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Timothy G. v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 29, 2016

TIMOTHY G., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, Appellee

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Paul E. Olson, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-12-07478 CI.

         Kevin G. Brady, Brady Law Office, Anchorage, for Appellant.

         Ali Moser Rahoi, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

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

          OPINION

         BOLGER, Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Timothy G. asserted in the superior court that the statute of limitations had been tolled on his claim against the Office of Children's Services because he was mentally incompetent following years of abuse by his stepfather. The superior court held an evidentiary hearing on this issue and concluded that Timothy had failed to prove that he was incompetent. On appeal, Timothy argues that the superior court should have ruled in his favor if he produced more than a scintilla of evidence to support his assertion. But we conclude that the superior court applied the proper burden of proof and the proper test for competency, and that the court did not clearly err in finding that Timothy did not prove his incompetence.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Timothy G.[1] alleges he was abused by his stepfather repeatedly between 1997 and 2006. In 2006, Timothy reported the abuse to his mother. She took Timothy and his four siblings to a shelter, sought a protective order against the stepfather, and instituted divorce proceedings. The Office of Children's Services (OCS) then substantiated the report of harm, removed the children from their mother's care, and placed them in foster care.

         On May 25, 2012, Timothy filed a complaint naming OCS and his stepfather as defendants.[2] He sought compensatory damages from OCS, claiming that " [a]s a direct and proximate consequence of [OCS's] breach of [its] dut[y] of care, [he] suffered physical injury, psychological and emotional injury and distress, psychological torment, torture and sexual abuse, pain and suffering, and resultant loss of earning capacity." Timothy alleged that OCS had investigated at least ten reports of harm involving him and his siblings, but had taken no action.

         In response, OCS moved under Alaska Civil Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss Timothy's claims as time-barred. It argued that the applicable statute of limitations required Timothy's claim to be filed within two years of its accrual; [3] although the statute of limitations was tolled during Timothy's minority,[4] he turned 18 on May 27, 2009, but did not file his complaint until nearly three years later.

         Timothy replied that he was incompetent by reason of mental disability and that the statute therefore remained tolled after his eighteenth birthday.[5] He stated that he had been diagnosed with " severe post[-]traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, [b]i-polar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder," stemming from his abuse at the hands of his stepfather.

         Along with his opposition to OCS's motion to dismiss, Timothy submitted an affidavit from his friend Sarah G. describing his mental disability. Sarah met Timothy in 2008, and in 2010, when she learned he was homeless, she invited him to live in her home. She asserted that " based upon [her] personal involvement with [Timothy], his treating mental health care professionals[,] and various state and federal agencies, [it was her belief] that Timothy suffers from a mental disability."

         The superior court treated OCS's motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment because in ruling on it the court considered matters outside of the pleadings, including Sarah's affidavit and OCS's responses to the affidavit.[6] The court found that although Sarah's affidavit would be insufficient to establish Timothy's incompetency, " it [was] sufficient to overcome the low threshold that applies at the summary judgment stage." Accordingly, the court denied OCS's motion.

         The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to resolve the statute of limitations dispute, noting that the parties had raised " preliminary questions of fact that should be decided by the court." The court stated that at this hearing, " [t]he burden [would] be on . . . [Timothy] to establish that he was incompetent as contemplated by AS []09.10.140(a) . . . during the relevant period."

         The superior court held the hearing on September 4, 2014. Two witnesses testified on Timothy's behalf: Sarah and Timothy's former psychiatrist. Sarah described her role in Timothy's life as an " advocate." She testified that she tried to help Timothy find work, complete high school, and obtain disability benefits and counseling and that she routinely transported him to appointments and court appearances. Timothy signed a medical release giving Sarah access to his medical records, and she sometimes sat in on his counseling sessions. She testified that without her help, Timothy would not make it to his court dates or appointments: " He misses court dates[; ] he can't remember them[; ] . . . he doesn't have the ability to keep track of [his appointments]."

         Timothy's former psychiatrist testified as an expert in psychiatry; he treated Timothy from approximately 2007 to 2013. According to the psychiatrist, " [Timothy] was diagnosed with [p]ost[-][t]raumatic [s]tress [d]isorder and his case was a very complicated case dealing with sexual abuse and sexual trauma. [Timothy] . . . also had depression and anxiety . . . [and] [b]i-polar disorder." The psychiatrist also verified the accuracy of a letter he wrote in 2012 to support Timothy's claim for disability benefits in which he stated: " [T]he trauma that he has suffered is one of the most egregious cases I have ever had to manage." The psychiatrist specifically testified that he did not believe Timothy was capable of understanding his legal rights or advocating for himself without assistance.

         OCS called Timothy as a witness. He stated that in 2010, when he testified before a grand jury about his stepfather's abuse, he understood that what his stepfather had done was wrong. Timothy testified that after the grand jury proceedings he " just kind of wanted to walk away from it," but Sarah encouraged him to file this lawsuit. He acknowledged that, although he had appeared in court several times before to face criminal charges and to obtain a divorce, he had never claimed to be incompetent and had expressly stated that he understood his legal rights. And he testified that he felt comfortable asking clarifying questions to the judge during those proceedings if he did not understand a particular point.

         On cross-examination, Timothy testified that Sarah helped him with most of his criminal cases and that although he represented himself in his divorce, Sarah helped him understand and fill out the paperwork. He also testified that he frequently missed court dates when he was not living with Sarah, for a variety of reasons. Timothy stated: " [A]ll my other rides fall through, people don't pick me up, I miss the bus[,] . . . I forget times . . . or my phone will die and I won't . . . make it in time." Finally, he testified that although he is " reluctant to tell society and average people [about his mental disability], . . . [he is] not afraid to . . . tell [courts, doctors, and professional people] about [his] issues," and he is " not afraid to ask . . . for help when needed."

         On September 12, 2014, the superior court issued an order granting OCS's motion to dismiss, finding that Timothy's mental condition did not toll the statute of limitations. The court noted that the standard for mental incompetency is " whether a person could know or understand his legal rights sufficiently well to manage his personal affairs," and the court found that Timothy had not met his burden to show his incompetency during the period following his eighteenth birthday. The court found it telling that during Timothy's prior interactions with the legal system, both as a plaintiff and as a defendant, " [h]e repeatedly asserted his competence to courts . . . and represented himself." While the court was careful not to " minimize the trauma . . . [Timothy] endured or his diagnosis of bi-polar and ...


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