Fourth Grader’s Sexual Assault Claim Preserved Until 18th Birthday

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Nicole B. v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 237 A.3d 986 (Pa. 2020).  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that, when a fourth-grade student alleged that he was sexually assaulted in school, the 180-day period to file a claim under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is extended and does not expire until after the student reaches 18, the age of majority.   

BACKGROUND

N.B. alleged that when he was eight years old, attending fourth grade at a public school within the Philadelphia School District (“District”), he was bullied and sexually assaulted in a bathroom by three classmates.  Over two years after learning of the incident, N.B.’s parents asserted claims against the District under the PHRA, for failing to protect N.B.  Under Pennsylvania law, N.B. and his family were required to exhaust their administrative remedies by pursuing an administrative hearing under the PHRA, before they could seek monetary damages in court.  

However, the PHRA requires claims to be filed within 180 days, and the District argued that the claims asserted by N.B.’s family were time-barred.  The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission agreed and rejected the family’s claims as untimely.  Both the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, on appeal, agreed that the PHRA claims were untimely.  The family argued that because N.B. was a minor, a provision of the PHRA allowing equitable tolling, or extension, of the 180-day period should allow N.B. the ability to bring the claims after his 18th birthday, when he reached the age of majority.  The family’s argument relied on Pennsylvania’s Minor Tolling Statute, which preserves a minor’s ability to assert a civil claim after the minor has reached adulthood, despite any applicable statute of limitations.  The family raised the same arguments on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

DISCUSSION

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the equitable tolling allowed by the PHRA also includes minority tolling under the Minor Tolling Statute.  The Supreme Court acknowledged competing precedent in this area, under which some courts have held that equitable tolling does include minority tolling and other courts have held that it does not.  The Court held, due to this competing precedent, that the term “equitable tolling” in the PHRA is ambiguous, and that the Court had the power to resolve the ambiguity. 

In a 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that equitable tolling under the PHRA does include minority tolling under the Minor Tolling Statute.  In its opinion, the Court expressed concern that if equitable tolling were interpreted not to include minority tolling, then children were at the mercy of their parents or guardians to assert their rights.  The Court found this problematic for children without parents, or with less-than-vigilant parents, and explained:

children, already some of our most vulnerable citizens, should not be subject to the whim or mercy of parents or guardians with respect to the assertion of their legal rights.

Furthermore, resort to equitable tolling for minors is particularly critical for certain populations of children, such as the homeless, youth whose parents are themselves minors, and children with disabilities or in foster care, who have special needs and who routinely do not have anyone serving as a “parent” to advocate on their behalf. Thus, an interpretation excluding minors from the doctrine of equitable tolling would be fatal to the rights of many children subjected to discrimination.

 PRACTICAL ADVICE

The 180-day period to file a discrimination claim under the PHRA does not apply to minor students, who have until age 18 to file such claims.  Therefore, school districts may be subject to lawsuits alleging discrimination which occurred up to thirteen or fourteen years ago.  This decision highlights the need for school districts to keep accurate and thorough records regarding students.  School districts should also keep this decision in mind when reviewing their document retention policies. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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