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Group Home Cleared on 1990s Sex Abuse Case

CHICAGO (CN) - An Illinois man waited too long to sue over sexual abuse he endured at age 7 by fellow residents in a child care facility, the 7th Circuit ruled.

In 1991, when Harlis Woods was 7 years old, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services moved him from the home of his biological parents to a residential treatment facility.

Five months later, Woods was placed in the Lutherbrook Children's Center. After it was soon discovered that a 13-year-old resident there had abused him, Woods was soon removed from the center by court order and hospitalized.

Years later, at age 21, Woods was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual assault. He claimed that his violent acts were manifestations of the psychological injury he experienced as a child.

Now incarcerated in Illinois, Woods brought a federal action against the state's child protection agency and facility operators in 2011. The complaint alleged that defendants violated Woods's due process rights when they failed to protect him from childhood sexual abuse while he was in state custody.

U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo dismissed the suit as time-barred, but appointed an attorney for Woods so he could file a motion to reconsider.

Woods' attorney argued that the trial court had improperly applied a two-year statute of limitations rather than the 20-year window allowed under the Illinois Childhood Sexual Abuse Act.

Castillo rejected the argument, and a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed Monday.

Application of a two-year statute of limitations stems from two Supreme Court decisions: Wilson v. Garcia and Owens v. Okure.

In Wilson, the court jettisoned an earlier approach to timeliness determinations which had "directed lower courts to apply the state statute of limitations governing the state-law claim that was most analogous to the particular §1983 claim being litigated," Judge John Tinder wrote for the appellate panel.

Instead, courts were told to apply the most appropriate state statute of limitation to all Section 1983 claims.

The Owens court later specified that federal judges should select the general or residual state statute for personal injury actions.

Based on such precedent, "this court has consistently held that he limitations period applicable to §1983 actions brought in Illinois is the two-year period for general personal injury actions," Tinder wrote.

Woods failed to show that his case was an exception to the rule because applying the general statute of limitations would be inconsistent with federal interests.

"In light of Wilson and Owens, the determination whether a limitations period is consistent or not with federal interests must be made with reference to all §1983 claims, not a particular subset, because all §1983 claims within a single state are to be governed by the same limitations period," Tinder wrote.

"Notwithstanding Woods's assertions to the contrary, in the end his argument is simply an invitation to revive the pre-Wilson approach of choosing a state limitations period based on which state tort claim is most analogous to a particular §1983 claim. ... This is precisely what Wilson and Owens forbid."

Woods' claims, which accrued in 2004, were clearly outside of the two-year limitations period by 2011, according to the ruling.

"Woods filed his complaint long after the limitations period had expired, and so it was properly dismissed. His arguments for applying a different limitations period are foreclosed by Supreme Court and circuit precedent and there is nothing that can be achieved from an evidentiary hearing," Tinder concluded.

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