana, the general rule is that the plaintiff must both bring suit and name the appropriate defendants within the one-year time limit.  Bringing suit against only “John Doe” or “Unknown Defendants” within the one year is insufficient; you have to actually name the particular defendants.

There are exceptions to this rule—for example, if there are two or more people who injure you jointly, then filing suit against one of them will interrupt the one-year period as to the others—but it is dangerous to rely on exceptions to save a potential claim.  The safer course is to promptly investigate and file suit on potential claims, so that unknown or additional defendants can be identified quickly.

3. The Time Runs Even if You Have an Open Criminal Case Related to Your Civil Rights Complaint

It is not uncommon for people to face unjust criminal charges after police or other authorities have violated their civil rights during an encounter.  Many people tend to think they cannot file a civil rights complaint if there is also an open criminal case against them at the time.

Again, however, courts have taken a stricter view.  Even if a possible civil rights plaintiff is a criminal law defendant in another court, he or she still must file any § 1983 suit within one year of the date of injury.  To take a common example:  If someone has been the victim of excessive force during the course of an arrest, he or she must file a § 1983 suit within one year of the arrest, even if criminal charges related to the arrest are still pending.  Similarly, the time for a claim for false arrest does not run from the time the charges against you are dismissed or you are found not guilty.  Instead, the time runs from the time of your arrest (or, more precisely, from the time your case enters the criminal justice system and your detention is pursuant to court order).

4. Claims May Be Subject to Different Requirements, e.g., Administrative Exhaustion


In some circumstances, there are requirements that must be satisfied before a § 1983 suit can be filed.  If a potential plaintiff is incarcerated, for example, then he or she must exhaust administrative procedures before they can bring a § 1983 suit based on a civil rights violation.  Again, courts are strict:  The exhaustion must occur and the suit must be filed before the one year time limit passes.

So, remember the difference a year makes.  If you believe you have suffered a violation of your civil rights, speak to a lawyer today.

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