Shortly after a Texas school district in 2009 hired a dance instructor for one of its high schools, the instructor engaged in a continuous sexual relationship with one of her female dance team students. Apparently before the student’s mother knew about the relationship, she permitted her daughter to move in with the educator. The sexual abuse continued until the student graduated from high school in the spring of 2011. At some point after the victim graduated, she reported the abuse to one of her former teachers, who immediately reported the abuse to school officials. In March 2013, the teacher was arrested, ultimately pleaded guilty to an improper educator-student relationship (a second-degree felony in Texas), and received 10 years deferred adjudication and probation.
The student and her mother sued the school district and several school officials in December 2013, asserting in relevant part violations of Title IX and the student’s constitutional rights as enforced through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The school district moved to dismiss the federal claims as filed outside the relevant statute of limitations, and the federal district court granted the motion.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed, and in so doing was called on to determine the relevant statute of limitations, when the clock started ticking student’s claim, and the extent to which those limitations should be tolled (put on hold). Observing that where a federal law does not specify a statute of limitations, “the settled practice is to borrow an ‘appropriate’ statute of limitations from state law” (internal citations omitted), the court had to determine whether the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code two-year statute of limitations for general personal injury actions governed the federal claims, or whether the five-year limitations applicable to sexual assault claims should govern. In ultimately deciding on the general two-year personal injury statute of limitations for actions filed through Section 1983, and that the same statute of limitations should apply to claims brought to enforce Title IX, the federal appellate court relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent to guide its inquiry.
Having determined that the two-year limitations applied to both claims, the court was then asked to determine when the plaintiffs’ clock started ticking toward that two-year time period. The court held that the claims accrued when the plaintiff became “aware that [s]he has suffered an injury or has sufficient information to know that [s]he has been injured” (internal citations omitted). In this case, the court also noted with approval the district court’s holding that the time limit tolled until the victim turned 18 years of age in spring 2011. Rejecting the plaintiffs’ position that the clock did not start ticking toward the two years until the plaintiffs’ became aware of the defendants’ alleged deliberate indifference to the claims, the court rather held the clock started ticking when the plaintiffs became aware of the injury and reached the age of majority in spring 2011. The court observed that that the student was aware that she suffered abuse at the hands of her teacher and that the mother permitted her daughter to move in with the teacher during the period of the abuse leading up to her graduation. Thus, since the plaintiffs were aware of the injury by the time the student turned 18 in spring 2011, and since the lawsuit was not filed until December 2013, the 5th Circuit held that the case was untimely filed.