Massachusetts Statutes of Limitations and the Current Pandemic

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A statute of limitations sets forth a firm deadline for a plaintiff to bring a lawsuit against a defendant for a given cause of action, subject to certain exceptions. Any lawsuit filed after the relevant statute of limitations has expired may be dismissed as "time-barred," reflecting a "compromise between a plaintiff's need to remediate wrongs and society's need for closure and forward movement." Doe v Harbor Schools, Inc. But how does a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic affect that compromise?

On March 17, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an Order "to protect the public health by reducing the risk of exposure to the [coronavirus] and slowing the spread of [COVID-19]" through measures designed to limit non-emergency appearances in any Massachusetts courthouse. These included a provision tolling all Massachusetts statutes of limitations through April 21, 2020. A subsequent Order, issued April 1 "to continue to reduce the number of people coming to Massachusetts State courthouses," further tolls all statutes of limitations through May 3, 2020. Pursuant to both Orders, the Superior Court has issued standing orders to comply with the SJC's directives, as have other departments of the Trial Court.

But shouldn't the current, dramatic, widespread societal disruption suffice to toll statutes of limitations on its own? Why do the courts need to act at all?

Statutes of limitations are duly-enacted laws that, like many other laws and regulations on the books, do not necessarily contemplate the occurrence of a pandemic or other major crisis, whether in general or as a specific exception. General Laws. c. 260, §32 - otherwise known as the "savings statute" - provides relief to a plaintiff who has actually filed a claim within the relevant limitations period but whose case was dismissed due to an unavoidable accident, neglect of the officer serving process, the death of a party, or for any "matter of form." Cannonball Fund, Ltd. v. Duchess Capital Management, LLC. In other words, a party who failed to file a complaint by the statutory deadline would not be covered.

Courts do have the inherent, equitable power to toll the statute of limitations in a given case, but "[e]quitable tolling is to be 'used sparingly,' and the circumstances where tolling is available are exceedingly limited." Halstrom v. Dube. According to the controlling case law, those circumstances likely do not include disruptions associated with an intervening public health crisis. Shafnacker v. Raymond James & Associates, Inc.

Universally tolling Massachusetts statutes of limitations thus required specific action from the courts, even in times like these. Chief Justice Gants has encouraged attorneys to regularly consult a website where the court system will post any further orders or guidance, which are likely to follow based on the fluid, evolving nature of the current public health crisis. Parties facing the expiration of a statute of limitations should use any tolling period conservatively due to the potential consequences of failure to file their complaint in time.

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