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Civil Rights Claim Against Clinton Township Cannot Escape Statute of Limitations

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently ruled that a civil rights claim against Clinton Township was barred by the statute of limitations and could not be rescued by the continuing violations doctrine. This decision underscores the importance of being prompt with the filing of claims in Michigan.

In J.D.D. Inc. v. Clinton Township., Case No. 12-10396, James Gladstone, the owner of Cracker Jack’s Bar in Clinton Township alleged that he was the victim of harassment by the Clinton Township Police Department (CTPD). Gladstone alleged that various acts of general harassment occurred from 1999-2009, but a 2009 incident was of particular importance to Gladstone’s case.

Gladstone claimed that, as a result of him dating the same woman as a CTPD captain, the CTPD committed various acts of harassment over approximately ten years. Gladstone also alleges that in January 2009, a drug investigation of the bar was conducted and Gladstone was falsely identified as a suspect even though it had become clear to the CTPD that Gladstone was not connected with illegal drug activity at the bar. Clinton Township countered that there was sufficient information to justify investigating Gladstone and, even if there was not sufficient information, inclusion on a police report did not give rise to a cause of action.

Gladstone’s action was brought in federal court pursuant to 42 USC §1983 (Section 1983) and included claims of deprivation of equal protection, deprivation of due process, and business libel and slander. Section 1983 claims are commonly called civil rights claims. Clinton Township moved for summary judgment claiming, among other things, Gladstone’s action was barred by the statute of limitations.

While the claim was federal in nature, the statute of limitations of Section 1983 claims in Michigan is governed by state law and stands at three years from when the victim knew or had reason to know of the alleged wrongdoing. Gladstone acknowledged that typically his claim would be considered untimely. However, he urged the court to allow him to proceed based on the continuing violations doctrine.

The continuing violations doctrine can sometimes be used by plaintiffs to make a claim based on an incident which would normally be outside the statute of limitations. To take advantage of this doctrine in the Sixth Circuit, the court stated that the plaintiff must prove either serial violations (requiring present discriminatory activity) or a longstanding and demonstrable policy of discrimination. The court also noted that a Section 1983 claim was “rarely” granted use of the continuing violations doctrine.

When applying the law to the facts, the court found that Gladstone failed to allege any present discriminatory activity, thus making his claim ineligible for the first category of the continuing violations doctrine. As to the second category, the court found that Gladstone had failed to show sufficient proof that he had been treated differently than a similarly situated member of his “class.” Additionally, the court stated that Gladstone’s complaint was focused on “discrete” and “clearly identifiable” incidents of alleged harassment rather than a longstanding policy by CTPD. Thus, the so-called “time-clock” of limitations began running on each incident when the incident occurred, defeating any hope Gladstone may have had of clearing the statute of limitations hurdle.

The takeaway here is clear: potential litigants, in this case federal litigants, and their attorneys must keep a close eye on the statute of limitations for claims they are considering. The three-year-period for Section 1983 claims is particularly useful to know in Michigan. Additionally, if an exception to the statute of limitations is to be sought, an attorney must familiarize herself with the exception so as to plead properly on behalf of her client.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience litigating in federal court with Section 1983 and other civil rights claims both in Michigan and across the country. If you feel you have a potential claim please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss your matter.

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