Margaret C. Gage
State of New Hampshire
The petitioner, Margaret C. Gage, appeals an order of the superior court dismissing her petition against the respondent, the State of New Hampshire, as time-barred. See RSA 508:4 (2010). She argues that the trial court erred by: (1) dismissing the petition without an evidentiary hearing on the discovery rule; and (2) not applying the "installment contract" rule. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this order.
RSA 508:4 requires that "all personal actions . . . be brought only within 3 years of the act or omission complained of." RSA 508:4, I. To be timely, a cause of action generally must be brought within three years of when all of its elements are present. Pichowicz v. Watson Ins. Agency, 146 N.H. 166, 167 (2001). If, however, "the injury and its causal relationship to the act or omission were not discovered and could not reasonably have been discovered at the time of the act or omission, " the statute allows "the action [to] be commenced within 3 years of the time the plaintiff discovers, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury and its causal relationship to the act or omission." RSA 508:4, I. Under the discovery rule, an action does not "accrue, " and the statute does not begin to run, until the petitioner discovers or reasonably should have discovered both the fact that she has been injured and the cause of her injury. See Beane v. Dana S. Beane & Co., 160 N.H. 708, 712 (2010).
The respondent bears the burden to demonstrate that the case was not brought within three years of the challenged act or omission. See id. Once the respondent satisfies this burden, the petitioner bears the burden to prove that the discovery rule applies. See id. at 713. Whether the petitioner has exercised reasonable diligence to discover her injury and its causal relationship to the respondent's acts or omissions constitutes a question of fact for the trial court to resolve. See Kelleher v. Marvin Lumber & Cedar Co., 152 N.H. 813, 825 (2005).
In reviewing the trial court's order granting a motion to dismiss, we examine whether the factual allegations in the petitioner's pleadings are reasonably susceptible of a construction that would permit recovery. See Plaisted v. LaBrie, 165 N.H. 194, 195 (2013). We assume the petitioner's factual allegations to be true, and construe all reasonable inferences from them in her favor. See id. We also consider documents attached to the pleadings, and "documents the authenticity of which are not disputed by the parties[, ] official public records[, ] or documents sufficiently referred to in the" petitioner's pleadings. Beane, 160 N.H. at 711 (quotation and ellipses omitted). If the facts, when measured against the applicable law, constitute a basis for relief, we must reverse the trial court's order. See Plaisted, 165 N.H. at 195.
In this case, the pleadings and documents submitted with the pleadings, viewed most favorably to the petitioner, establish the following facts. The Honorable Edward A. Gage, the petitioner's deceased husband of fifty-three years, served as judge of the Exeter District Court from 1970 until his retirement in 1989 at the age of seventy. Judge Gage died on October 5, 2007.
During the entirety of his time on the bench, Judge Gage was a part-time judge paid in accordance with his yearly caseloads, which numbered several thousand cases per year. Prior to 1984, he was paid by the Town of Exeter. Beginning in 1984, he was employed by the State; the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) calculated his annual salary upon yearly caseload statistics provided by his Clerk of Court.
In November 1983, the municipal court judge in Epping retired, and from that point until his retirement, Judge Gage heard cases originating in Epping. In addition, no later than 1985, the municipal court judge in Newmarket resigned, and Judge Gage thereafter heard cases originating in Newmarket. From the late 1970s until his retirement, the petitioner and members of her family recall Judge Gage sitting in the Exeter District Court four to five days each week.
From July 1, 1987, until Judge Gage's retirement, New Hampshire law provided as follows:
III. The salary of a part-time [district court] justice shall not exceed 70 percent of the salary of a full-time district court justice as provided by RSA 491-A:1. Judicial time shall be measured in weighted case units which shall reflect judicial time required to process a case. . . . A part-time justice, whose weighted caseload equals 3.5 judicial days per week, shall receive the maximum salary as provided by this section and shall be considered for full-time status as provided in paragraph IV. . . .
IV. If application of this or other provision of law results in a part-time district court justice receiving a salary which equals 70 percent of the salary of a full-time district court justice, the supreme court, after reviewing population, caseload, judicial time, available judicial resources and other relevant criteria, may determine that said justice shall become full-time.
RSA 491-A:3, III-IV (Supp. 1989) (amended 1992, 1995, 1998, 2003, 2005, 2012) (emphasis added); see Laws 1987, 272:1. Judge Gage's salary in 1989, the year in which he retired, was precisely seventy percent of the salary to which a fulltime district court judge was then entitled.
In or about 2010, the petitioner began conducting research concerning the numbers of cases over which Judge Gage had presided throughout the 1980s. With information that her son acquired concerning the numbers of cases filed in Epping and Newmarket between 1984 and 1989, the petitioner determined that the information upon which the AOC had calculated Judge Gage's annual salary could not have included his Epping and Newmarket caseloads.
Based upon this information, the petitioner filed a petition for original jurisdiction with this court in May 2012. She asserted that Judge Gage should have been granted full-time status several years before his retirement, and requested that we rectify the injustice, nunc pro tunc, by determining that "Judge Gage was entitled to the benefits of full-time district court judge status at the time of his retirement." We denied the petition. See Sup. Ct. R. 11. The petitioner then filed the present matter in October 2012, framing it as a petition for declaratory judgment and invoking the trial court's equity jurisdiction, and again requesting that the trial court rectify an injustice, nunc pro tunc, by "[d]eclar[ing] that Judge Gage was entitled to the benefits of full-time district court judge status at the time of his retirement."
The State moved to dismiss, arguing, among other grounds, that the petitioner lacked standing because she had alleged no facts establishing her right to represent Judge Gage's estate or seek his benefits, and that the claim was time-barred because Judge Gage should have been aware of his employment status, and should have brought suit, within three years of his retirement. In her objection, the petitioner asserted that she has standing because the surviving spouse of a retired judge under the judicial retirement system has her own right to benefits. See RSA 100-C:7 (2013). With respect to the statute of limitations, the petitioner first argued that RSA 508:4 did not apply because she did not assert a "personal action." She next argued that under the "continuing wrong" doctrine, RSA 508:4 applies only with respect to benefits that should have been paid more than three years prior to filing her petition. Finally, she argued that since "[m]uch of the factual information set forth in the petition . . . was identified and ...