Although Chance Clyce suffered life-threatening injuries while he was detained in the Hunt County Juvenile Detention Center when he was 13 years old, he’s twice been prevented by federal courts from suing the officials who allegedly subjected him to inhumane conditions.
But Clyce may finally get his day in court after Round Rock attorney Marty Cirkiel convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the teen’s claims had been wrongly dismissed by a trial court because of a statute of limitations ruling.
In Clyce v. Butler, Clyce was seriously injured in 2008 after spending 16 days in juvenile custody. He lost several pounds, sustained bruises and a fractured arm and contracted a life-threatening drug-resistant staph infection. Due to the infection, Clyce required multiple extensive surgeries on his joints and heart.
In 2009, Clyce’s parents sued multiple defendants affiliated with the Hunt County Juvenile Detention Center both individually and on Clyce’s behalf for civil rights violations and claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The district court dismissed claims against two of the defendants without prejudice for improper service and granted summary judgment in favor of the remaining defendants—a decision affirmed by the Fifth Circuit.
Five years later in 2014, when Clyce was 19 years old, he filed a second case against another set of detention center officials asserting that the defendants had denied him medical treatment and participated in civil conspiracy by failing to report systematic abuse in the detention center, among other things.
But the district court again denied Clyce’s claims—this time because they were filed untimely. Under Texas law, tort claims must be brought against a defendant within two years, but this period is tolled for a person under the age of 18 until they reach the age of 20.
However, the district court ruled that there is an exception to this tolling provision for a juvenile when a next of friend aggressively prosecutes a minor’s claim on his behalf. The district court also concluded that the prior suit brought by Clyce’s parents had forfeited the protection of the tolling provision.
Clyce appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that a judge-made exception to the tolling provision should not be applied to his case.
And in a Nov. 22 decision, the Fifth Circuit agreed.
“Texas law … does not support this judge-made exception,” the Fifth Circuit concluded in a per curiam decision reversing the district court’s dismissal of all of Clyce’s claims and remanding the case for further proceedings.
“The Texas code itself gives no indication that a next-friend lawsuit affects the tolling provision. Similarly, though case law demonstrates that a next friend can bring suit on behalf of a minor and make litigation decisions that bind him, it does not establish that such a suit waives the protection of the tolling provision,” the court wrote. “Indeed, there is no support for the premise that Texas’ tolling provision can ever be waived by a minor, either directly or indirectly through a next friend.”
Cirkiel, who represents Clyce on appeal, is pleased the Fifth Circuit revived his client’s case by reversing the statute of limitations decision.
“It was the wrong standard of review. It was judge made, it had no basis in Texas law or federal law,’’ Cirkiel said of the district court’s decision.
A spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, who represented Hunt County in the case, did not return a call for comment.
Cirkiel alleges that Clyce suffered major physical and emotional damage from his treatment in the juvenile detention center—claims he hopes will eventually be presented to a jury.
“That’s why this case is worth fighting because what happened to this kid was horrific,” he said.