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Maryland Court of Appeals Confirms Chief Judge Acted Within Authority to Toll Statute of Limitations During COVID-19 Pandemic

May 20, 2022 By Rebecca K. Schisler-Adams

On April 24, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued an administrative order that temporarily tolled statutes of limitations in civil cases. The United States District Court for the District Maryland certified a question to the Maryland Court of Appeals to determine whether the then-Chief Judge acted within her authority do enact such an administrative order.

The Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision authored by Judge McDonald, found that the then-Chief Judge did indeed have authority to toll the statute of limitations. The Court’s decision in Jesse J. Murphy, et al. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. explains the basis for which the administrative order stands. The Court specifically found that the then-Chief Judge did not “unduly take upon herself—or, in the language of the case law concerning separation of powers, ‘usurp’—core functions belonging to either the Executive or the Legislative branches of State government.”

In the Court’s Opinion, Judge McDonald details other legal measures that were taken to combat the pandemic, including Governor Hogan’s issuance of a State of Emergency declaration. From March to April 2020, the then-Chief Judge issued a number of other administrative orders affecting judiciary operations.

On April 24, 2020, the tolling order was issued, stating that comprehensive measures required by the COVID-19 emergency including “the stay-at-home orders issued by the Governor and restricted operations of the courts and judicial facilities,” were “causing delays in the processing of routine matters” which was having a detrimental impact on the administration of justice. The order commenced the tolling period on March 16, 2020, and instructed it to run for “the number of days that the courts are closed to the public due to the COVID-19 emergency.”

On May 22, 2020, the then-Chief Judge issued an order that superseded the tolling order, and explained that for purposes of the statute of limitations, the 126 days that the clerks’ offices were closed “do not count against the time remaining for the initiation of the matter.” That order further extended the filing deadlines for the initiation of matters by another 15 days past the date the clerks’ office reopened. The tolling order was amended eleven more times, with a final order issued on March 28 2022.

The suit giving rise to the question certified to the Court was between Liberty Mutual and Murphy Enterprises, and filed on July 2, 2020 in federal court. The defendant, Murphy Enterprises, moved for dismissal, in part, on the grounds that the claims relating to the payments owed accrued outside the relevant period of limitations under Maryland law. If true, the plaintiffs could not meet the $75,000 jurisdictional threshold for federal court. Murphy Enterprises argued that the tolling order exceeded the Court’s authority under the Maryland Constitution to “adopt rules and regulations concerning the practice and procedure in and the administration of the appellate courts and in other courts of the State” and “constituted an unlawful assumption of legislative power.”

The Court of Appeals found “ample and explicit” authority under Article IV of the Maryland Constitution and the Maryland Rules for the Chief Judge to issue the administrative tolling order. The Court further wrestled with whether the order overreached the authority of the Judiciary by offending other provisions of the Maryland Constitution, such as Articles 8 and 9 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

Article 8 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights discusses separation of powers and shared authority by the branches of government. The central question was whether the then-Chief Judge’s order “usurped” another branch. Simply put, the Court found that authority for the order came from the court’s authority to make rules of practice and procedure grounded in the Constitution.

Article 9 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights provides “[t]hat no power of suspending Laws or the execution of Laws, unless by, or derived from the Legislature, ought to be exercised, or allowed.” Murphy Enterprises did not articulate why it believed the Court to be in violation of this provision. The Court of Appeals determined that the issuance of the administrative order did not appear to fit the description of a “suspension” of the laws as intended by the provision.

The Court ended its opinion by noting the novel nature of the question before it. It further explained that a “strict application of the usual tolling rules in the various statutes of limitations would in many cases have resulted in the filing of a premature complaint, not founded on sufficiently-confirmed facts, or in an untimely filing, or in an abandoned cause of action, or in more interactions among people at risk to the public health.” As such, none of those results would have serviced justice or promoted judicial efficiency.

Read the full Opinion by the Court of Appeals here.