SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Six sisters filed suit too late to hold their community and church liable for the decades of abuse imposed by their parents, a federal magistrate ruled.
Zion Dutro tortured and molested biological daughters Amber Dutro, Glenda Stripes, Sarah Dutro and Martha McKnelly, and foster daughters Frances Smith and Christina Moore, over a 20-year period with the help of his wife Glenda Lea Dutro. The pair were convicted and sentenced in 2011 to 300 years and 15 years in prison, respectively.
Now adults, their children filed a complaint in May against the city of Antioch, Contra Costa County, several law enforcement and child-protective services officers, Calvary Open Bible Church, and two ministers.
Their lawsuit recounted a harrowing tale of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of Zion and Glenda Lea Dutro, and alleges that church leaders, Antioch police officers and Contra Costa CPS workers stonewalled investigations to protect the prominent evangelical couple.
The sisters said they were initially unaware of law enforcement's duty to protect them, or of the pastors' duty to report abuse. They said that they did not feel free to go public with their stories until the Dutros were sentenced and incarcerated.
The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit in June citing the statute of limitations, which requires victims of child abuse to file actions by their 26th birthdays. The defendants also said the clock on federal civil rights claims starts to run when a victim knows or has reason to know of the injury.
The sisters pointed out that McKnelly filed her sexual abuse claim before she was 26, and that the allegations of physical, nonsexual injuries against Contra Costa County are not time-barred. They claimed the city of Antioch also contributed to their delay in filing by denying them access to relevant police reports, which they said continues to this day.
The women also said the church defendants had a common-law duty to protect them, since California law did not make pastors mandated state reporters until years after the first sister told the church about the abuse. Instead of going to the police, the pastors allegedly shared told the girls' claims with the Dutros, who in turn intensified their torture of the sisters.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins said Thursday that the women missed the deadline for filing state-law actions against the city and county, and that they failed to comply with tort-claim requirements. The sisters failed to notify city and county defendants of their claims before filing suit.
Cousins also cited the statute of limitations in dismissing the sisters' state-law claims against the church defendants, and federal civil rights claims against all defendants.
The sisters failed to convince Cousins that the delayed-recovery rule should start the statute of limitations clock in 2011 - when they discovered they had potential causes of action against defendants, after their parents were convicted and they received treatment for psychological trauma.
"Plaintiffs had all of the facts necessary at that time to determine whether they had a viable claim against the county," Cousins wrote, applying the same logic later for the city and church defendants. "That plaintiffs may have been ignorant of the legal theories underlying their cause of action is irrelevant to the delayed discovery analysis."
The magistrate said the sisters' estoppel argument fails as well.
"Here, allegations in the first amended complaint do not establish that plaintiffs were ignorant of the true state of facts, or that plaintiffs relied on defendants' actions in delaying their lawsuit," he wrote. "The police reports ... were not required for plaintiffs to find out their injuries or the cause of their injuries. Plaintiffs first reported the abuse in 1995, and were aware at that time that police did not arrest Zion Dutro. After plaintiffs again reported the abuse in 2003, police again 'refused to arrest Zion Dutro.' The fact that plaintiffs did not know the legal theories upon which they could bring suit are irrelevant. Accordingly, the allegation that plaintiffs could not access police reports, or that they were allegedly told not to read reports during the criminal prosecution, does not establish equitable estoppel."
Cousins did not let the defendants off the hook completely, however. Acknowledging that the sisters might be able to better plead delayed discovery, equitable tolling or estoppel, he gave them one month to file an amended complaint - after first filing a tort claim with the city and county.
A hearing is set for Nov. 28.
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