BOARD OF REGENTS V. TOMANIO, 446 U. S. 478 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478 (1980)

Board of Regents v. Tomanio

No. 79-424

Argued February 26, 1980

Decided May 19, 1980

446 U.S. 478


Pursuant to New York statutes requiring that chiropractic practitioners obtain a state license either by passing an examination or obtaining a waiver of the examination requirement from petitioner Board of Regents (Board), respondent practitioner applied to the Board for a waiver of the examination requirement. In November, 1971, the Board notified respondent that her waiver application was denied, but respondent was not afforded an evidentiary hearing or given a statement of reasons for the denial. In January, 1972, respondent commenced state court proceedings, attacking the Board's decision as arbitrary and capricious but not raising any constitutional challenge to the decision. Ultimately, in November, 1975, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed an order holding that the Board had not abused its discretion in denying respondent's waiver Application. In June, 1976, respondent instituted this action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that petitioners' refusal to grant her a license violated due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Holding that the § 1983 action was not barred by the applicable 3-year New York statute of limitations even though respondent's claim arose in November, 1971, when her waiver application was denied by the Board, the District Court concluded that it was appropriate to adopt a federal rule to toll the running of the statute of limitations during the pendency of respondent's state court litigation. Under the New York tolling rule, the time for filing an action is not tolled during the period in which a litigant pursues a related but independent cause of action. On the merits of the federal constitutional claim, the District Court held that respondent was entitled to a hearing before the Board on her eligibility for waiver of the examination requirement. The Court of Appeals affirmed as to both the statute of limitations issue and the merits.

Held: Respondent's action was barred by the New York statute of limitations. The federal courts were obligated not only to apply the analogous New York statute of limitations to respondent's federal constitutional claims, but also to apply the New York rule for tolling that statute of limitations. Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U. S. 584; @ 421 U. S. 483-492.

(a) Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, federal courts are instructed to refer to state statutes when federal law provides no rule of decision for actions brought under § 1983, and § 1988 authorizes federal courts to disregard an otherwise applicable state rule of law only if the state law is "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Since Congress did not establish a statute of limitations or a body of tolling rules applicable to federal court actions under § 1983, the analogous state statute of limitations and the coordinate tolling rules are binding rules of law in most cases. This "borrowing" of the state statute of limitations includes rules of tolling unless they are "inconsistent" with federal law. Pp. 446 U. S. 483-486.

(b) New York's tolling rule is not "inconsistent" with the policies of deterrence and compensation underlying § 1983. Neither of these policies is significantly affected by New York's rule, since plaintiffs can still readily enforce their claims, thereby recovering compensation and fostering deterrence, simply by commencing their actions within three years. And there is no need for nationwide uniformity so as to warrant displacement of state statutes of limitations for civil rights actions. Nor are policies of federalism undermined by adoption of the New York rule. When Congress establishes a remedy (such as § 1983) separate and independent from other remedies that might also be available, a state rule which does not allow a plaintiff to litigate such alternative claims in succession, without risk of time bar, is not "inconsistent." Pp. 446 U. S. 486-492.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 446 U. S. 492. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 446 U. S. 494.

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