A federal lawsuit alleging the Mesa Public Schools and the Mesa Police Department failed to protect a minor from years of sexual misconduct by a teacher has been dismissed, although the same judge will allow the plaintiff to amend her complaint until mid-January to address possible mental illness claims.
Tiffany Franco initiated the civil action in 2020, alleging state and federal claims based on a sexual relationship initiated by one of her teachers in 2014 when Franco was only 15. The relationship with a special education teacher at Red Mountain High School continued even after Franco graduated and became an adult.
The male teacher has denied the claims and there is no record that he has been charged with any crimes in connection to Franco. However, he gave up his teacher’s certificate after questions were raised in 2016.
Franco contends number school employees as well as a Mesa police officer assigned to the school allowed the sexual misconduct to occur despite persistent rumors. She originally sued in Maricopa County Superior Court, but the defendants moved the case to the U.S. District Court in Phoenix where they filed to have the lawsuit dismissed on various grounds, including expiration of the statute of limitations.
In Arizona, there is usually a two-year statute of limitations for initiating a personal injury claim involving a minor, with the clock beginning to tick at adulthood. However, in Arizona the victims of child sexual abuse can now initiate some legal actions through age 30, regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.
But according to U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa, the federal claims in Franco’s lawsuit fall under the two-year window.
“To be sure, the Court appreciates the seriousness of all allegations of sexual misconduct, especially when children are involved,” the judge noted in her recent Order, “But if the Court were to borrow the twelve year statute of limitations for Plaintiff’s (federal) claims, then the Court would be returning to a time when courts sought out the ‘most appropriate’ state statute of limitations for each individual case.”
Franco had also argued that because the sexual misconduct was ongoing, the statute of limitations should not start until the relationship ended. But Humetewa disagreed.
“While Plaintiff argues that several Defendants made the continuing choice to hide or not report the abuse, she herself ‘went public’ with the relationship when she turned eighteen,” the judge wrote. “While Arizona law requires those who reasonably believe a minor has been abused to alert the authorities, the law does not require anyone to report public relationships between adults.”
Finally, Franco had claimed it “took time” to bring her claim because she “believed she was in love with her abuser” and therefore the statute of limitations should have been put on hold.
“This is effectively an argument that Plaintiff failed to exercise due diligence because she was of unsound mind,” Humetewa wrote of ARS 12-502 which has been used to toll the statute of limitations in some child sex abuse cases.
The judge noted, however, that the statute applies to a person “of unsound mind when they cannot manage their own affairs or cannot recognize their legal rights or liabilities.”
This has been interpreted in federal courts as requiring a Plaintiff to present “compelling evidence” of mental illness that delayed a claim.
“Here, the Complaint does not allege any facts showing that Plaintiff was unable to manage her affairs or recognize her legal rights, nor does it make any allegations of mental illness,” the judge wrote in granting the motions to dismiss.
However, Humetewa also invoked federal case law to grant Franco until mid-January to file an amended complaint if she “earnestly believes she can show extraordinary mental infirmities prevented her from filing her claims within the statute of limitations.” If the federal claims are not restored, then Franco’s remaining state claims will go back to a Maricopa County judge for trial.
Franco is being named by Arizona Daily Independent as she has sought media attention to her claims against officials with Mesa Schools and the police department.