To bring a lawsuit, a plaintiff must file suit in a timely manner. Different kinds of claims face different time limits—limitation periods, in legalese. These limitation periods generally measure time from when the plaintiff’s cause of action first accrues. But that in itself is not very helpful. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Bleecker v. Cahill, No. 2016AP1231 (Wis. Ct. App. March 15, 2017), clarified when an action “accrues” and thereby starts the limitation clock ticking.
Facts and procedural history
Lee Bleecker sued his attorney, Terence Cahill, for legal malpractice in connection with a lease agreement Cahill reviewed and Bleecker then signed in 2003. Under Wis. Stat. § 893.53, legal malpractice claims must be filed within six years. The issue before the Court of Appeals was whether Bleecker’s malpractice claim was timely filed, which in turn depended on when the claim accrued. If Bleecker’s claim accrued when the lease was signed, his claim was barred as untimely; alternatively, if it did not accrue until Bleecker learned that the lease did not accomplish what he anticipated, his claim could proceed.
In 2003, Bleecker agreed to lease property to Aurora Medical Group, Inc. and authorized Aurora to build a clinic on the land. Id., ¶2. The lease ran for ten years and gave Aurora the option to extend for three subsequent five-year periods. The parties agreed that Bleecker would finance the construction costs, which Aurora would reimburse in monthly payments to Bleecker for the first fifteen years of the lease or until an “earlier date on which the Lease terminates.” Id., ¶3. After Cahill reviewed the lease, Bleecker signed it without reading the document. Id.
According to Bleecker, Cahill advised him that the lease ensured he would recover from Aurora all of the money he laid out for construction. Id., ¶2. According to Cahill, he informed Bleecker that Aurora’s payments could stop if the lease terminated after the initial ten-year term. Id., ¶2. Aurora chose not to extend the lease after the initial ten-year period expired, and, once the lease ended, it stopped making monthly construction payments to Bleecker. Id., ¶4.
In June 2014, Bleecker sued Cahill for legal malpractice. Id. The circuit court held Bleecker’s suit untimely. In the court’s view, Bleecker’s legal malpractice claim accrued when he signed the lease, with the result that the time for his suit expired in 2009. Id., ¶5. On appeal, Bleecker argued that his claim did not accrue until 2013, when Aurora terminated the lease and its obligation to make construction payments ended. Id. Under Wisconsin law, a claim accrues when it is “capable of present enforcement,” which occurs when “the plaintiff has suffered actual damage.” Id., ¶8 (quoting Hennekens v. Hoerl, 160 Wis. 2d 144, 152, 465 N.W.2d 812 (1991)). The Court of Appeals thus had to determine when Bleecker suffered actual damage.
Prior case law
The appellate court looked primarily to Meracle v. Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin, 143 Wis. 2d 476, 421 N.W.2d 856 (Ct. App. 1988), aff’d, 149 Wis. 2d 19, 437 N.W.2d 532 (1989). In that case, the Meracles engaged an adoption agency to adopt “a normal, healthy child.” Id. at 478. Before the adoption was finalized, the agency disclosed that the child’s biological paternal grandmother had died from Huntington’s disease. Id. The agency also told the potential adoptive parents that the child’s biological father had tested negative for the inherited disorder. Id. A few months after the adoption, the adoptive parents learned that there was no test at that time to determine if someone has the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease and therefore that the agency’s representation about their child’s biological father testing negative could not be truthful. Id. at 479. Almost four years after the adoption, the child developed Huntington’s. Id.
The question the Meracle case presented to the court of appeals was when the parents’ claim accrued—at the time the parents learned there was no genetic test and therefore that their child was at risk for the disease, or years later when the child actually developed the disease. Id. at 482. The court determined the parent’s claim did not accrue until the child developed the disease. Id. The court explained that the parent’s injury was not the diagnosis itself, but rather the medical expenses and other damages the disease imposed on their family. Id. at 482-83. The parents could not have sued to recover these damages prior to the diagnosis, because their fear that the child might develop the disease would not have been a sufficient basis to justify redress of these damages. Id.
The court of appeals also looked to General Accident Insurance Company v. Schoendorf & Sorgi, 195 Wis. 2d 784, 537 N.W.2d 33 (Ct. App. 1995), aff’d, 202 Wis. 2d 98, 549 N.W.2d 429 (1996). In that case, which also involved the limitation period for legal malpractice, the court of appeals held that a claim had not accrued when “the damage was inchoate.” Schoendorf, 195 Wis. 2d at 798 n.9. The Supreme Court affirmed, reiterating a prior ruling that “actual damage is not the mere possibility of future harm.” Schoendorf, 202 Wis. 2d at 112 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
The Bleecker decision
Applying these precedents, the Bleecker court held that Cahill’s allegedly defective legal advice about the lease did not, on its own, inflict actual damage. Bleecker, ¶14. Rather, Bleecker first suffered actual damage when Aurora notified him that it was terminating the lease and therefore had no obligation to make further repayment for construction costs. Id., ¶15. Only when Bleecker received that notification did it become “reasonably certain” that financial loss would “occur in the future.” Id. Bleecker had no presently enforceable claim in 2003 when he signed the lease, because had Aurora exercised its option to extend the lease, Bleecker would not have suffered harm. Id., ¶17. Because Bleecker was first harmed in 2013, that is when his claim accrued, and it was timely filed in 2014, well within the applicable six-year limitation period. Id.
The court’s decision in Bleecker clarifies that, for purposes of a statute of limitation, a claim does not accrue when it is merely a possibility, or even a likelihood; a claim accrues when the plaintiff suffers actual damage. Actual damage for Bleecker occurred when Aurora acted to Bleecker’s detriment. The court’s decision should assists plaintiffs in determining when they will run out of time to assert their claims.
One final note: Generally, in tort actions (including legal malpractice), there is an exception to applicable limitation periods—the discovery rule—which provides that a claim does not accrue until the earlier of the date on which the plaintiff’s injury is discovered or with reasonable diligence should have been discovered. See, e.g., Hansen v. A.H. Robins, Inc., 113 Wis. 2d 550, 560, 335 N.W.2d 578 (1983). The circuit court in Bleecker did not apply the discovery rule because it determined Bleecker had not acted with reasonable diligence when he signed the lease without reading it. Bleecker, n.2. The court of appeals did not reach this issue, concluding that Bleecker’s claim was timely without resort to the discovery rule. Id. By loosening the strictures of accrual, Bleecker may lessen reliance on the discovery rule.
Law clerk Olivia Pietrantoni assisted in researching and writing this post.