Why it matters

Weighing in on the definition of “tolled,” the Supreme Court declared the time limit on state claims stops while federal claims are pending. Stephanie Artis filed a Title VII employment discrimination lawsuit in D.C. federal court, adding D.C. state law claims as well. After the statute of limitations for the state law claims had expired, the federal court judge dismissed Artis’ suit. When she attempted to refile her state law claims after the 30-day period delineated by the federal supplemental jurisdiction statute, the court tossed them as time barred. The U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit affirmed, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the state law limitations period was paused only during the pendency of the federal action. A 5-4 Supreme Court reversed, holding that 28 U.S.C. Section 1367(d) stops the clock when a state claim is in federal court and starts running it again when the tolling period ends. Therefore, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, Artis timely refiled her state law claims because the state statute of limitations was suspended while her federal claims were pending. Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the dissent, characterizing the majority opinion as “no small intrusion on traditional state functions and no small departure from our foundational principles of federalism.”

Detailed discussion

A health inspector for the District of Columbia, Stephanie Artis filed suit against her former employer in D.C. federal court in December 2011, alleging that she suffered employment discrimination in violation of Title VII. She also asserted three related claims under D.C. state law for retaliation and wrongful termination.

On June 27, 2014, the D.C. federal court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the Title VII claim and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Artis’ remaining state law claims. “Artis will not be prejudiced because 28 U.S.C. Section 1367(d) provides for a tolling of the statute of limitations during the period the case was here and for at least 30 days thereafter,” the court wrote.

Fifty-nine days after the dismissal of her federal action, Artis refiled her state law claims in the D.C. Superior Court, which granted the District’s motion to dismiss, holding that Artis’ claims were time barred because she filed 29 days too late. The U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit affirmed.

Artis filed a writ of certiorari, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the two competing approaches to interpreting Section 1367(d): a “stop the clock” reading (advocated by Artis) and the grace period reading sought by the employer.

Section 1367 permits federal courts to entertain claims not otherwise within their adjudicatory authority when the claims “form part of the same case or controversy,” including state claims brought along with federal claims arising from the same episode. Section 1367(d) provides: “The period of limitations for any [state] claim [joined with a claim within federal-court competence] 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 question for the justices: “Does the word ‘tolled,’ as used in Section 1367(d), mean the state limitations period is suspended during the pendency of the federal suit; or does ‘tolled’ mean that, although the state limitations period continues to run, a plaintiff is accorded a grace period of 30 days to refile in state court following dismissal of the federal case?”

In an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the majority sided with Artis to interpret Section 1367(d) as a “stop the clock” provision.

“We hold that Section 1367(d)’s instruction to ‘toll’ a state limitations period means to hold it in abeyance, i.e., to stop the clock,” the Court said. “Because the D.C. Court of Appeals held that Section 1367(d) did not stop the D.C. Code’s limitations clock, but merely provided a 30-day grace period for refiling in D.C. Superior Court, we reverse the D.C. Court of Appeals’ judgment.”

In the context of a time prescription like that found in the statute, the ordinary meaning of the term “tolled” means the limitations period is suspended while the claim is pending elsewhere, Justice Ginsburg wrote, and then starts running again when the tolling period ends, picking up where it left off.

Supreme Court decisions use the words “toll” and “suspend” interchangeably, she noted. Alternatively, the District was unable to point to any federal statute in which a grace period meaning has been ascribed to the word “tolled” or any word similarly rooted, leaving the employer without a statutory text on which to base its interpretation.

This reading was further supported by judicial decisions, with only one Supreme Court decision employing tolling language to describe a grace period, a “feather on the scale against the weight of decisions in which ‘tolling’ a statute of limitations signals stopping the clock,” the Court said.

The majority was not persuaded by the District’s attempt to argue that Artis’ reading would render the 30-day period in Section 1367(d) essentially superfluous. “Including the 30 days within Section 1367(d)’s tolling period accounts for cases in which a federal action is commenced close to the expiration date of the relevant state statute of limitations,” the Court said. “In such a case, the added days give the plaintiff breathing space to refile in state court.”

Adding a “brief span” of days to the tolling period is not unusual in stop-the-clock statutes, the Court added, finding that 30 days “casts no large shadow on Artis’ interpretation.”

Finally, the justices rejected the District’s constitutional concern that Artis’ interpretation exceeded Congress’ authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause because it overstepped states’ rights. Section 1367(d) provides federal court judges an alternative to the option of dismissing all ancillary state law claims that might be time barred in state court and eliminates an impediment to federal court access for plaintiffs pursuing both federal and state law claims arising from the same episode, the majority said.

“With tolling available, a plaintiff disinclined to litigate simultaneously in two forums is no longer impelled to choose between forgoing either her federal claims or her state claims,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. The alternative would require plaintiffs to file two actions and then ask the state court to hold the suit filed there in abeyance pending disposition of the federal suit.

“How it genuinely advances federalism concerns to drive plaintiffs to resort to wasteful, inefficient duplication to preserve their state law claims is far from apparent,” the Court said. “Whenever Section 1367(d) applies, the defendant will have notice of the plaintiff’s claims within the state-prescribed limitations period. Likewise, the plaintiff will not have slept on her rights. She will have timely asserted those rights, endeavoring to pursue them in one litigation.”

The dissent, led by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, bemoaned the majority’s imposition on states’ rights. “The Court’s approach will require state courts to entertain state law claims that state law deems untimely not only by weeks or months but by many years,” according to the dissent. “It may only be a small statute we are interpreting, but the result the Court reaches today represents no small intrusion on traditional state functions and no small departure from our foundational principles of federalism.”

To read the opinion in Artis v. District of Columbia, click here.