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Court Deadlines and Statutes of Limitations in the Time of Coronavirus

hourglassAs I write this, many state courts have announced that they are closed to the public due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and will continue to operate but only for designated “essential functions.” This could obviously affect deadlines in existing cases as well as statutes of limitations for filing new cases. States have already sought to address the problem. In Pennsylvania, for example, the highest court has closed all state court to the public except for “essential functions.” It has also ordered that “all calculations for purposes of time computation relevant to court cases or other judicial business, as well as time deadlines, are SUSPENDED through April 3, 2020.” In New York State, which similarly has postponed all non-essential judicial proceedings, Governor Cuomo has issued an order providing that “any specific time limit for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding, as prescribed by the procedural laws of the state, including but not limited to the criminal procedure law, the family court act, the civil practice law and rules, the court of claims act, the surrogate’s court procedure act, and the uniform court acts, or by any other statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule, or regulation, or part thereof, is hereby tolled from the date of this executive order until April 19, 2020.” 

Federal courts are different. Congress long ago decreed that “[a]ll courts of the United States shall be deemed always open for the purpose of filing proper papers, issuing and returning process, and making motions and orders.” 28 U.S.C. §452 (emphasis added). Hence, while many trials and public proceedings may be postponed due to the crisis, all ordinary deadlines in federal court will apply, unless courts by general orders applicable to classes of cases or in individual cases extend the deadlines. For example, the United States Supreme Court last week issued an order extending the time for petitions for review from 90 to 150 days after the lower-court ruling. Federal court clerks’ offices are expected to remain open, albeit with limited staff due to the need to limit personal interactions, with filings accepted in person or electronically throughout the crisis. 

So with federal courts open for business with limited staff available to the public and some state courts closed for all but non-essential business, what can you expect if you have deadlines in an existing case or a new case that needs to be filed before a statutory deadline? The first thing is for you or your lawyer to consult the orders and rules that apply to the court where your case is pending or where you intend to file the case. If the case is an existing one, the deadlines may be adjusted by general rule, as in Pennsylvania or New York. If the deadlines are not adjusted by general rule, prudent counsel will confer with opposing counsel and make best efforts to reach agreement and proceed by remote filing whenever possible. It is hard to believe that courts anywhere would look kindly on litigation opponents who are unwilling to cooperate with opposing counsel on reasonable requests for extending deadlines in this time of national crisis. Wherever possible, counsel and clients should work it out reasonably with their opponents and seek judicial approval of scheduling adjustments at the earliest opportunity.

The much harder case is what to do with statutes of limitations, which are generally regarded as absolute bars to recovery if the lawsuit is filed late. Will the closure of a law office due to the crisis extend the deadline for filing? What about if the court is closed and will not accept a new filing until after the statute of limitation has passed? What legal effect will orders like the ones issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or Governor Cuomo ostensibly extending all deadlines have on this issue? 

There are no current answers to any of these questions, and no lawyer or client wants to be the test case. As a result, prudent counsel will take whatever measures are necessary to file actions within the statutory time periods and without hoping that late filings of new matters will be excused. If the court is open and will accept the complaint for filing, either in person or electronically, the best course of action will be to file timely anyway. Even if the court closures prevent counsel from doing all the due diligence and preparing the complaint with the degree of rigor normally employed, because in-person meetings with clients or witnesses are not possible for example, counsel can still file a competent, bare bones complaint that satisfies professional obligations under the circumstances, and can later amend it if necessary. 

If the court is closed to the public and will not accept new filings, either in person or electronically, then counsel should make best efforts to file by mail on time. A credible argument can be made that, if the complaint was mailed with a postmark several days in advance of the deadline, the statute of limitations should be satisfied. Correspondence to the opponent in litigation advising that the complaint was mailed and providing a copy of the complaint prior to the deadline will help the argument.

In short, common sense must rule. Keep all deadlines if possible. Seek and agree to extensions wherever it would be reasonable to do so. If the court will not accept the filing of a complaint prior to the statutory deadline, do your utmost to document that you tried to file it on time and gave the opponent notice. If you follow this guidance, your cases may be delayed but will not be lost due to missing deadlines as a result of the current crisis.