By Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center, Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court held 5-4 in the Artis v. District of Columbia case that the definition of the term “tolled” under statute 28 U.S.C 1367(d) means suspended and the clock is stopped. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing in favor of a different definition of “tolled.” Justice Ginsburg cited the SLLC brief once in her majority opinion. Justice Gorsuch cited it or discussed it four times in his dissenting opinion.
A year after Stephanie Artis was terminated as a health inspector for the District of Columbia (D.C), she sued D.C. in federal district court, bringing with the case a number of federal and state law claims related to her termination. It took the federal court more than two and a half years to rule on her claims. It dismissed her sole federal claim and declined to exercise jurisdiction over her remaining state law claims.
28 U.S.C 1367(d) states that statutes of limitations for state law claims pending in federal court shall be tolled for a period of 30 days after they are dismissed unless state law provides a longer tolling period.
While Artis was waiting for the federal court to rule, the three-year statutes of limitations on all her state law claims passed. She waited 59 days to refile her claims in state court after the federal court dismissed her case.
The question, in this case, was whether Artis’s lawsuit in state court was timely. The answer depends on how tolled is defined.
Under the stop-the-clock approach, the state statutes of limitations freeze on the day the federal suit is filed and unfreeze with the addition of 30 days when the federal lawsuit is dismissed. Under this theory, Artis would have about two years to refile her lawsuit in state court.
Under the grace-period theory, if the state statutes of limitations would have expired while the federal case was pending, a litigant has 30 days from federal court dismissal to refile in state court. Under this theory, Artis’s lawsuit in state court was time-barred because she waited longer than 30 days to refile.
The Supreme Court adopted the stop-the-clock reading. Among other reasons, it noted that Black’s Law Dictionary defines toll as “to suspend or stop temporarily;” that legislatures know how to write statutes adopting a grace-period; and that D.C. “has not identified any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning has been ascribed to the word ‘tolled’ or any word similarly rooted.”
Two of Justice Gorsuch’s four citations to the SLLC amicus brief highlight its argument that the Court’s approach “will require state courts to entertain state-law claims that state law deems untimely not only by weeks or months but by many years, as 24 States, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Council of State Governments warn us.”
Katharine Mapes, William Huang, and Jeffrey Bayne, Spiegel & McDiarmid, wrote the SLLC’s brief, which these organizations joined: National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Governments, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, United States Conference of Mayors, International City/County Management Association, and International Municipal Lawyers Association.