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Williams v. Walsh

June 27, 1977


Appeal from a judgment order of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Newman, J., which dismissed as barred by the three-year Connecticut tort statute of limitations a § 1983 civil rights action in which a discharged police officer had sought reinstatement, backpay and compensatory and punitive damages. Affirmed.

Lumbard, Waterman and Mulligan, Circuit Judges.

Author: Waterman

WATERMAN, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment order of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Newman, J., dismissing, on the ground that the action was barred by the "borrowed" Connecticut tort statute of limitations, a civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We affirm the dismissal of the complaint.

In November, 1969, when plaintiff-appellant John Williams was permanently employed as a police officer by the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was charged with improper use of his firearm and with filing a false police report. On December 11, 1969 a hearing was convened by the Board of Police Commissioners to consider these allegations, but plaintiff, choosing to rely on his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, refused to answer any questions. After deliberation, the Board found plaintiff guilty as charged and ordered that he be suspended for a short period of time. Plaintiff's refusal to answer questions at the December 11 hearing brought on additional charges that he had violated a departmental regulation which prohibited an officer from engaging in "conduct prejudicial to the good order and police discipline of the Department." On January 13, 1970, a hearing was held to consider these additional charges. As a result of this second hearing plaintiff was permanently discharged from the department.

Within a few days of his discharge, plaintiff filed with the Connecticut Court of Common Pleas an appeal from the decision of the Board of Police Commissioners.*fn1 Plaintiff also exercised his contractual right to submit his claims against the city to arbitration. After receiving an unfavorable arbitration award, plaintiff appealed the arbitration decision to the Connecticut Superior Court. That court sustained the arbitrator's ruling. Moreover, after languishing for nearly four years, on December 12, 1973 the appeal to the Connecticut Court of Common Pleas was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

On March 27, 1974, plaintiff filed the § 1983 action which has produced this appeal. The complaint here alleges that plaintiff's discharge, following his refusal on Fifth Amendment grounds to answer questions propounded to him at the hearing before the Board of Police Commissioners, was accomplished only because some of the defendants*fn2 violated plaintiff's First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and press, his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law. Plaintiff further averred that the actions of those who had discharged him in derogation of his constitutional rights were performed in concert, willfully, maliciously and with an intent to deprive plaintiff of those constitutional rights. The injuries inflicted upon plaintiff were alleged to be loss of employment and income, great pain and suffering of mind and great embarrassment and humiliation. The complaint sought both equitable intervention (injunctions ordering reinstatement and forbidding enforcement of a certain departmental regulation) and legal relief (backpay, compensatory damages of $100,000 and punitive damages of $100,000).

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court "borrowed" the Connecticut tort statute of limitations, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577, and held that plaintiff's entire action, which had not been commenced within the three years specified in the statute, was time-barred.

On this appeal, plaintiff challenges the district court's use of the Connecticut tort statute of limitations to bar both his equitable and legal prayers for relief. His principal argument is that, even if it be assumed arguendo that the district court properly held his "claim" for damages to be time-barred by the tort statute of limitations, the district court nevertheless erred in also holding as barred the "claim" plaintiff argues was his separate "claim" for reinstatement. Plaintiff next argues that, in any event, the district court should have ruled that the civil rights action here was filed in timely fashion because the Connecticut statute of limitations should have been considered to have been tolled during the pendency of plaintiff's appeal to the Connecticut Court of Common Pleas. We reject both of these contentions.


Many § 1983 cases have recited the well-established rule that "in the absence of a federal statute of limitations federal courts borrow the state statute of limitations applicable to the most similar state cause of action." Kaiser v. Cahn, 510 F.2d 282, 284 (2d Cir. 1974) (emphasis supplied). Plaintiff does not appear seriously to maintain that the district court here was not justified in selecting the Connecticut tort statute of limitations, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577, as the statute of limitations properly applicable to plaintiff's "legal claim" for damages.*fn3 Plaintiff argues, however, that his complaint contained not only a single tort claim for damages, but at least two causes of action, and that a different state time-bar period should have been applied by the district court to each of them. We certainly agree that it is well-settled that a § 1983 complaint may contain more than one cause of action and thus may require the borrowing and the application of more than one state statute of limitations. See, e.g., Chambers v. Omaha Public School Dist., 536 F.2d 222, 227 (8th Cir. 1976); Polite v. Diehl, 507 F.2d 119, 122-23 (3d Cir. 1974); Beard v. Stephens, 372 F.2d 685, 688-90 (5th Cir. 1967). It is also true that plaintiff's complaint does present more than one cause of action. We do not agree, however, with the plaintiff's argument that the injunctive relief he requested - reinstatement - constitutes one of these "causes of action" and that, under Connecticut law, his so-called "reinstatement cause of action" is most analogous to the legal action of mandamus. Continuing with this line of reasoning, plaintiff then points out that in Connecticut a mandamus action is not subject to a statute of limitations but only to the equitable time-bar of laches, and plaintiff urges that his request for reinstatement should be measured here by whether he has been guilty of laches. Plaintiff's reasoning is flawed, for he fails to appreciate the precise meaning of the term "cause of action."

"A 'cause of action' is a situation or state of facts which entitles a party to sustain an action and gives him the right to seek judicial interference in his behalf." Rhodes v. Jones, 351 F.2d 884, 886 (8th Cir. 1965), cert. denied, 383 U.S. 919, 15 L. Ed. 2d 673, 86 S. Ct. 914 (1966); accord, Bradford v. Southern R. Co., 195 U.S. 243, 248, 49 L. Ed. 178, 25 S. Ct. 55 (1904); United States v. Smelser, 87 F.2d 799, 800-01 (5th Cir. 1937). In other words, a cause of action is generally established by showing the existence of a right held by the plaintiff and a breach of that right by the defendant. But, most definitely, "the cause of action is something distinct from the remedy or the relief sought." Dennison v. Payne, 293 F. 333, 344 (2d Cir. 1923); accord, United States v. Smelser, supra at 800-01.

Thus, while the five counts of the complaint here obviously do contain a number of different causes of action, based on arguments that plaintiff's discharge violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and press, his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law, the various prayers for relief, including requests for reinstatement and for backpay, compensatory damages and punitive damages, most certainly do not themselves give rise to separate "causes of action." Therefore, the request for reinstatement does not constitute a separate and distinct cause of action but is no more than a prayer for additional relief sought by plaintiff as to each of the causes of action which are predicated on alleged violations of various constitutional rights possessed by the plaintiff.

Although the independent remedies of a damage award and injunctive relief do not constitute separate "causes of action," it is true that, inasmuch as these disparate remedies would traditionally have been sought in different forms of action, the former in an action at law and the latter in a suit in equity, these remedies have ordinarily been governed by different periods of limitation. The distinction between different causes of action and different remedies is important, however, because, in contrast to the true independence of limitations periods controlling different causes of action, the limitations periods governing two concurrent remedies, one legal and the other equitable, are not independent of one another. Specifically, when, as here, a suit in aid of a federally-created right is brought seeking both legal and equitable relief, "equity will withhold its remedy if the legal right is barred by the ...

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