Delayed Discovery Theory in a Child Molestation Case in California

In John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 438, a child molestation case involving a public school teacher, the Supreme Court held the doctrine of equitable estoppel could be applied against the school district if the fact finder determined the teacher's threats prevented the student from pursuing his claim within the statutory period. (John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist., supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 446.) The facts of John R. are as follows: The 14-year-old victim was a student in the ninth grade when his mathematics teacher asked him to participate in a school-sanctioned work-experience program where students received academic credit and monetary payments for assisting teachers with tasks such as helping to correct other students' papers. (Id. at pp. 441-442.) Students had the option of performing the required work at teachers' homes. The teacher in John R. had the victim come to his apartment for that purpose. Over the course of numerous sessions, the teacher attempted to develop a close relationship with the student and eventually tried to seduce him. The teacher tried to persuade the student that "engaging in sex acts with him would be a constructive part of their relationship and, at times, threatened to give John failing grades if he would not go along with his desires and said he would tell people that John had solicited sex from him." (Id. at p. 442.) On one occasion in February 1981, the teacher pressured the student into engaging in acts of oral copulation and anal intercourse. The student told the teacher he would report the incidents to his parents. The teacher threatened to retaliate against the student if he revealed what had taken place. As a result of the threats, and his embarrassment and shame at what had happened, the student did not disclose the incidents to his parents until December 1981. His parents subsequently reported the incidents to the school district and the police. (Ibid.) The student presented his late-claim application to the school district in May 1982, 15 months after the assault. (Id. at p. 444.) The Court of Appeal concluded that the student's late-claim application was timely within the one-year period of section 911.4 because, under the " 'delayed discovery' doctrine," his cause of action did not accrue until he told his parents about the incident in December 1981. (John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist., supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 444.) Upon review, the Supreme Court expressed doubt about whether the delayed discovery theory applied to these facts but opined the circumstances could demonstrate the claim was timely filed under a theory of equitable estoppel. (Ibid.) The court reasoned: "Although the teacher's alleged threats in this case were no doubt motivated largely by self-interest, rather than to prevent John from filing a claim against the district, it would clearly be inconsistent with the equitable underpinnings of the estoppel doctrine to permit the district to benefit to plaintiffs' detriment by such threats. Putting aside for the moment the substantive question whether the district may be held vicariously liable for the teacher's alleged molestation of John, we have no hesitation in concluding that the teacher's threats may be taken into account in resolving the procedural status of plaintiffs' claims against the district. ... Assuming plaintiffs can establish their case, it would plainly be inequitable to permit the district to escape liability only because the teacher's threats succeeded in preventing his victim from disclosing the molestation until the time for filing a claim against the district had elapsed. We conclude that, for purposes of applying equitable estoppel, the time for filing a claim against the district was tolled during the period that the teacher's threats prevented plaintiffs from pursuing their claims." (John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist., supra, 48 Cal.3d at pp. 445-446.) The court held that the question of whether the District was estopped from asserting as a defense the plaintiffs' failure to comply with the claims-presentation statutes was a question of fact for the trial court: "Because the trial court did not analyze the timeliness of plaintiffs' claims in this light, it made no findings on any of the factual issues relevant to the equitable estoppel doctrine. It did not determine (1) whether any threats were in fact made by the teacher, (2) when the effect of any such threats ceased, or (3) whether plaintiffs acted within a reasonable time after the coercive effect of the threats had ended. In the absence of an adverse finding on any of these points, it was error to have granted a nonsuit in favor of the district on the timeliness question; on remand, the trial court must resolve these matters to determine whether the action may go forward." (John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist., supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 446.) The court directed that, in determining when the estoppel ceased to operate, "the trial court must take into account the nature of the conduct on which the estoppel is based conduct that here lacks a clear ending point, particularly in light of the allegations that the teacher's threats against John continued even after the boy had told his parents of the molestation and the incidents had been reported to the district and the police." (John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist., supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 446, fn. 6.)