A man claiming repressed memories of sexual abuse by his former teacher waited too long to file a lawsuit for damages, according to the Utah Supreme Court.
In a unanimous opinion released Friday, the court said someone who recalls the "operative facts" of sexual abuse must commence legal action within the time limits of the applicable statutes of limitations.The only exception is when a plaintiff "did not know or could not reasonably have discovered the facts underlying" the claim within the legal time limit. In other words, only when memories of the sexual abuse have been "totally repressed" until after the statute of limitations runs out.
The five justices rendered the opinion in response to a question from U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who is hearing a repressed memory case involving allegations against a former Granite School District teacher.
Randy Burkholz, 29, filed a lawsuit two years ago alleging he was sexually stalked, harassed and abused by teacher Jack A. Joyce while attending Churchill Junior High School and Skyline High School between 1981 and 1988.
According to court documents, in 1987, during a missionary "worthiness" interview, Burkholz told his LDS bishop about a homosexual encounter with Joyce. However, he said he coped with the trauma by blocking out the details and placing them in a "hidden file" in his mind.
Burkholz said those details resurfaced in 1994 after he had his first heterosexual experience. He then entered psychotherapy, and in 1996 sued Joyce and the Granite School District for $20 million.
According to an affidavit filed by Dr. James L. Poulton, Burkholz experienced repression, a psychological process that creates an "amnestic barrier" against unacceptable memories, impulses and feelings resulting from a traumatic event.
Poulton said the alleged memory loss was not caused by suppression, which involves a conscious and intentional act of not allowing oneself to think about unacceptable memories.
Joyce and the school district argued that Burkholz's claims were barred by various statutes of limitations. Burkholz responded that those statutes don't begin running until a person reaches the age of 18, don't apply in cases of mental incapacity and are subject to rules governing the gathering of evi-dence.
In an order signed in May 1997, Campbell rejected the first exception, saying almost 10 years elapsed between Burkholz's 18th birthday and the lawsuit. She also rejected the mental incapacity exception, noting that Burkholz had served two religious missions, worked at numerous jobs, graduated from college and established his own business.
However, Campbell said Utah law was not clear on the third exception under the rules of discovery. She cited a provision of the law that states that under exceptional circumstances, application of the statute of limitations would be irrational or unjust.
Her question to the Supreme Court was whether the exceptional circumstances rule "tolls" the statute of limitations in cases where a person's knowledge of the "operative facts" of the incident is "interrupted by a period of psychological repression."
Writing for the court, Justice Michael D. Zimmerman said the answer is no. He said the court ruled in 1993 that the exceptional circumstances rule did apply in a case where the plaintiff had "totally repressed" her memory of abuse for 12 years.
"However, in our view, the discovery rule simply does not apply where the plaintiff, at some point during the limitations period, had knowledge of the facts underlying his claim," Zimmerman said.
The justices said the evidence showed that Burkholz was aware of the "operative facts" when he was 18 and that his awareness continued for at least 19 months.
"Nineteen months of knowledge provided Burkholz with more than sufficient time to commence an action within the (four-year) limitations period," Zimmerman said. "In making this decision, we in no way mean to discount the trauma Burkholz has suffered."
The court's ruling now goes back to Campbell, who will apply it in her decision on the motions by Joyce and the school district to dismiss Burkholz' lawsuit. Burkholz' attorney could not be reached for comment.
Joyce, 68, resigned his teaching post in 1989 after pleading guilty to one of two lewdness charges involving incidents at Churchill Junior High unrelated to the Burkholz allegations. He moved to Arizona in 1995.