Limitations: Equitable Tolling

By on April 20, 2015 - Comments off

Hopkins v. Kedzierski, (Fourth District, April 16, 2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 736, 170 Cal.Rptr.3d 551, 14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 4108, 2014 Daily Journal D.A.R. 4770

A woman who suffered injuries when she fell from an outdoor balcony at her place of employment filed a claim with the Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board eleven months later. Over two years after her fall she filed a premises liability action against the owners of the building, who also owned the dental business which employed her. In a bifurcated bench trial on the defense of statute of limitations, the plaintiff contended that the statute was equitably tolled by her filing of the workers’ compensation claims.

The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants, finding that equitable tolling did not apply because the workers’ compensation claim had not been rejected, and there had been no determination that the plaintiff was ineligible for benefits. The court also held that the fact the defendants in the action were different from those in the workers’ compensation proceeding precluded application of the doctrine. However, the court of appeal concluded that neither ground was legally sufficient to prevent the application of equitable tolling:

No court has held, or even suggested, that the doctrine of equitable tolling under California law contains such a requirement. Rather, as the Supreme Court reiterated in McDonald, supra, 45 Cal.4th at page 102, 84 Cal.Rptr.3d 734, 194 P.3d 1026, in outlining the elements of equitable tolling, “[O]ur judicially created equitable tolling rule … require[s] a showing of three elements: ‘timely notice, and lack of prejudice, to the defendant, and reasonable and good faith conduct on the part of the plaintiff.’ [Citation.]”

In rejecting the defendant’s argument in McDonald, supra, 45 Cal.4th at page 111, 84 Cal.Rptr.3d 734, 194 P.3d 1026 that equitable tolling “should be categorically unavailable” to the plaintiff because she voluntarily abandoned the internal grievance proceeding on which her tolling claim was based, the Supreme Court stated, “Neither we nor the Courts of Appeal have ever made equitable tolling contingent on a plaintiff’s waiting for resolution of an alternate proceeding … prior to institution of further proceedings.”

Just as the resolution of the alternate proceeding is not a prerequisite to the application of the equitable tolling doctrine, neither is failure in the alternate proceeding a prerequisite.

The first element of equitable tolling set forth by the Elkins court is that the defendant have had timely notice of the action. In discussing this requirement, the McDonald court noted that “[g]enerally … the defendant in the first claim is the same one being sued in the second.” … However, this does not mean that the defendants in the two actions must be the same. Rather, the filing of the first claim must “alert the defendant in the second claim of the need to begin investigating the facts which form the basis for the second claim.” … Where the first action puts the defendant in the second action on notice of the need to begin to investigate facts that form the basis of the second claim, equitable tolling may apply even where the defendants in the two actions are not the same parties. ….Thus, the mere fact the defendants in this case are not the same as in the workers’ compensation proceeding does not establish that equitable tolling does not apply.

It appears to be undisputed that respondents received notice of the need to begin to investigate the facts that formed the basis of Hopkins’s claims well within the ordinary statute of limitations period for the claims asserted in this action. Accordingly, the trial court erred in concluding that the mere fact that the identities of the defendants in the two actions are not the same “precludes an argument of tolling.”

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