Statutes of Limitations: A Policy Analysis in the Context of Reparations Litigation
This article discusses the underlying policy rationales for statutes of limitations and their exceptions, as demonstrated by Supreme Court precedents. This article explores limitations law in the context of a case brought by African-American survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 who sought restitution from the local government for its participation in one of the worst race riots in American history, in violation of their constitutional and federal civil rights. Using the Tulsa case as an exemplar, this article analyzes the propriety of the case’s dismissal as time-barred, and contends that this outcome was unwarranted under precedents and failed to serve the underlying policy rationales of limitations law today. Although limitations periods have been a fixture in the American legal system for centuries, in general, little modern scholarship has explored the continued validity of their underlying purposes. The Tulsa litigation is a perfect test case. Such litigation presents both the starkest example of a stale claim (i.e., one that is decades old) and, at the same time, one of the most egregious circumstances under which equitable principles would conceivably apply (i.e., state-sanctioned violence and discrimination). The case provides an important lens through which scholars may examine the policy rationales for our limitations system. Central to limitations law is society’s recognition that there must be tradeoffs for a just and orderly legal system to prevail. Limitations law provides fairness to the defendant by providing repose, promoting accurate fact finding, and curtailing plaintiff misconduct - such as dilatory action and fraudulent litigation. Limitations law also promotes efficiency and ensures institutional legitimacy through the consistent application of neutral rules. Notwithstanding the many benefits of limitations law, the Anglo-American legal system has carved out numerous exceptions to the application of limitations periods to serve countervailing interests. Such exceptions include: Providing litigants their due process right to be heard; ensuring procedure does not trump substance; promoting institutional legitimacy through flexible and equitable considerations; developing the law; and promoting fairness to the plaintiff.
Some argue that civil rights claims remote in time should be barred because their age complicates the identification of the parties, causation and remedies. They contend that such claims compromise deterrence, undermine repose or do not warrant equitable treatment. Others argue that these claims should survive limitations periods and be adjudicated on the merits because the claims fall within commonly recognized exceptions such as: equitable estoppel; equitable tolling; and accrual mechanisms like the discovery rule and the continuing violations doctrine. Or they contend that these claims fall outside of law governed by temporal restrictions altogether. This article explores such countervailing views in the context of African-American citizens (some over 100 years old) seeking restitution for a racial massacre that occurred over three-quarters of a century ago. Where the claims are so horrendous they cry out for equitable relief and yet so remote in time they seem insurmountable, it is important for courts to recognize that they have the tools to permit such claims to be heard on the merits, and the responsibility to examine when the underlying policy rationales for limitations law are not being served. This article is part of a series examining the impact of procedure on civil rights.