February 2, 2018

State Statutes of Limitations Tolled When Federal Courts Exercise Supplemental Jurisdiction; Artis v. District of Columbia

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

Not all claims may be brought in federal court as a matter of right, but federal courts often are asked to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims if they are related to claims over which the court ordinarily has jurisdiction. And a federal court may refuse to exercise that supplemental jurisdiction, or it may refuse to keep state law claims after it resolves the federal claims. But while such a dismissal is without prejudice, the statute of limitations can pose a problem. Congress has addressed that issue in 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d), but there was a dispute over how that statute should be interpreted. A split court (5-4) gave it the more plaintiff-friendly interpretation.

Artis worked as a health inspector for the District of Columbia. She lost her job and sued the District in federal court, alleging employment discrimination in violation of federal law and three allied claims under D.C. law. The district court eventually granted summary judgment to the District on Artis’s federal claim and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

  • 1367(d) provides as follows:

The period of limitations for any [state] claim [joined with a claim within federal-court competence] shall be tolled while the claim is pending [in federal court] and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provided for a longer tolling period.

Artis refiled her state-law claims 59 days after the federal court dismissed them, and D.C. did not provide for a longer tolling period. The trial court found that her claims were time-barred, and the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed. These courts noted two approaches among various state supreme courts to the interpretation of this statute: the stop-the-clock reading and the grace-period reading. The first would stop the running of a statute of limitations, while the second only granted a 30-day grace period. These courts found that the second approach better comported with principles of federalism. Given the split in authority among state supreme courts, the Court granted certiorari.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Ginsburg began her analysis by noting that in the context of time period, “tolled” normally means to stop the clock, and that the Court had applied that word in this manner in other contexts. For example, its opinions had used the terms “tolled” and “suspended” interchangeably. And the Court pointed to a number of statutes which provided for grace periods, none of which used the word “tolled” when describing that grace period.

Tellingly, the District has not identified any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning has been ascribed to the word “tolled” or any word similarly rooted. Nor has the dissent, for all its mighty strivings, identified even one federal statute that fits its bill, i.e., a federal statute that says “tolled” but means something other than “suspended,” or “paused,” or “stopped.” From what statutory text, then, does the dissent start?

The Court then looked to the text of the statute, and determined that “tolled” should mean suspended, for the word modified its object, the “period of limitations.”

Just as when the object of “tolled” is “bell” or “highway traveler,” the object “period of limitations” sheds light on what it means to “be tolled.”

The Court found any other interpretation to be “strained,” because it would require more to be read into the text than was there. For example, to read the statute as a grace period would mean that “the effect of the period of limitations as a time bar” would be tolled, rather than simply the “period of limitations.” And it would also require that “removed” mean “removed, unless the period of limitations expired before the claim was filed in federal court,” or else claims that had expired could be revived.

After dealing with these text-based arguments, the Court addressed

a significant constitutional question: Does the statute exceed Congress’ authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause, Art. I, §8, cl. 18, because its connection to Congress’ enumerated powers is too attenuated or because it is too great an incursion on the States’ domain?

The Court addressed these issues once in Jinks v. Richland County, 538 U.S. 456 (2003), where it found that § 1367(d) is “conducive to the due administration of justice in federal court,” because “[w]ith tolling available, a plaintiff disinclined to litigate simultaneously in two forums is no longer impelled to choose between forgoing either her federal claims or her state claims.” But this did not answer whether this same conclusion applied to the stop-the-clock reading of the statute. In the end, the Court determined that it did not matter.

The District’s contention that a stop-the-clock prescription serves “no federal purpose” that could not be served by a grace-period prescription is unavailing. Both devices are standard, off-the-shelf means of accounting for the fact that a claim was timely pressed in another forum. Requiring Congress to choose one over the other would impose a tighter constraint on Congress’ discretion than we have ever countenanced.

The Court also downplayed the differences on states between the two readings, calling them “more theoretical than real.”

Plaintiffs situated as Artis was could simply file two actions and ask the state court to hold the suit filed there in abeyance pending disposition of the federal suit. Were the dissent’s position to prevail, cautious plaintiffs would surely take up the D. C. Superior Court’s suggestion. How it genuinely advances federalism concerns to drive plaintiffs to resort to wasteful, inefficient duplication to preserve their state-law claims is far from apparent.

Justice Gorsuch wrote the dissent. He would apply the grace-period reading to ensure that “this provision serves a modest role.”

Rather than reading the statute as generally deferring to state law judgments about the appropriate lifespan of state law claims brought in state courts, the Court now reads the statute as generally displacing them in favor of a new federal rule.

The dissent would find that the statute is not clear—“toll” could mean (1) that the running of the limitations period is suspended or (2) that the effect of the limitations period is defeated. And it concluded that the second of these readings made the most sense in this kind of situation, as the purpose of the statute was to ensure that plaintiffs were not barred from litigating their claims in state court simply because the federal court decided not to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. And the dissent found that the majority was showing federalism too little respect.

No doubt, the Constitution affords Congress the authority to make laws that are “necessary and proper” to carry out its defined duties. But it is difficult to see how, on the Court’s interpretation, section 1367(d) might be said to survive that test—how it might be said to be necessary and proper to effectuate any recognized federal power or how it could be called anything other than an unconstitutional intrusion on the core state power to define the terms of state law claims litigated in state court proceedings.

Trying to imagine how the Court’s novel twist on section 1367(d) might serve a necessary and proper federal interest is a hard business. To discharge the federal interest in preventing state law claims from “becom[ing] time barred while pending in federal court” it may be necessary to impose a short grace period. But how is it necessary to do anything more than that, like consult the happenstance of how long the federal court took to dismiss the case and then tack an equivalent number of months or years onto state law limitations periods? What federal interest could that even plausibly serve? The Court does not and cannot attempt an answer because its proffered solution is simply orthogonal to any federal concern.

Lesson:

If a federal court exercises supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims, then the running of the statute of limitations on those state-law claims is suspended during the period of time that the federal court exercises jurisdiction (plus 30 days).