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Extending Statute of Limitations

Learn about Equitable Tolling and Equitable Estoppel as means to extend the statute of limitations on claims and causes of action.


Statutes of limitations are laws that sets the maximum time the parties involved have to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense or the knowledge thereof, whether civil or criminal. The length of time the statute allows for a victim to bring legal action against the suspected wrong-doer can vary from one jurisdiction to another and the amount of time--as well as when the clock starts--depends on the nature of the offense or wrongdoing.


When the time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim might no longer be filed or, if filed, may be subject to dismissal if the defense against that claim is raised that the claim is time-barred as having been filed after the statutory limitations period.

The whole purpose is to protect the accused. Society has determined that it is unfair for a claim to be brought many years after its occurrence, forcing a defendant to track down evidence and witnesses to defend oneself from the accusation. Rather, the pressure is placed on the claimant to timely pursue their claims.


Equitable Tolling

The equitable tolling of statutes of limitations is a judicially created, non-statutory doctrine. It is ‘designed to prevent unjust and technical forfeitures of the right to a trial on the merits when the purpose of the statute of limitations—timely notice to the defendant of the plaintiff’s claims—has been satisfied.’ Where applicable, the doctrine will ‘suspend or extend a statute of limitations as necessary to ensure fundamental practicality and fairness.’” (McDonald v. Antelope Valley Community College Dist. (2008) 45 Cal.4th 88, 99.)


The equitable tolling doctrine rests on the concept that a plaintiff should not be barred by a statute of limitations unless the defendant would be unfairly prejudiced if the plaintiff were allowed to proceed. ‘[T]he primary purpose of the statute of limitations is normally satisfied when the defendant receives timely notification of the first of two proceedings.’ The doctrine has been applied ‘where one action stands to lessen the harm that is the subject of the second action; where administrative remedies must be exhausted before a second action can proceed; or where a first action, embarked upon in good faith, is found to be defective for some reason.’ ” (Aguilera v. Heiman (2009)174 Cal.App.4th 590, 598.)


“[T]he effect of equitable tolling is that the limitations period stops running during the tolling event, and begins to run again only when the tolling event has concluded. As a consequence, the tolled interval, no matter when it took place, is tacked onto the end of the limitations period, thus extending the deadline for suit by the entire length of time during which the tolling event previously occurred.” (Lantzy v. Centex Homes (2003) 31 Cal.4th 363, 370–371.)


“[A]pplication of the doctrine of equitable tolling requires timely notice, and lack of prejudice, to the defendant, and reasonable and good faith conduct on the part of the plaintiff.” (Addison v. State (1978) 21 Cal.3d 313, 319.)


The timely notice requirement essentially means that the first claim must have been filed within the statutory period. Furthermore[,] the filing of the first claim must alert the defendant in the second claim of the need to begin investigating the facts which form the basis for the second claim. Generally this means that the defendant in the first claim is the same one being sued in the second.” “The second prerequisite essentially translates to a requirement that the facts of the two claims be identical or at least so similar that the defendant’s investigation of the first claim will put him in a position to fairly defend the second.” “The third prerequisite of good faith and reasonable conduct on the part of the plaintiff is less clearly defined in the cases. But in Addison, supra, 21 Cal.3d 313, the Supreme Court did stress that the plaintiff filed his second claim a short time after tolling ended.” (McDonald, supra, 45 Cal.4th at p. 102, fn. 2, internal citations omitted.)


A plaintiff is not entitled to invoke California’s equitable tolling doctrine for the time its claims are pending in a court that does not have jurisdiction to hear them.


[V]oluntary abandonment [of the first proceeding] does not categorically bar application of equitable tolling, but it may be relevant to whether a plaintiff can satisfy the three criteria for equitable tolling.” (McDonald, supra, 45 Cal.4th at p. 111.)


Informal negotiations or discussions between an employer and employee do not toll a statute of limitations under the equitable tolling doctrine.” (Acuna v. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 1402, 1416.)


Compare to Equitable Estoppel

Estoppel to assert defense of statute of limitations may be invoked when delay in commencing action was induced by defendant’s conduct. (Kurokawa v. Blum (1988) 199 Cal. App. 3d 976, 990.)


To establish equitable estoppel four elements must ordinarily be proved: (1) knowledge of facts by party against whom estoppel is sought, (2) conduct by that party intended to be acted on or that party seeking estoppel had right to believe was intended to be acted on, (3) ignorance of facts by party seeking estoppel, and (4) reliance on conduct by party seeking estoppel to that party’s injury; equitable estoppel typically arises through some misleading affirmative conduct on defendant’s part; estoppel may also arise from silence when there is duty to speak. (Spray, Gould & Bowers v. Associated Internat. Ins. Co. (1999) 71 Cal. App. 4th 1260, 1265, 1267–1269.)

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