WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court grappled Wednesday with how long a fired health inspector had to file suit in superior court after her federal case bottomed out.
Stephanie Artis waited just two months to file suit in U.S. District Court when the D.C. Department of Health fired her November 2010.
There were nearly two years remaining on the statute of limitations at the time, and Artis claimed that this window was tolled, meaning put on hold, for the duration of her federal case.
When a federal judge granted the department judgment on the pleadings with respect to Artis’ federal claim, she refiled her unresolved state claims 59 days later on Aug. 25, 2014.
Dealing Artis her latest defeat, however, Jude Herbert Dixon Jr. found Section 1367(d) of Title 28 did not suspend the state statue of limitations.
Determining that Artis had missed the 30-day window to file an action over which the U.S. District Court lacked jurisdiction, Dixon ruled against her and the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed last year.
At oral arguments Wednesday before the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Alito pressed Jenner Block attorney Adam Unikowsky to explain why he is arguing for a reversal.
"What is the necessity, in any sense of the word, for your approach," Alito asked.
Unikowsky said their challenge ensures that litigants are no worse off on the day a case is dismissed than on the day they filed it. A 30-day grace period is not sufficient, he argued, to allow litigants to refile their claims.
Unsatisfied, Alito asked why more time would be needed for a case that has already been filed once before.
"It's not as simple as just refiling a new complaint," Unikowsky responded, saying litigants shouldn't be forced to scramble within 30 days if they have to rewrite a complaint or find new attorneys.
"You should have the full benefit of all the time you have left," he said.
Pushing back on that assertion, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that tolling provisions are also meant to protect defendants from protracted litigation.
“I’m just not sure that that makes much sense,” he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy made a similar point, expressing concern that a reversal would leave states with “zero flexibility.”
“The respondent gives the states maximum flexibility; states can have it any way they want,” Kennedy said. “But you don’t give any protection to the states that don’t want to have long-delayed suits.”
D.C. Deputy Solicitor General Loren Alikhan meanwhile faced tough questions from the court’s Democratic appointees.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Alikhan for an example of a federal statute where tolled means that the clock keeps running.
Alikhan admitted that no statute works that way, but suggested that Artis likewise cannot point to one either.
Justice Elena Kagan said she thought initially that tolled meant suspend, and then later on something else would trigger the clock to start running again.
"I had to go to the dictionaries to look up what you say it meant," she said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, said he sent his law clerk to the library and tasked him with finding a definition of tolling that aligns with the one Alikhan offered.
His clerk returned, he said, with only a single example of a Virginia law where the clock keeps running during a tolling period.
"I can't say that yours is the ordinary meaning," Breyer said.
In a back and forth with Kagan, Alikhan said that when Congress intends to stop the clock, they explicitly say so.
“They use language like suspend,” she said.
“I don’t think that’s right because they say tolled all the time” Kagan replied. Kagan went on to say that Congress and states write grace-period laws frequently.
“Nobody writes a grace-period statue like this,” she said.
When posed with a hypothetical that tolling does in fact mean suspend, Alikhan urged the court to look at the rest of the law, which she called “an instruction manual” to state courts on what to do with claims when federal courts dismiss them.
“It’s well understood that a state has the sovereign choice of when to say when claims should not be litigated in their court,” Alikhan said. “And so, if we are going to intrude upon that historic power of the states, I think we have to read it consistent with the federal purpose.”’