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Challenges to Maryland’s Former Chief Justice’s Order Suspending the Statute of Limitations During the 2020 COVID-19 Crisis

December 17, 2021 By Lauren N. Rutkowski

In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Maryland courts are now reviewing the implications of former Chief Judge Barbera’s Order tolling the Statute of Limitations while Maryland courts were closed during 2020. The Order tolling the Statute of Limitations has already received a number of challenges based on some of the terms and language used in the Order as well as the authority of the Former Chief Judge to issue the Order.

The Court of Appeals recently heard arguments on one of the challenges to Judge Barbera’s Order which specifically questions the Former Chief Judge’s authority to issue an order tolling the statute of limitations. See Jesse J. Murphy et al. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Misc. No. 5, September Term 2021. The party opposing the tolling of the Statute of Limitations argued that the Chief Judge’s authority is limited to procedural matters and not substantive issues of law, such as suspension of the Statute of Limitations. Counsel opposing the Order claimed Judge Barbera’s only constitutional recourse was to go to the Maryland General Assembly and request the General Assembly issue the statutory suspension.

The Court of Appeals appeared generally unreceptive to the arguments opposing Judge Barbera’s Order noting that striking down Judge Barbera’s Order would wreak havoc on an “untold” number of cases which were filed in reliance on the Order. The Court also looked to the Order from Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, that the State Heads were to suspend expiration dates due to governmental closures during the pandemic. Governor Hogan’s Order was ambiguous in its definition of “State Heads” and it is presently unclear if his Order would include the Maryland Judiciary.

The general feeling after oral arguments were completed is that the Court of Appeals is highly reluctant to strike Judge Barbera’s Order tolling the Statute of Limitations on constitutional grounds. The Court is expected to issue its decision on this matter before August 31, 2022. There are a number of other challenges to cases impacted by the tolled Statute of Limitations which have not yet been resolved. It is likely these challenges will be clarified by the ruling in Murphy v. Liberty Mutual. However, a ruling in Murphy will not resolve the many other outstanding questions raised based on the tolled statute of limitations. It is likely that the Court of Appeals will receive additional questions on the implications of the tolled Statute of Limitations over the next year or more.