A Statute of Limitations Issue of First Impression in a Privacy Case

Smith v. Datla, 451 N.J. Super. 82 (App. Div. 2017).  This opinion by Judge Geiger was his first published opinion since his elevation to the Appellate Division.  It involved the applicable statute of limitations for each of three distinct claims that all arose out of a statement by defendant, plaintiff’s doctor, about plaintiff’s HIV-positive status in the presence of a third party.  Plaintiff (John Smith is a fictitious name) alleged that that disclosure constituted invasion of his privacy based on public disclosure of private facts, constituted medical malpractice, and represented a violation of the AIDS Assistance Act, N.J.S.A. 26:5C-1 to -14 (“the AIDS Act”).

Plaintiff filed his lawsuit just short of two years after defendant made the alleged disclosure.  Defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  The motion was based on statute of limitations grounds, asserting that a one-year statute of limitations applied to all of plaintiff’s claims.  The Law Division disagreed and denied the motion.  Defendant was granted leave to appeal, but the Appellate Division affirmed, applying de novo review and accepting plaintiff’s version of the facts as true.

Judge Geiger first addressed the limitations period for plaintiff’s privacy claim.  He observed that of the four types of invasion of privacy claims, three of them have already been the subject of determinations as to the appropriate limitations period, and each of those has a different period:  intrusion on seclusion has a two-year statute, “false light” claims must be brought within one year, and misuse of a person’s name or likeness invokes a six-year statute of limitations.  “[N]o binding precedent,” however, had addressed the statute of limitations for public disclosure of private information.

To determine the appropriate limitations period, Judge Geiger said, courts “look to the most analogous cause of action,” and focus on “the nature of the injury, not the underlying legal theory of the claim.”  Defendant asserted that the privacy claim was most like defamation, which is governed by a one-year statute of limitations, while plaintiff contended that the proper analog was an “injury to the person,” which has a two-year statute.  Judge Geiger found the defamation analogy unpersuasive, since unlike in defamation cases, the statement allegedly made by defendant was true.  He found the privacy claim most analogous to the Law Against Discrimination, which allows claims for “discrimination claims based on improper disclosure of an individual’s HIV/AIDS status,” and the federal and New Jersey Civil Rights Act.  All those statutes have two-year limitations periods, so the panel applied that statute to plaintiff’s privacy claim.

Turning to plaintiff’s claim under the AIDS Act, Judge Geiger found that claim most analogous to plaintiff’s invasion of privacy claim.  The two-year statute applied to the claim under the AIDS Act as well.

Finally, the medical malpractice claim was also held to have a two-year statute of limitations.  “Subject to the application of the discovery rule, claims for medical malpractice are generally subject to the two-year statute of limitations imposed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, and must be filed within two years of the accrual of the cause of action.”  The breach of a doctor’s duty to maintain patient record confidentiality “is a deviation from the standard of care, giving rise to a personal injury claim, not defamation or placing plaintiff in a false light.”  Additionally, the medical malpractice claim, like plaintiff’s claim under the AIDS Act, was “most analogous to the category of invasion of privacy claims that are grounded on an allegation that defendant improperly disclosed private facts concerning the plaintiff to a third party.”

All the claims thus constituted “injury to the person” and partook of the two-year statute of limitations of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.  The panel affirmed the result below.

Since this was an issue of first impression, the case might be one for the Supreme Court, should defendant seek leave to appeal.  We shall see.