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Maness v. Gordon

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 21, 2014

BRET F. MANESS, Appellant,
v.
MIKE GORDON, WILLIAM MILLER, SHELLEY (DOE) GORDON, JOHN DOE, FRED POTTS, MARK KOLSTAD, ARVID “B.J.” BJORTON, MICHAEL JUSTICE, JAMES SERFLING, TERRENCE STAHLMAN, ROBERT PIPKIN, SR., JUDITH RAE MANESS, Appellees.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska No. 3AN-07-11407 CI, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, John Suddock, Judge.

Bret F. Maness, pro se, Anchorage, Appellant. Kevin T. Fitzgerald, Ingaldson Fitzgerald, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellees

Gordon and Gordon. Howard S. Trickey, Jermain Dunnagan & Owens, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellee Serfling.

Before: Winfree, Stowers, and Bolger, Justices.[Fabe, Chief Justice, and Maassen, Justice, not participating.]

OPINION

BOLGER, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Bret Maness sued for assault and battery, sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment, based on incidents alleged to have occurred in the 1970s. The superior court concluded that Maness's claims are barred by the statute of limitations. In this appeal, Maness argues that the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations because he provided an affidavit stating that he suffered from repressed memory syndrome and has only recently recovered memories of these assaults. But we agree with the superior court's conclusion that expert testimony is necessary to support a claim based on repressed memory syndrome and affirm the grant of summary judgment.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Bret Maness alleges that the defendants committed a series of sexual assaults against him in the 1970s, when he was still a child. He further alleges that, although the defendants used a combination of date rape drugs and hypnosis to cause him to forget these incidents, he recovered memories of the assaults shortly before filing his complaint.

Maness filed a complaint in the Anchorage superior court on October 30, 2007, seeking "general and special" damages for "intentional and/or negligent torts" and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants James Serfling, Michael Gordon, and Shelley Gordon deny all of his allegations.[1]

Serfling and the Gordons moved for summary judgment on the ground that Maness's claims are barred by the statute of limitations. Maness opposed their motions, arguing that, because he recovered repressed memories of the sexual assaults less than a year before filing his complaint, the discovery rule applies, and his claims are not time-barred. To rebut Maness's argument, Serfling produced an affidavit from expert witness Dr. Charles J. Brainerd, a developmental and experimental psychologist. Dr. Brainerd concluded, based on Maness's deposition, that "what Mr. Maness describes having experienced regarding his memories is simply not an example of the condition known as repressed memory syndrome."

On May 11, 2011, the superior court ordered Maness to "submit an affidavit of a qualified expert supporting his claim, within 120 days." When Maness failed to provide any expert testimony, the court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment, [2] explaining

[b]ecause Maness's claims of hypnotic deception and recovered memory are outside of the lay expertise of a jury, expert testimony is required in order to prove these claims. Defendant Serfling has provided expert testimony and other evidence demonstrating that he is entitled to summary judgment on these claims, and Maness has failed to provide the expert testimony necessary to refute that showing.

Maness now appeals from the superior court's order granting summary judgment.[3]

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper where the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine factual dispute and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[4]When considering an order granting summary judgment, we must draw all reasonable inferences from the facts in favor of the non-moving party.[5] We review a grant of summary judgment de novo.[6]

We review the superior court's construction of the Alaska and federal Constitutions de novo.[7]

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Because Maness Did Not Support His Allegations Of Repressed Memory Syndrome With Expert Testimony, His Claims Are Time-Barred.

Maness argues that his claims are timely under AS 09.10.065(a) and AS 09.10.140(b), [8] which apply to claims based on sexual abuse or sexual assault. However, both of these statutes were enacted long after the events he describes in his complaint, [9]and neither applies retroactively.[10] Therefore, Maness's claims are barred under the two-year statute of limitations for torts, [11] unless he can establish that the discovery rule applies.

