Artis v. D.C.: A Small Case That Vastly Expands Federal Power

The Supplemental Jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1367, enacted in 1990, permits federal district courts to hear state-law claims not ordinarily within federal jurisdiction if those claims are part of the same case or controversy as a claim within the federal court’s jurisdiction. In the event the federal court declines jurisdiction of the state-law claims, subsection (d) of § 1367 tolls the state-law statutes of limitations while the case is pending in federal court and for 30 days thereafter, permitting litigants to refile the dismissed claims in state court. The question in Artis v. District of Columbia (United States Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2018) was the meaning of the word “tolled” in § 1367(d).

By Catherine Park

In other words, does § 1367(d) "stop the clock" on the state-law statutes of limitations while the state-law claims are pending in the federal forum, or does § 1367(d) provide a 30-day grace period after dismissal from the federal forum to permit the litigant to refile in state court, in the event the state-law statutes of limitations have expired while the case was pending in the federal forum?

The Supreme Court's 5-4 majority found for the Petitioner, Stephanie Artis, who sued the District of Columbia for employment discrimination under a federal civil rights statute and related D.C. claims. While the Petitioner had nearly two years remaining on the D.C. statutes of limitations when she filed her case in federal court, for some reason her federal case was pending for two-and-a-half years until terminated by judgment on the pleadings, with no decision on federal jurisdiction over the D.C. claims in the interim. The Petitioner refiled the dismissed claims in D.C.'s trial court (D.C. Superior Court), but more than 30 days had elapsed after dismissal from the federal forum.

Cognizant that the "stop the clock" interpretation invades D.C. law by extending D.C. statutes of limitation by months or, in the instant case, by two and a half years, the D.C. Court of Appeals, from which Petitioner sought certiorari, emphasized federalism concerns in ruling against the Petitioner's interpretation of "tolling" under § 1367(d):

We have previously held that "[i]f Congress intends to alter the usual constitutional balance between the States and the Federal Government, it must make its intention to do so unmistakably clear in the language of the statute." Artis v. District of Columbia, 135 A.3d 334, 228 (2016) (rev'd by Artis v. District of Columbia, U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2018).

Before reversal, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' interpretation of § 1367(d) was also followed by the highest courts of California and the Northern Mariana Islands (but not the highest courts of Maryland and Minnesota, or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit). See Artis v. District of Columbia, U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 22, 2018, at n.3.

1367(d) in relevant part provides:

The period of limitations for [any state-law claim] shall be tolled while the claim is pending [in federal court] and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provides for a longer tolling period.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals found the statutory language to be ambiguous and determined that "tolled" means to "remove or take away an effect," while the Supreme Court found that the ordinary meaning of "tolled" supported the Petitioner's interpretation ("stop the clock"). The District of Columbia Court of Appeals interpreted "period of limitations" not as the duration of the statute of limitations but as "the effect of the period of limitations as a time bar." Finally, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals relied upon the American Law Institute's (ALI's) recommendation from a 1969 study, which recommended the grace-period approach. The Supreme Court, however, found no legislative history suggesting Congress adopted the ALI's recommendation for § 1367(d), since the legislative history cited the ALI study but in reference to a different provision governing federal courts, 28 U.S.C. § 1391 (the general venue statute). Although venue (the place where a case is filed) must be relevant to the analysis, the Supreme Court's 5-4 majority wasn’t convinced.

There can be no doubt that § 1367(d)—by extending statutes of limitations for state-law claims for months or even years—expands federal power and places an administrative burden on the states. 24 states filed an amicus brief supporting the District of Columbia in the Artis case, imploring the Supreme Court to use restraint. The 24 states also requested to participate in oral argument and requested divided argument, but the requests were denied. Further, a consortium of state and local governments filed an amicus brief complaining that Petitioner's "stop the clock" interpretation of § 1367(d) "burdens already overstretched public entities" and "resource constrained local governments."

Needless to say, no state or local government filed an amicus brief supporting the Petitioner’s legal position, since § 1367(d) benefits litigants at their expense.

From the brief of the consortium of state and local governments:

[O]lder cases are disproportionately expensive to litigate [because evidence disappears over time, giving rise to difficulties of proof] and impose steep opportunity costs on local governments that, as a result, cannot therefore devote their time to newer, less-stale cases…. As this Court has recognized, state statutes of limitations schemes reflect careful balancing of competing policy concerns that are the province of state legislatures. But Petitioner's interpretation would extend those periods, potentially for years, distorting local preferences, values, and compromises.

If it could be demonstrated that expanding the federal power through § 1367(d) increases the states' prosperity, or nationwide prosperity, or effectuates rights of conscience that might be trampled by the states, the statute would be justified under any number of constitutional provisions. Here the constitutional provision relied upon is the "Necessary and Proper Clause," under which the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the constitutionality of § 1367(d) "to establish the lower federal courts and provide for the fair and efficient exercise of their Article III powers." See Jinks v. Richland County, 538 U.S. 456 (2003).

