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Statutes of Limitation – Civil Defamation

Many people are familiar with the term “Statute of Limitations” from having seen someone mention it on television or in a movie. However, seeing it on television or in the movies usually just tells the viewer that Statutes of Limitation exist, but not how to actually use it in a particular situation.

The short answer is that a Statute of Limitation is the time period within which a case — civil or criminal — has to be brought against a defendant. If the Statute of Limitations passes without the case(s) being brought, the defendant can claim the lapsed Statute of Limitations as an affirmative defense. In other words, the defendant can say that even if everything alleged in the case is true, there’s no way for the plaintiff or prosecution to win.

The longer answer is that in order to use the concept of Statute of Limitations in the real world, you have to know the answer to three questions:

  • what is the statute of limitations that applies to a given situation?
  • when does the statute of limitations — whatever it happens to be — actually start?
  • under what situations — if any — can the statute of limitations be paused so that the plaintiff or prosecution has more time?

Shockingly, TV shows and movies don’t answer these questions. Questions 1 and 2 are fairly straightforward to address. Question 3 is more complicated and requires discussing something called Tolling and what needs to happen before Tolling can be done.

In this first post on Statutes of Limitation, I’m going to talk about the answers to Question 1 and 2 above for civil defamation. If someone defames you and you pursue a civil defamation lawsuit, you’re seeking money and not to put the defendant in jail. The precise criteria for defamation will vary depending on the laws of your state or jurisdiction.

In California, the statute of limitations for civil defamation is one year and is specified in section 340(c) of the California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP). Section 340(c) also states that this one year begins when the defamatory statement is first published or generally distributed to the public. The one-year does not start on the date the defamatory statement is actually discovered.

In New York, the statute of limitations for civil defamation is one year and is specified in section 215(3) of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (NY CPLR). As in California, the New York one-year statute of limitation also begins when the defamatory statement is first published, not on the date the statement is actually discovered.

Because I’ve mentioned New York law, I have to give my usual disclaimer. I’ve been licensed in New York since 2012, but I don’t maintain an office there. Thus, under the Schoenefeld case, I do not take cases from clients in New York. The information pertaining to this blog post that relates to New York is publicly-available and can be researched by anyone with an Internet connection.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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