SCOTUS Stops the Clock on State Claims in Federal Court

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On January 22, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 opinion in Artis v. District of Columbia, Case No. 16-460, clarifying the application of 28 U.S.C. section 1367(d).  That statute tolls state statutes of limitations during the pendency in federal court of state claims over which a federal court has exercised supplemental jurisdiction.  Thus, where a federal court first accepts, and then declines, to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims, plaintiffs have at least thirty days plus whatever time remained under the state limitations statute at the time of filing in federal court to file those claims in state court.

Artis originally filed a complaint alleging employment discrimination under both federal and D.C. law in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  Following dismissal of the plaintiff’s federal claims, the District Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her remaining D.C. law claims and dismissed the case.  Fifty-nine days later, the plaintiff filed her D.C. law claims in the D.C. Superior Court, which that court dismissed as untimely.  The D.C. Superior Court narrowly construed section 1367(d), which provides, in relevant part, that:

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

The court interpreted “tolled” to mean that the statute of limitations on the plaintiff’s D.C. law claims somehow continued to run during the pendency of her federal case.  Thus, even though the plaintiff’s federal complaint was filed with about two years left on the statute of limitations for her state law claims, because two and a half years passed before the federal court relinquished jurisdiction, the D.C. Superior Court held that the plaintiff only had 30 days to refile in state court, and her claims were time barred.  The D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed.

Finding that the lower courts’ interpretation of the statute “maps poorly onto the language of” section 1367(d) and that those courts had failed to identify “any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning has been ascribed to the word ‘tolled’ or any word similarly rooted,” the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court held that section 1367(d)’s “instruction to ‘toll’ a state limitations period means to hold it in abeyance, i.e., to stop the clock.”  Accordingly, because the running of the statute of limitations on the plaintiff’s D.C. law claims was stopped during the two and a half year pendency of her claims in federal court, and resumed running when the federal court declined to hear the state law claims, the Supreme Court held that she had timely refiled her claims in the D.C. Superior Court.

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