Pandemic May Give Everyone More Time to File Lawsuits

In a key test case, Massachusetts’s top court suggests that deadlines could be extended many years into the future.

An expanded jury box with spread-out seating and individual screens for each juror are seen at the Manhattan federal courthouse last month. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

BOSTON (CN) — In a case that could have national implications, the Massachusetts high court appeared likely Monday to decide that the pandemic will give everyone additional time to file lawsuits for years to come.

Along with 25 other states, Massachusetts “tolled” its statutes of limitations at the beginning of the Covid crisis, essentially stopping the clock. The Massachusetts high court ordered that tolling would occur from March 17 to June 30, 2020.

But it wasn’t clear whether the court’s order applied only to cases where the time would otherwise have run out between those dates, or whether every single potential lawsuit in the state that arose before March 17 would get an extra 106 days tacked onto the filing period.

The court seemed to suggest at oral argument that every case in the state would get an extra 106 days.

The defense lawyer, Kristyn Kaupas of Kiernan Trebach in Boston, complained that that would mean that some cases would get an extended filing deadline even if the original deadline wouldn’t expire until 2026.

But that’s “exactly what the plain meaning of the order seems to suggest,” said Justice Dalila Wendlandt.

“When our order came out,” Justice Elspeth Cypher asked Kaupas, “what do you think our intent was; what were we trying to achieve?”

Kaupas said the court was simply trying to pause cases during a brief period when the judicial system wasn’t able to handle them. But Cypher disagreed.

“Your point is that our order was about whether we were functional, not whether society was functional,” she said. “But couldn’t we also have considered how the pandemic affected people in their lives and their ability to litigate?”

The case was brought by Margarita Melendez, who claims she suffered a concussion and back injuries when a careless supermarket clerk in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, wheeled a cart out of a storeroom and knocked her to the floor. The incident happened on September 3, 2017, so the three-year statute of limitations would ordinarily have expired on September 3, 2020.

Melendez filed her lawsuit on September 24, 2020, some 21 days late. But her lawyer, Michael Caplette, argued that she was on time because the filing period had an extra 106 days added to it.

It’s not clear why it took Melendez so long to file her suit, and there was no suggestion that she was affected by the virus or that the pandemic was responsible for the delay.

This is apparently the first case in the country to consider this issue, and it’s significant because statutes of limitations were also tolled in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. In addition, Illinois tolled its statutes for suits against the state, and Washington tolled them in criminal cases.

A federal court in Colorado recently refused to extend a limitations period on “equitable” grounds where there was no court order or statute pausing it.

A peculiarity of the case was that the judges themselves wrote the tolling order. So while it’s common in oral arguments for the lawyers try to persuade the judges as to how to interpret a law that was written by the legislature, in this case the lawyers were arguing to the judges about what the judges themselves meant.

All seven of the court’s judges were appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican elected in 2015.

Justice David Lowy noted that the order addressed statutes of limitations in a different section from other deadlines that were paused only during the 106-day period. “Isn’t that a real problem?” he asked Kaupas.

Kaupas said that a statute of limitations is itself a deadline. But “we can’t just assume that we decided to write it in different sections” without a good reason, Lowy replied.

“We carved out statutes of limitations,” added Justice Scott Kafker. “I still don’t understand your response as to why this is in a different section. What’s the answer?”

Wendlandt then asked Kaupas, “Do you have any case law that says ‘tolled’ means tolled only for cases that are about to expire?” Kaupas couldn’t point to any.

Caplette emphasized that the order referred to “all” cases.

“All means all,” he said. “The defendants say that all means a few. But the public has a right to believe that all means all.”

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