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HARDIN v. STRAUB

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: May 22, 1989.

HARDIN
v.
STRAUB

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Stevens

[ 490 U.S. Page 537]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a federal court applying a state statute of limitations to an inmate's federal civil rights action should give effect to the State's provision tolling the limitations period for prisoners.

Petitioner is incarcerated in a Michigan state prison. In 1986 he filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U. S. C. § 1983, alleging that for approximately 180 days in 1980 and 1981 he had been held in solitary confinement in violation of his federal constitutional rights.*fn1 The District Court sua sponte dismissed the complaint because it had been filed after the expiration of Michigan's 3-year statutory limitations period for personal injury actions. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 836 F.2d 549 (CA6 1987). Following its 3-day-old decision in Higley v. Michigan Department of Corrections, 835 F.2d 623 (CA6 1987), the court refused to apply a Michigan statute that suspends limitations periods for persons under a legal disability until one year after the disability has been removed. Because that holding appeared to conflict with our decision in Board of Regents, University of New York v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478 (1980), we granted certiorari.*fn2 488 U.S. 887 (1988). We now reverse.

[ 490 U.S. Page 538]

     In enacting 42 U. S. C. § 1988 Congress determined that gaps in federal civil rights acts should be filled by state law, as long as that law is not inconsistent with federal law.*fn3 See Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42, 47-48 (1984). Because no federal statute of limitations governs, federal courts routinely measure the timeliness of federal civil rights suits by state law. Id., at 49; Chardon v. Fumero Soto, 462 U.S. 650, 655-656 (1983); Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 464 (1975). This tradition of borrowing analogous limitations statutes, cf. O'Sullivan v. Felix, 233 U.S. 318 (1914), is based on a congressional decision to defer to "the State's judgment on the proper balance between the policies of repose and the substantive policies of enforcement embodied in the state cause of action." Wilson v. Garcia,

[ 490 U.S. Page 539471]

     U.S. 261, 271 (1985).*fn4 "In virtually all statutes of limitations the chronological length of the limitation period is interrelated with provisions regarding tolling, revival, and questions of application." Johnson, supra, at 464. Courts thus should not unravel state limitations rules unless their full application would defeat the goals of the federal statute at issue. See, e. g., Wilson, supra, at 269; Chardon, supra, at 657.

These principles were invoked in Board of Regents, University of New York v. Tomanio, supra, to review a contention that a § 1983 action was barred by New York's 3-year limitations statute. The District Court and the Court of Appeals had rejected the defense by relying on a "federal tolling rule" not contained among the tolling provisions the state legislature had codified with its limitations periods. Id., at 482, 486. This Court reversed. Limitations periods in § 1983 suits are to be determined by reference to the appropriate "state statute of limitations and the coordinate tolling rules"; New York's legislative choices in this regard were therefore "binding rules of law." Id., at 484. Since the State's rules did not defeat either § 1983's chief goals of compensation and deterrence*fn5 or its subsidiary goals of uniformity and federalism,

[ 490 U.S. Page 540]

     the Court held that Tomanio's suit was time barred. Id., at 488-492.

It is undisputed that the limitations period applicable to this case is three years, as established in Michigan's statute governing personal injury actions.*fn6 See Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235 (1989); Wilson v. Garcia, supra. Since 1846, however, the Michigan Legislature has enacted provisions tolling the onset of limitations periods for prisoners and others suffering from legal disabilities.*fn7 The contemporary counterpart provides:

"[I]f the person first entitled to make an entry or bring an action is under 18 years of age, insane, or imprisoned at the time the claim accrues, the person or those claiming under the person shall have 1 year after the disability is removed through death or otherwise, to make the entry or bring the action although the period of limitations has run." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.5851(1) (1987).*fn8

[ 490 U.S. Page 541]

     Having passed this statute in 1961,*fn9 the Michigan Legislature revised it in 1972 without altering its effect on prisoners' lawsuits. A legislative committee recognized:

"'[E]ven prisoners can bring civil actions, though they may not be allowed to be personally present, so it is not as necessary to provide long periods after the removal of the disability in which to sue as it was in the past when these disabilities were considerably more real. Nevertheless, it was considered better to allow a short period after the termination of the disability in which the person under the disability could bring an action.'" Hawkins v. Justin, 109 Mich. App. 743, 748, 311 N. W. 2d 465, 467 (1981) (per curiam), quoting committee comment following Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.5851, p. 914 (1968).

Likewise, 1986 amendments to the provision did not affect its applicability to prison inmates. See historical note following Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 600.5851, p. 540 (1987).

In Hawkins v. Justin, supra, the Michigan Court of Appeals employed § 600.5851 to toll a state-law libel action by a plaintiff who was incarcerated in a state correctional institution. "[T]he purpose of the statute is to provide prisoners with additional time to assert their legal rights," the state court concluded, "and this purpose could reasonably be based upon the fact that prisoners have restricted access to the judicial system due to their confinement." Id., at 748-749, 311 N. W. 2d, at 467.

[ 490 U.S. Page 542]

     The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit nonetheless refused to apply the tolling provision to inmates' § 1983 suits in this case and in Higley v. Michigan Department of Corrections, 835 F.2d 623 (1987). Although it recognized in Higley that it was "obligated to apply state tolling statutes to § 1983 actions, as long as the result is not inconsistent with federal law or policy," id., at 624, the court held that "application of a lengthy tolling period is clearly counterproductive to sound federal policy in attempting to deal with § 1983 claims as promptly as practicable," id., at 626-627.*fn10 Tolling is neither inconsistent with nor required by § 1983's goal of compensating persons whose constitutional rights have been violated, the court stated. Its result thus turned on two other interests, which it discussed in tandem: the settled § 1983 policy of deterring officials' unconstitutional behavior and a novel "rehabilitative function [of] providing a 'safety valve' for prisoner grievances."*fn11 Id., at 626. Concluding that quick disposition

[ 490 U.S. Page 543]

     of § 1983 suits advances these latter policies, the court held that Michigan's tolling law is inconsistent with federal law and declined to apply it.

We do not agree with the Court of Appeals. A State's decision to toll the statute of limitations during the inmate's disability does not frustrate § 1983's compensation goal. Rather, it enhances the inmate's ability to bring suit and recover damages for injuries.*fn12 Nor does the State's decision to toll its statute of limitations hinder § 1983's deterrence interest. In the event an official's misconduct is ongoing, the plaintiff will have an interest in enjoining it; thus, the time during which the official will unknowingly violate the Constitution may well be short. The State also may have decided that if the official knows an act is unconstitutional, the risk that he or she might be haled into court indefinitely is more likely to check misbehavior than the knowledge that he or she might escape a challenge to that conduct within a brief period of time. The Court of Appeals may have overlooked this point in Higley because of its unfortunate intermeshing of § 1983's deterrence function with a dubious "rehabilitative function."*fn13

[ 490 U.S. Page 544]

     As the Sixth Circuit pointed out, ibid., many prisoners are willing and able to file § 1983 suits while in custody. Thus, a State reasonably could decide that there is no need to enact a tolling statute applicable to such suits. Alternatively, a State reasonably might conclude that some inmates may be loathe to bring suit against adversaries to whose daily supervision and control they remain subject, or that inmates who do file may not have a fair opportunity to establish the validity of their allegations while they are confined. The Michigan tolling statute reflects a legislative decision to lessen any such difficulties by extending the time in which prisoners may seek recovery for constitutional injuries. Such a statute is consistent with § 1983's remedial purpose.*fn14

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Disposition

836 F.2d 549, reversed and remanded.


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