In Jinks, a unanimous Supreme Court admitted that no calls to conscience were involved in Congress' enactment of § 1367(d), although an analogy had been offered to a Civil War-era statute that tolled statutes of limitations:

We reasoned that this [Civil War-era] law was both necessary and proper to carrying into effect the Federal Government's war powers, because it "remed[ied] the evils" that had arisen from the war. "It would be a strange result if those in rebellion, by protracting the conflict, could thus rid themselves of their debts, and Congress, which had the power to wage war and suppress the insurrection, had no power to remedy such an evil, which is one of its consequences." Stewart v. Kahn, 11 Wall. 493, 20 L.Ed. 176 (1871).

Of course § 1367(d) has nothing to do with the war power. We agree … that § 1367(d) is necessary and proper for carrying into execution Congress's power "[t]o constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court," U.S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 9, and to assure that those tribunals may fairly and efficiently exercise "[t]he judicial Power of the United States," Art. III, § 1. As to "necessity": The federal courts can assuredly exist and function in the absence of § 1367(d), but we long ago rejected the view that the Necessary and Proper Clause demands that an Act of Congress be "'absolutely necessary'" to the exercise of an enumerated power. See McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 L.Ed. 579 (1819). Rather, it suffices that § 1367(d) is "conducive to the due administration of justice in federal court, and is plainly adapted to that end."  See McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421, 4 L.Ed. 579.

Jinks, supra, at 462-63.

The debate regarding legalized marijuana is useful to discuss here. State-by-state decisionmaking on the permissible scope of marijuana is appropriate within the borders of each state. Local considerations must prevail, to avoid foisting costly administrative burdens on state and local governments, which, under a federal-mandate scenario, might be forced to guarantee a dubious "right" to smoke marijuana. Although the proliferation of secondhand smoke probably would quash the issue in real life, on the other hand it could just depend on who's making the decisions. Some people see no harm in smoking marijuana and would advocate for a federal constitutional right to do so anytime, anywhere. They don't know what they're doing, so how could they want anyone else to know either. As Jesus said, "If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39.

The dissent in the Supreme Court case emphasized:

[T]he stop clock approach was often used at common law to suspend a plaintiff's duty to bring a timely lawsuit if … the plaintiff was prevented from coming to court due to some disability…. After all, if (say) a defendant's fraud prevented the plaintiff from discovering his injury, it's easy enough to see why the limitations clock should stop running until the fraud is revealed and the disability thus dissipated. (footnote omitted) By contrast, the grace period approach was commonly used in cases where, as here, the plaintiff made it to court in time but arrived in the wrong court and had to refile in the right one…. It's not as if the defendant or uncontrollable circumstances had conspired to prevent the plaintiff from proceeding during that period. Instead, the law commonsensically held that in these circumstances a grace period would suffice to allow the plaintiff a brief time to find his way to and refile in the correct court. (footnote omitted)

Furthermore, from the dissent:

Section 1367(d) says that "the period of limitations … shall be tolled while the claim is pending and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provides for a longer tolling period" …. The alternative reading endorsed by the Court today extends too little respect to Congress's competency as drafter. It asks us to assume the legislature was so garbled in its expression that it switched the meaning of the term "toll" halfway through a single sentence without telling anyone. It asks us to conclude that when Congress spoke of the period "tolled" in the first part of the sentence it meant to refer (unambiguously, no less) to a stop clock approach even though it used the term "tolling period" to refer to existing state law grace periods in the second part of the sentence.

Also from the dissent:

To be sure, the Court suggests that its approach will help the States. (citation omitted) But a great many States have suggested the opposite ….

The stop clock approach, then, ensures that traditional state law judgments about the appropriate lifespan of state law claims will be routinely displaced—and displaced in favor of nothing more than a fortuity (the time a claim sits in federal court) that bears no rational relationship to any federal interest. The Court's approach forces state courts to entertain routinely state law claims that the state legislatures treat as no claims at all…. So, for example, take a plaintiff who files suit in federal court shortly after a six year state law limitations period begins running and the litigation lasts six years before it's finally dismissed. Under the Court’s approach, federal law will now promise the plaintiff nearly six years more (plus those stray 30 days again). Neither is this illustration fiction; it is drawn from the facts of Berke v. Buckley Broadcasting Corp., 359 N.J.Super. 587, 821 A.2d 118, 121 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 2003). See also Krause v. Textron Fin. Corp., 2007 WL 8054628, *1-2 (Fla.Cir.Ct. 2007); Brief for State of Wisconsin et al. as Amici Curiae 20-21 (offering many more examples).