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Civil Rights – Statute tolled on §1983 claim while remedies are exhausted

Students from the University of Virginia law school persuaded the court to join other circuits in holding the statute of limitations was equitably tolled during the period the prisoner was exhausting his administrative remedies, thus making his § 1983 excessive force claim timely.


William D. Battle III entered a prison in Roanoke on Dec. 6, 2013. A physical altercation between Battle and corrections officers occurred along the way to his assigned housing unit.

The officers subsequently filed a disciplinary report against Battle. Battle disputed their account before a prison hearing administrator and requested the hearing administrator examine video footage of the incident to corroborate his account.

The hearing administrator declined to do so; instead, he simply credited the officers’ version of the incident. After unsuccessfully appealing this decision to the prison’s chief warden, Battle submitted a second appeal to the regional corrections administrator. On Feb. 27, 2014, the regional administrator rejected Battle’s claim and issued a form confirming that Battle had reached the “last level of appeal for this grievance.”

On Jan. 11, 2016, Battle completed a postage request for a pro se § 1983 complaint alleging the officers used excessive force against him, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The parties accept that this postage request establishes the filing date.

The officers moved for summary judgment, arguing that Battle filed outside Virginia’s two-year statute of limitations applicable to §1983 claims filed within the jurisdiction. The district court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that Battle filed his complaint 36 days too late.


On appeal, Battle maintains that the district court overlooked his claims of state statutory tolling under the Virginia Tort Claims Act and federal equitable tolling.

Virginia lacks a generally applicable statute that pauses limitations to accommodate administrative exhaustion requirements. Battle thus asks us to borrow a tolling provision in the VTCA. He does so on the theory that he could have brought suit under that law for the same actions against the same parties.

The VTCA does not save Battle’s claims for two reasons. First, the VTCA operates on a tighter schedule than §1983. It gives a plaintiff only one year to assert his rights, plus exhaustion. The VTCA’s tolling provision would thus afford Battle one year and 83 days to take legal action. Second, and more fundamentally, the VTCA does not govern suits against state employees like the one Battle brings here.

When state statutory tolling rules provide no relief to a prisoner seeking to bring a § 1983 claim, some courts have turned to state equitable tolling rules to suspend limitations during the mandated exhaustion period. To invoke equitable estoppel under Virginia law, a plaintiff must prove, among other things, that the “party claiming estoppel was misled to his injury” by the defendant in a way that prevented timely filing. The corrections officers did not mislead Battle as to his injury or the accrual date by operation of the prison administrative review process. Accordingly Battle cannot invoke the doctrine.

The officers contend that Virginia’s no-tolling rule necessarily comports with federal policies because a separate federal law — the PLRA — imposes the relevant exhaustion requirement. But by enacting the PLRA, Congress did not endorse such a no-tolling rule or diminish the interests underlying § 1983. To so conclude would be to overread the PLRA’s silence on tolling, misread the PLRA’s purpose and ignore the text of § 1983 and § 1988. Virginia’s no-tolling rule, as applied to prisoners seeking to bring § 1983 claims, frustrates the goals of § 1983 and is thus clearly “inconsistent” with settled federal policy.

Because we hold that Virginia’s no-tolling rule is inconsistent with §1983, we must determine a proper remedy. Battle asks that we apply federal equitable tolling principles to account for the time lost during his 83-day mandatory exhaustion period. We agree with Battle (and our sister circuits) that those principles apply during this period.

Vacated and remanded.

Battle v. Ledford (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-008-19) (Diana Gribbon Motz, J.) Case No. 17-6287. Jan. 8, 2019. From W.D.Va. (Elizabeth Dillon, J.) Sarah Crandall and Elizabeth Joynes for Appellant, Michelle Shane Kallen for Appellee.

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