It is well known that a plaintiff must bring his claim before the statute of limitations expires. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 352.1, this statutory deadline may be extended—or tolled—for two years for plaintiffs who are “imprisoned on a criminal charge.” In a matter of first impression, the California Court of Appeal in Austin v. Medicis, No. B277546, 2018 WL 1407120, held that this tolling only applied to individuals who are imprisoned in state prison (those convicted of felonies), and that it does not apply to pretrial detainees or people otherwise detained in a county jail.
On May 14, 2009, Plaintiff James Austin retained lawyers from the Law Offices of Eberhardt and Medicis (hereinafter referred to as “Medicis”) to represent him in his criminal case. Several months later, Austin retained an additional lawyer. At a pretrial hearing on September 22, 2009, Austin learned that Medicis stopped working on his case. Austin wrote to Medicis, who then offered to return $20,000 of the final $50,000 Austin paid him. Austin rejected this offer. He then went to trial with his new attorney, and was convicted of all charges on January 11, 2011.
On September 11, 2013, Austin filed a civil case against Medicis for various breach of contract claims, fraud, elder abuse, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Austin’s suit was based on his claim that Medicis did not provide him the legal services he paid for.
Medicis brought a demurrer on several grounds including failure to state a claim, failure to overturn his criminal conviction (Heck bar), and failure to comply with the statute of limitations. The trial court sustained the demurrer, concluding that the one-year statute of limitations for malpractice applied to all causes of action other than fraud. The trial court held that Austin’s claims accrued on September 22, 2009—the date when Austin learned Medicis abandoned him. The trial court held that even if the statute of limitations was tolled for two years under section 352.1, Austin had to file his malpractice complaint by September 22, 2012. Therefore, his September 11, 2013 complaint was untimely. The court also sustained the demurrer on the grounds that Plaintiff failed to state a claim or plead that his underlying criminal conviction was overturned.
Austin filed an appeal after the trial court entered judgment in Medicis’ favor.
Court of Appeal Ruling
On Appeal, Austin argued that the trial court should have tolled the statute of limitations for four years under section 340.6, which extends the statute of limitations when a “plaintiff is under a legal or physical disability which restricts the plaintiff’s ability to commence legal action.”
In a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeal found that neither section 340.6 (tolling for disability) or section 352.1 (tolling for being “imprisoned”) applied to pretrial detainees like Austin. The Court conducted a lengthy 6-page analysis of the word “imprisoned”—looking at the dictionary, historic common law, the Penal Code, and the legislative history of the laws.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held that the legislature was only addressing inmates who were incarcerated in state prison when it drafted the tolling provisions. There was no evidence that this was meant to extend to people who were simply in jail.
The Court of Appeal did not address whether tolling applied to convicted felons who are held in county jail post re-alignment. This may be an issue that they will have to consider soon.
This case is a reminder that certain legal provisions (such as extensions to file lawsuits) which apply to prisons do not apply to people in jail. It is important to ensure which law applies as it may allow for additional defenses in a case.