Under the discovery rule, where an element of a claim is not "immediately apparent, " the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a reasonable person would have enough information to alert him that he "has a potential cause of action or should begin an inquiry to protect . . . her rights."[12] Maness alleges that, from the date the alleged sexual assaults occurred until shortly before he filed his complaint, he suffered from repressed memory syndrome, a psychological condition that blocked his access to memories of the assaults. Relying on caselaw from other jurisdictions, he argues that the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations until he recovered the repressed memories. Many jurisdictions recognize that repressed memory syndrome may extend the statute of limitations, [13] but others have declined to adopt this rule.[14] The superior court assumed, for purposes of its summary judgment order, that Maness could invoke the discovery rule based on his allegations of repressed memories. However, the court granted summary judgment against Maness because it concluded that he could not prove his repressed memory syndrome claim without producing expert testimony. That conclusion is consistent with the decisions of most courts considering repressed memory syndrome claims[15] as well as Alaska case law requiring expert testimony to prove medical or legal malpractice.[16]

Maness cites Phillips v. Gelpke, [17] for the proposition that he need not present expert testimony to invoke the discovery rule. But he misreads that case. The Phillips court held that a plaintiff did not need to submit expert testimony in order to testify that she forgot, but later remembered, sexual abuse.[18] However, the court stated that expert testimony would be a prerequisite to tolling the statute of limitations.[19]

We conclude that Maness's claims are time-barred because he cannot invoke the discovery rule without offering expert testimony [20] Therefore, the superior court properly granted summary judgment on these claims.

B. Requiring Maness To Prove His Claims With Expert Testimony Did Not Deprive Him Of Due Process.

On appeal, Maness argues that requiring an indigent plaintiff "to hire an expert witness or suffer a summary judgment dismissal" violates the due process clauses of the Alaska and United States Constitutions. Accordingly, he asks that this court remand his case "with the instruction that Mr. Maness is not required to produce any expert affidavit or testimony."

Under both state and federal law, we analyze a due process claim by comparing the private interest involved and the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest against the government's interest, including the fiscal and administrative burdens of additional procedural safeguards.[21]

In this case, the private interest involved is the right of access to the courts to pursue a personal injury claim. This right is important but not fundamental.[22]Accordingly, while courts have appointed expert witnesses in criminal trials[23] and civil proceedings implicating fundamental interests, [24] they have not recognized a right to an appointed expert in an ordinary civil case.[25]

The courts have adopted a similar distinction in cases considering a litigant's right to court-appointed counsel. An indigent criminal defendant has a constitutional right to court-appointed counsel.[26] And, in this state, that right extends to post-conviction proceedings.[27] But a civil litigant does not have a right to appointed counsel unless the case27 involves a fundamental interest.[28]

There is indeed some risk that Maness could be unjustly foreclosed from pursuing his personal injury claim. Under the rule applied by the superior court, any plaintiff relying on repressed memory syndrome will forfeit his tort claim if he cannot produce an expert affidavit, whether or not his claims are meritorious or application of the discovery rule is warranted.

However, this case also implicates substantial state interests. The statute of limitations protects against the injustice that may result from prosecution of stale claims[29] and the difficulties caused by "lost evidence, faded memories, and disappearing witnesses."[30]

The expert testimony requirement, in turn, addresses legitimate concerns about the accurate diagnosis of memory disorders:

The primary reasons other courts have imposed the requirement are the disagreement among the psychological and medical communities about the validity of repressed memory syndrome, the danger a plaintiff's memories could be faked or implanted during therapy, and the desire that a plaintiff not have the ability to control the running of the statute of limitations solely by allegations whose only support is contained within the plaintiff's mind.[31]

And it would require considerable expense for the public to provide expert testimony for all indigent civil litigants pursuing claims like this one.[32]

The right to court access protected by the due process clause of the Alaska Constitution is broader than the corresponding federal right, but it is "ordinarily implicated only when a legislative enactment or governmental action erects a direct and insurmountable barrier in front of the courthouse doors."[33] Accordingly, we have held that due process is violated by a direct prohibition on filing suit[34] or a prohibitively high filing fee.[35] But a party may, consistent with due process, be required to bear the reasonable expenses involved in proving or defending a routine civil case.[36] In a similar context, we have sustained a court order denying an indigent medical malpractice plaintiff's request for appointment of a medical expert at state expense.[37] The due process balancing test requires the same result here.

The state's interest in an accurate and timely resolution of this dispute outweighs the risk that Maness will be erroneously deprived of a meritorious tort claim. We conclude that requiring Maness to support his claim of repressed memory syndrome with an expert affidavit did not violate due process.

V. CONCLUSION

The judgment of the superior court is AFFIRMED.


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