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decided: May 19, 1980.



Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, White, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 492. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall, J., joined, post, p. 494.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 446 U.S. Page 479]

 MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case, 444 U.S. 939, to review a judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

[ 446 U.S. Page 480]

     holding that petitioners, the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York and the Commissioner of Education, were required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, to afford a hearing to respondent, Mary Tomanio, before denying her request for a waiver of professional licensing examination requirements. In so doing, the Court of Appeals rejected petitioners' claims that both the statute of limitations and the doctrine of estoppel by judgment barred respondent's maintenance of an action under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 in the federal courts. We find it necessary to consider only the defense based on the statute of limitations, since the resolution of that issue is virtually foreordained in favor of petitioners by our prior cases when the indisputably lengthy series of events which ultimately brought this case here is described.


Respondent has practiced chiropractic medicine in the State of New York since 1958. Prior to 1963, the State did not require chiropractic practitioners to be licensed. But in that year the State enacted a statute which required state licensing, and established three separate methods by which applicants could obtain a license to practice chiropractic in the State of New York. 1963 N. Y. Laws, ch. 780, codified as amended, N. Y. Educ. Law §§ 6506 (5), 6554, 6556 (McKinney 1972 and Supp. 1979-1980). First, the statute established education and examination requirements for applicants who had not previously engaged in chiropractic practice. An alternative qualifying examination was made available to individuals already engaged in practice in New York on the date that the licensing statute became effective. Finally, the Act established a third means for current practitioners to qualify without taking any state-administered examination. Under § 6506 (5), they could obtain a waiver of "education, experience and examination requirements for a professional license . . . provided the board of regents shall be satisfied

[ 446 U.S. Page 481]

     that the requirements of such article have been substantially met."*fn1

Respondent has been unsuccessful in her efforts to obtain a license to practice in New York. On seven separate occasions between 1964 and 1971, she attempted to qualify by taking the special examinations designed for current practitioners. Respondent failed, by a narrow margin, to ever receive a passing score on the examinations.*fn2 After this series of failures, she applied to the Board of Regents for waiver of the examination requirements pursuant to § 6506 (5). This application was based upon her claim that she had failed the examinations by only a very narrow margin, that she was licensed in the States of Maine and New Hampshire, and that she had passed an examination given by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners. On November 22, 1971, the Board notified respondent that they had voted to deny her application for a waiver at a meeting held on November 19. Respondent was not afforded an evidentiary hearing on the denial of the waiver or given a statement of reasons for it.

In January 1972, respondent commenced a proceeding in the New York state courts attacking the decision of the Board of Regents not to grant a waiver as arbitrary and capricious, and seeking an order directing the Board to license her. She did not raise any constitutional challenge to the Board's decision in this judicial proceeding. The trial court granted the requested relief, but its order was reversed by the Appellate Division. In November 1975, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the Appellate Division holding that the Board of Regents had not abused their discretion in denying respondent's application for a waiver. Tomanio v. Board of Regents, 38 N. Y. 2d 724, 343 N. E. 2d 755 (1975),

[ 446 U.S. Page 482]

     aff'g 43 App. Div. 2d 643, 349 N. Y. S. 2d 806 (3d Dept. 1973).

Seven months later, on June 25, 1976, respondent instituted this action in Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Respondent alleged that the refusal of petitioners to grant her a license to practice violated due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Petitioners invoked res judicata and the statute of limitations as affirmative defenses to respondent's action.

The District Court rejected these defenses. First, the court found that res judicata would not bar consideration of a § 1983 claim in federal court if the constitutional claim was not actually litigated and determined in the prior state-court proceeding. Since respondent had not raised any constitutional challenge to the Board's action in state court, the trial court ruled that res judicata did not preclude the federal action.

The District Court also found that the § 1983 action was not barred by the statute of limitations. Respondent's claim arose in November 1971 when her application for waiver was denied, more than three years prior to the date on which the suit in federal court was commenced. Although the District Court found that a 3-year New York statute of limitations was applicable to respondent's action, the court held that it was appropriate to toll the running of that statute during the pendency of her state-court litigation. Relying on Mizell v. North Broward Hospital District, 427 F.2d 468 (CA5 1970), the judge concluded that a federal tolling rule was appropriate, reasoning that

"[in] my judgment, the present overburdening of the federal courts and the increased filings of civil rights complaints are factors that mitigate in favor of encouraging the utilization of effective and feasible administrative and judicial remedies, which exist under state law, in certain situations."

Since respondent had diligently pursued her state-court

[ 446 U.S. Page 483]

     remedy after the denial of waiver, and then diligently pursued her federal action after a final dismissal of her state-law claims in the New York State Court of Appeals, the judge found that "it cannot be said that plaintiff has slept on her rights." On the merits of the federal constitutional claim, the District Court found that respondent was entitled to a hearing before the Board, relief which was more limited than she had sought. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court in its rejection of estoppel by judgment and the statute of limitations defense, finding that the tolling of the statute was justified "in the interests of advancing the goals of federalism." 603 F.2d 255. The court also agreed with the ruling of the District Court that respondent was entitled, as a matter of federal constitutional law, to a hearing before the Board on her eligibility for waiver of the examination requirements.

In unraveling this tangle of federal and state claims, and federal- and state-court judgments, we have decided that the case is best disposed of by resolving the statute of limitations question, which we believe has been all but expressly resolved against the respondent by our decisions in Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978); Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454 (1975); and Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). Under the reasoning of these decisions, the federal courts were obligated not only to apply the analogous New York statute of limitations to respondent's federal constitutional claims, but also to apply the New York rule for tolling that statute of limitations.


Congress did not establish a statute of limitations or a body of tolling rules applicable to actions brought in federal court under § 1983 -- a void which is commonplace in federal statutory law. When such a void occurs, this Court has repeatedly ...

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