By Lisa Soronen
Artis is a simple case. But it took the U.S. Supreme Court almost 40 pages and more emotion than one might expect to complete its opinion.
The Supreme Court held 5-4 in Artis v. District of Columbia that “tolled” under 28 U.S.C 1367(d) means suspended or that 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 Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited to the SLLC brief once in her majority opinion. Justice Neal Gorsuch cited to it or discussed it four times in his dissenting opinion.
A year after the fact, Stephanie Artis sued the District of Columbia in federal district court, bringing a number of federal and state law claims related to her termination as a health inspector. 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.
The code section—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 the 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,” legislatures know how to write statutes adopting a grace-period, and 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 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 the following organizations joined: NCSL, the Council of State Governments, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.