The Volokh Conspiracy
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A Statute of Limitations Cautionary Tale, Here with Regard to Changing COVID-Related Tolling Rules
Take the No-Procrastination Pledge.
From today's opinion by Chief Judge Patrick Schiltz (D. Minn.) in Clobes v. NBCUniversal Media, LLC:
Clobes alleges that she was injured by a defamatory article published by NBC on September 24, 2019. Exactly two years after publication of the article—that is, on September 24, 2021—Clobes filed this lawsuit, but she did not serve the summons and complaint on NBC until December 23, 2021….
In this diversity action, "Minnesota's substantive law, including its statute of limitations, applies." Minnesota's substantive law includes Minnesota's rules about when a claim accrues and when a lawsuit is commenced, because those rules "are 'part and parcel of the statute of limitations.'" Under Minnesota law[,] … defamation claims (and claims, such as Clobes's, that arise from defamation) are subject to a two‐year statute of limitations …. [U]nder these rules it is clear that Clobes's lawsuit is barred. Clobes's cause of action accrued on September 24, 2019 (when NBC published the allegedly defamatory article), and she did not commence her lawsuit for purposes of Minnesota law until December 23, 2021 (when she served her summons and complaint), which was more than two years later.
Clobes argues, however, that her lawsuit is not barred because the two‐year limitations period was tolled by a session law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in response to the COVID‐19 pandemic. In April 2020, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a session law [Section 16] containing a series of COVID‐19 measures, including a provision affecting the running of statutes of limitations. Specifically, Section 16 provided:
The running of deadlines imposed by statutes governing proceedings in the district and appellate courts, including any statutes of limitations or other time periods prescribed by statute, is suspended during the peacetime emergency declared on March 13, 2020 … and for 60 days after the end of the peacetime emergency declaration….
[A]ccording to Clobes, she had as much time left to commence her lawsuit on the 60th day following the end of the peacetime emergency as she did on March 13, 2020. Clobes's reading of Section 16 is certainly reasonable. Although Section 16 did not use the term "toll," its use of the phrase "[t]he running of deadlines … is suspended" seemed to toll the running of all statutes of limitations until the 60th day following the end of the peacetime emergency.
The problem for Clobes, though, is that her argument depends on the original version of Section 16. Unfortunately for Clobes, the original version of Section 16 was abrogated long before she commenced her lawsuit. Specifically, on February 12, 2021, the Legislature replaced the original version of Section 16 with the following:
Deadlines imposed by statutes governing proceedings in the district and appellate courts, including any statutes of limitations or other time periods prescribed by statute, shall not expire from the beginning of the peacetime emergency declared on March 13, 2020 … through April 15, 2021….
This section … applies to all deadlines that had not expired as of March 13, 2020, and that would have expired during the period starting March 13, 2020, and ending April 15, 2021.
In short, the new Section 16 affects only limitations periods that were set to expire between March 13, 2020 and April 15, 2021 and provides simply that those limitations periods are extended to April 15, 2021. But Clobes's limitations period was not set to expire between March 13, 2020 and April 15, 2021, and thus the new Section 16 has nothing to do with her lawsuit.
It appears that in February 2021, after a vaccine for COVID‐19 became available and courts began to return to normal operations, the Legislature changed its mind about how statutes of limitations should be treated in light of the pandemic. The Legislature's change of mind did not, however, deprive any prospective litigant of her ability to commence a lawsuit. Even if a litigant had not commenced her lawsuit before the original limitations period expired in reliance on the original Section 16, the new Section 16 (enacted on February 12, 2021) gave her more than 60 days to commence her lawsuit before the April 15, 2021 deadline.
Clobes's situation was even more favorable. On February 12, 2021, Clobes still had more than seven months to commence her lawsuit against NBC before her limitations period expired on September 24, 2021. In other words, after the Minnesota Legislature amended Section 16 on February 12, 2021, Clobes was in exactly the same position as she was in when she was allegedly defamed on September 24, 2019: She had until September 24, 2021 to commence her lawsuit. For reasons known only to Clobes and her attorneys, she failed to do so, and thus her lawsuit must be dismissed….
Congratulations to Leslie Minora & Leita Walker (Ballard Spahr LLP), who represent defendant. If you're interested in the substantive claims in the case, see the Complaint and the defendants' motion to dismiss.