Wainberg v. Mellichamp

Plaintiff-Appellant Dr. Robert H. Wainberg, a tenured biology professor at Piedmont University, sued several officers and trustees of Piedmont University. He alleged that they (1) conspired (a) to retaliate against him for filing a prior lawsuit and (b) to deter witnesses from participating in that lawsuit and (2) negligently refused to prevent that conspiracy. Basically, he alleged that the university and its president at the time, Mellichamp, helped cover up sexual harassment allegedly committed by professors and then retaliated against other professors who spoke out about the alleged sexual harassment.

The specific cause of action was a 42 U.S.C. § 1985 claim alleging a conspiracy to interfere with civil rights. Section 1985 “prohibits conspiracies to intimidate parties or witnesses to federal lawsuits.” A civil conspiracy, in turn, requires “an agreement between two or more people to achieve an illegal objective, an overt act in furtherance of that illegal objective, and a resulting injury to the plaintiff.”

The district court dismissed Wainberg's claims as time-barred based on its conclusion that the statute of limitations ran from the first overt act Wainberg alleged as part of the conspiracy.

Wainberg appealed, arguing that the district court applied the statute of limitations incorrectly, and the Eleventh Circuit agreed. Conspiracy claims under section 1985 share the forum state's statute of limitations for tort claims. In Georgia's case, that's two years. But federal law determines when the cause of action for federal civil-rights claims accrues—in other words, when the statute of limitations begins to run. As a general matter, that occurs when “facts which would support a cause of action are apparent or should be apparent to a person with a reasonably prudent regard for his rights.”

In 1970, the former Fifth Circuit rejected the argument that the statute of limitations for a section 1985 conspiracy begins to run at the time of the first overt act, and no other overt acts during the limitations period can form the basis for a claim. (The 11th Circuit used to be part of the 5th Circuit until the 5th got too big and was divided in half, so pre-split 5th Circuit decisions are binding in the 11th Circuit). The Eleventh Circuit noted, “we apparently have not since revisited this issue,” but it held that the 1970 case remains binding prior panel precedent. While Defendants argued that a prior 11th Circuit panel decision conflicted with the 1970 case, the court disagreed. Then it stated that even if the cases conflicted, the Eleventh Circuit follows the “earliest case” rule (so when prior panel precedents conflict, the earlier case controls).

While any claims based on acts before August 7, 2020, would be time-barred in this case, the acts that took place on or after that date are not. And under Supreme Court precedent, Wainberg may still use the time-barred acts as background evidence in support of his timely-filed conspiracy claims. In other words, all the evidence is going to come in.

The Court did agree with the district judge that the continuing-violation doctrine did not save the pre-August 7, 2020 acts from the statute of limitations. Under that doctrine, a plaintiff may “sue on an otherwise time-barred claim when additional violations of the law occur within the statutory period.” That doctrine does not apply to the present consequence of a one-time violation. It only applies to the continuation of the violation into the present. The continuing-violation doctrine does not apply when a plaintiff alleges “a series of repeated violations that result in repeated harms.” In those cases, which included the facts in this case, each new violation started the clock on its own limitations period. But because the district court did not consider the discrete statutes of limitations for each overt act, the Court VACATED the order granting the motion to dismiss and REMANDED for further proceedings.

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