U.S. Supreme Court Decides Tolling Provision Stops the Clock

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The U.S. Supreme Court recently held, in a 5-4 decision, that the federal supplemental jurisdiction statute’s tolling provision stops the clock on the statute of limitations for state claims joined with a federal claim during the federal suit’s pendency.

The case involved the statute’s provision providing that the limitations period for refiling claims in state court is tolled while the claims are pending in federal court and for a period of 30 days after dismissal unless state law provides for a longer tolling period. The opinion addressed whether the word “tolled,” as used in the statute, means that the state limitations period is suspended during the federal suit’s pendency, or continues to run but provides plaintiff with a 30-day grace period to refile the claims in state court.

The facts were straightforward. Petitioner sued respondent in federal district court, after losing her job as a city health inspector, asserting a federal discrimination claim and three related state-law claims. The district court dismissed the federal claim and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claims. Petitioner refiled the state-law claims in state court 59 days later. The state court dismissed the claims as time-barred, and the state appellate court affirmed.

Certiorari was granted to resolve two competing interpretations of the statute among state supreme courts: (i) the stop-the-clock reading (where the limitations period is suspended during the federal suit’s pendency); and (ii) the grace-period reading (where the limitations period continues to run but plaintiff is allowed a fixed period following dismissal in which to refile).

The Court endorsed the stop-the-clock reading, concluding that the ordinary meaning of the word “toll,” when referring to a timing rule, means to “hold it in abeyance.” The Court also found that respondent failed to identify any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning was ascribed to the word “tolled,” and described the one case in which it had used tolling language to describe a grace period as “but a feather on the scale against the weight of decisions in which ‘tolling’ a statute of limitations signals stopping the clock.” The Court additionally found that it had previously resolved the issue of the statute’s constitutionality in a unanimous decision holding that the statute did not exceed Congress’ powers. Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded.

The dissent contended that the majority erroneously limited the meaning of the word “toll,” and that it can mean, based on its dictionary definition, either that the limitations period is suspended or that the limitations period’s effect is defeated. The dissent also opined that elimination of the grace-period reading displaces state law judgments about the appropriate lifespan of state law claims, and “clears away a fence that once marked a basic boundary between federal and state powers.”

The opinion is available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-460_bqm2.pdf.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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