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Clay v. Kuhl

January 21, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Miller

Agenda 31-September 1999.

The plaintiff, Teresa Clay, brought the present action in the circuit court of Kane County, alleging that defendant Brother Richard Kuhl sexually abused her while she was a minor. The plaintiff also asserted that the religious order to which Brother Kuhl belonged-defendant Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart-had notice of similar misconduct allegedly committed by Kuhl yet failed to take any steps to prevent the abuse charged here from occurring. The circuit court dismissed the action on motion of the defendants, agreeing with the defendants that the plaintiff's complaint was untimely. The appellate court reversed and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 301 Ill. App. 3d 694. We allowed the defendants' petitions for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now reverse the judgment of the appellate court and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

The plaintiff initiated the present action by filing a complaint in the circuit court of Kane County on January 10, 1996. The allegations relevant here are found in the plaintiff's third amended complaint. According to the third amended complaint, Brother Richard Kuhl befriended the plaintiff, her sister, Joell, and their mother and, in 1972 or 1973, began to molest the plaintiff and Joell; the plaintiff was born on March 31, 1964. The plaintiff alleged that the abuse occurred about one or two times a week and continued for approximately seven years. According to the plaintiff's third amended complaint, Kuhl "would try to make [the plaintiff] touch his penis and he would penetrate her vagina with his fingers, while he was masturbating." The plaintiff estimated that some 900 separate incidents of abuse occurred during that period. The third amended complaint further alleged that the plaintiff was examined by a psychologist, Dr. Susan Phipps Yonas, who suggested that the plaintiff, like other victims of childhood sexual abuse, had not been able to realize the causal relationship between the abuse she suffered and subsequent psychological problems she experienced. The plaintiff alleged that it was not until June 1994 that she realized that Kuhl's misconduct caused her injuries. Counts I and II were directed against Kuhl; count I alleged that his acts constituted battery, and count II alleged that his conduct was negligent or reckless. Count III, against Kuhl's religious order, the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, alleged that the Society was aware the Kuhl had engaged in similar misconduct with another girl and that it was negligent or reckless in failing to prevent the abuse from occurring in this case.

The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff's action under section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code of Civil Procedure, arguing that the matter was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(5) (West 1996). The defendants maintained that the time for bringing the present action expired on March 31, 1984, when the plaintiff turned 20. The defendants reasoned that the instances of misconduct alleged here were sudden, traumatic events and that the plaintiff therefore should have been required to bring her action within two years of the time she reached the age of majority. See 735 ILCS 5/13-211 (West 1996). The trial court granted the defendants' motions, concluding that the plaintiff's action was untimely. The trial court relied on the appellate court's opinion in M.E.H. v. L.H., 283 Ill. App. 3d 241 (1996), aff'd on other grounds, 177 Ill. 2d 207 (1997), which had characterized occurrences of child sexual abuse, for purposes of the statute of limitations, as sudden, traumatic events that triggered the running of the limitations period once the victim of the abuse attained majority.

The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court reversed and remanded, concluding that the action was not barred by the statute of limitations. 301 Ill. App. 3d 694. The court disagreed with its earlier decision in M.E.H. and expressed the view that the discovery rule should apply in cases of repressed memories of sexual abuse. The court viewed the present action as one involving repressed memories of abuse. The court concluded that the action was timely, noting that the plaintiff's third-amended complaint "alleged that in June 1994 she first realized that the sexual encounters with Brother Kuhl caused her injuries" and that the plaintiff commenced the action in January 1996. 301 Ill. App. 3d at 704. The appellate court declined to consider a further contention by the defendants, who questioned whether the case actually involved a claim of repressed memory. Construing this argument as simply an objection to the sufficiency of the pleadings, the appellate court did not believe that it was appropriate to address the challenge, given the procedural posture of the case. 301 Ill. App. 3d at 704. We allowed the defendants' separate petitions for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a). We granted leave to a number of organizations to file amicus briefs in behalf of the parties. 155 Ill. 2d R. 345.

We note that this action was originally consolidated in the appellate court with another case making similar allegations against the same defendants. While the appeals were pending before this court, the plaintiff in the other case, Josefa Ferrer, reached a settlement agreement with the defendants, and Ferrer's case has been dismissed. We have accordingly limited our discussion to the remaining case, involving plaintiff Clay.

The defendants argue that the plaintiff's action was barred within two years of the time when she reached the age of 18, as provided by statute. 735 ILCS 5/13-211 (West 1996) (if plaintiff is a minor when cause of action accrues, then "he or she may bring the action within 2 years after the person attains the age of 18 years"). The plaintiff was born in 1964, and under the defendants' reasoning the present action would have been barred in 1984. In the alternative, the defendants contend that, even if the common law discovery rule does apply in this case, the plaintiff's action must still be considered untimely, for she knew of her injury and cause of action long before she finally brought suit. The plaintiff, in response, argues that the common law discovery rule applies in these circumstances and, moreover, that the allegations in her complaint demonstrate that she brought suit within two years of the time she discovered the injury.

