Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Court of Appeal Reinstates Suit Over Relationship With Teacher
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A woman’s claim that a former teacher exploited her age, vulnerability and confidence to seduce her into an unlawful and harmful sexual relationship did not accrue until she realized through psychotherapy that she had been victimized, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Holding the allegations sufficient to invoke the delayed discovery rule, Div. Three reversed a trial court’s order dismissing the woman’s negligent supervision action against the Arcadia Unified School District.
The woman, identified as K.J., was a student at Arcadia High School, and from ages 16 to 18 was in a relationship with Phillip Sutliff, an English teacher in his 30s. She claimed Sutliff began a campaign to seduce her in 2003, when she was 15, and that once the relationship became sexual, they had a number of encounters in Sutliff’s classroom during school hours.
The relationship continued when the woman turned 18 in December 2005, but ended shortly after graduation in July 2006, when Sutliff’s wife learned of the affair.
When Sutliff broke off the relationship, K.J. turned to her mother for comfort. Her mother, fearing K.J. would commit suicide if she disclosed the relationship to police, promised not to report Sutliff if K.J. agreed to undergo counseling.
As an employee of the district, however, K.J.’s mother was required under state law to report suspected child abuse, and could no longer keep the secret once the school year began.
She reported Sutliff’s conduct to police, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to 17 counts of sexual misconduct.
K.J claimed that, even after Sutliff’s arrest, she continued to believe she was in love with him and that he had done nothing wrong until she realized during the course of therapy in July 2007 that he had victimized her.
Prior to the relationship, the district had warned Sutliff to stop sending emails to female students but did not conduct follow-up monitoring, so K.J. in September 2007 presented a negligent supervision claim to the district under California’s government claims statutes.
Government Claims Statutes
The statutes bar a lawsuit against a public entity unless the plaintiff first presents a claim within six months after a cause of action accrues, and K.J. specifically invoked the delayed discovery doctrine, which postpones accrual until a plaintiff discovers, or has reason to discover, the cause of action.
However, the district contended K.J.’s claim accrued when she turned 18 or at graduation, when she ceased to be under the school’s supervision, and denied the claim. The district similarly demurred when K.J. filed suit, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jan A. Pluim sustained, dismissing the action.
But Presiding Justice Joan D. Klein noted that the accrual date for presenting a government tort claim is identical to the accrual date that would apply in an ordinary action when no public entity is involved, and wrote that the delayed discovery rule applied, making K.J.’s claim to the district timely.
“Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1 codifies the delayed discovery doctrine in the context of an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse,” she wrote. “We recognize the extended statute of limitations set forth in Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1 is inapplicable because the District is a public entity.
“Nonetheless, the language…characterizing accrual as ‘the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the date of majority was caused by the sexual abuse,’ guides our understanding of the accrual date applicable to K.J.’s presentation of a tort claim to the District.”
Klein also said that K.J.’s mother’s awareness of the molestation had no bearing on the date the claim accrued, and wrote that Pluim erred when she relied on V.C. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2006) 139 Cal.App.4th 499 to rule that the claim accrued no later than October 2006, upon Sutliff’s arrest.
“To the extent V.C. held, as a matter of law, the psychological impact of a molester’s coercive behavior ceases at the moment the perpetrator is arrested, we respectfully disagree with that decision…,” she said.
“It cannot be said as a matter of law that at the moment of Sutliff’s arrest, K.J. should have realized the wrongfulness of his conduct.”
Justices H. Walter Croskey and Patti S. Kitching joined Klein in her opinion.
The case is K.J. v. Arcadia Unified School District, 09 S.O.S. 2001.
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