We need not determine in this case whether the instances of childhood sexual abuse alleged here must be considered "sudden traumatic events" for purposes of applying the statute of limitations. Even if the plaintiff were to prevail on this question, she would still be required to establish the timeliness of her action under the discovery rule. As we explain below, we do not believe that the discovery rule is of assistance to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff contends that application of the discovery rule is necessary in this case, given the allegations in the complaint that she did not realize the existence of her injury until much later. Under the discovery rule, a party's cause of action accrues when the party knows or reasonably should know of an injury and that the injury was wrongfully caused. Knox College v. Celotex Corp., 88 Ill. 2d 407, 415 (1981); Nolan v. Johns-Manville Asbestos, 85 Ill. 2d 161, 171 (1981); Witherell v. Weimer, 85 Ill. 2d 146, 156 (1981). The limitations statute applicable here would be found in section 13-202 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which provides a two-year period for bringing actions for personal injuries. 735 ILCS 5/13-202 (West 1996). We note that the legislature later enacted a statute, section 13-202.2 of the Code of Civil Procedure, codifying the common law discovery rule for actions involving childhood sexual abuse. 735 ILCS 5/13-202.2 (West 1996). That provision took effect in 1991. The plaintiff correctly concedes that if her action was already barred under the common law discovery rule prior to the enactment of section 13-202.2, then the new statute could not have revived it; under Illinois law, the barring of an action by a statute of limitations creates a vested right in favor of the defendant, and the action cannot later be revived. See M.E.H. v. L.H., 177 Ill. 2d 207, 215 (1997); see also Henrich v. Libertyville High School, 186 Ill. 2d 381, 404-05 (1998) (supplemental opinion upon denial of rehearing). Accordingly, we have no occasion here to consider the operation or application of section 13-202.2.

The plaintiff, in her third amended complaint, alleged that it was not until June 1994 that she "realized that the sexual encounters with [Kuhl] had caused her injuries." The plaintiff further alleged that "the abuse was not caused by force or violence and the injuries were not caused immediately but evolved with the overlay of life experience. At the time the abuse occurred, she did not know it was abnormal behavior." The third amended complaint also stated that a psychologist who had examined the plaintiff reached the following conclusion:

" `Because of the particular circumstances of Teresa Clay's early life and the nature of the abuse perpetrated by Richard Kuhl, there is good reason to believe that she was unable to comprehend that the tragic course that her life was on, until quite recently, was, at least in part, due to what the priest did to her.' "

The issue whether an action was brought within the time allowed by the discovery rule is generally resolved as a question of fact. County of Du Page v. Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, Inc., 109 Ill. 2d 143, 153-54 (1985); Nolan, 85 Ill. 2d at 171. The question may be determined as a matter of law, however, when the answer is clear from the pleadings. Witherell v. Weimer, 85 Ill. 2d 146, 156 (1981); Franke v. Geyer, 209 Ill. App. 3d 1009, 1012 (1991). We believe that the circumstances alleged in this case allow this issue to be resolved as a matter of law.

Examining the plaintiff's third amended complaint, we conclude that the present action is untimely under the discovery rule. In the present case, the allegations of the plaintiff's complaint make it clear that the plaintiff had sufficient information about her injury and its cause to require her to bring suit long before the date of discovery alleged in the complaint. The plaintiff does not argue that she repressed her memories of the abuse, and the allegations in the complaint indicate that the plaintiff was aware of the abuse as it occurred. From the chronology set forth in the third amended complaint, it appears that the abuse began when the plaintiff was eight or nine years old, and that it continued for about seven years, until the plaintiff was 15 or 16. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the plaintiff at one point alleges that the abuse commenced when she was four or five years old; in a later document in the circuit court, however, the plaintiff refers to that allegation as a typographical error. The plaintiff reached the age of majority in 1982. She did not bring the present action until 1996, when she was nearly 32 years old. Given the allegations in the third amended complaint, which show that the plaintiff was always aware of the misconduct charged, and the absence of any contrary assertion that the plaintiff repressed memories of the abuse, we believe that the plaintiff's action must be considered untimely under the discovery rule. We make no determination here whether the discovery rule would toll the running of the limitations period in a case alleging repressed memories of abuse. See Johnson v. Johnson, 701 F. Supp. 1363 (N.D. Ill. 1988) (applying discovery rule in case alleging delayed recollection of childhood sexual abuse).

The plaintiff contends, however, that her injuries were latent to some extent and did not fully manifest themselves until years after the abuse occurred. We do not believe that the plaintiff's alleged failure to fully discover the nature of her injuries is sufficient to delay the running of the limitations period. There is no requirement that a plaintiff must know the full extent of his or her injuries before suit must be brought under the applicable statute of limitations. This court addressed a similar question in Golla v. General Motors Corp., 167 Ill. 2d 353 (1995). In that case, the plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident on September 3, 1985, and she obtained medical treatment that day. Later, in March 1988, she was diagnosed as having reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which she believed was caused by the earlier accident. The plaintiff brought an action against the manufacturer of the car in which she was injured on August 7, 1989, more than two years after the occurrence. This court agreed with the defendant that ...

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