Monday, July 14, 2014

Supreme Court Aggressively Asserts Ambiguity in Pursuit of Proper Policy

City of L.A. v. County of Kern, No. S210150 (Cal. July 7, 2014)

Apropos of the recent hubbub in LA over what is and isnt a federal question, the California Supreme Court deals with a federal law issue that, practically speaking, only comes up in state court: How long does a plaintiff have to re-file its claims in state court when a federal court declines supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)? Noting a “deep and long-standing national divide” on the issue, the courtcontinuing its streak of short opinions by Justice Werdegarunanimously holds that 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d) does mean when it seems to say.

On the third day of civ pro, law students learn that 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) provides federal courts with “supplemental jurisdiction,” i.e., subject matter jurisdiction over state law claims when they are brought in the same lawsuit as a cause of action giving rise to a federal question. But § 1367(c)(3) gives the federal court the option to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction if and when the all federal question claim are been dismissed. Given that federal district judges have better things to do with their time than try state law cases where diversity of citizenship is lacking, this discretion is frequently exercised. When it is, the case is dismissed without prejudice and the plaintiff instructed to go bring refile in state court.

Thats where § 1367(d) comes in. It says “[t]he period of limitations for any claim [dismissed under § 1367(c)] 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.”  As the court here recognizes, the most ordinary way to understand that language is that for dismissed claims, the statute of limitations stops running when they were filed, and does not resume until thirty days after they are dismissed.

But that reading can lead to some wacky results.  Say, for instance, a citizen gets beat up by a cop. Citizen is pretty miffed about the beating, so the next day, he sues cop in federal court. He alleges federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims for battery. Citizen and cop are both from California so there’s no diversity. But there’s federal question jurisdiction for the § 1983 and supplemental jurisdiction for the battery. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1367(a). The cop moves to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) on qualified immunity grounds, but the district court denies. Cop takes an interlocutory appeal under Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985), but the circuit court affirms the denial. On remand, full blown merits discovery ensues. At this point (likely two or three years into the case) defendant wins summary judgment on the § 1983 but not the battery. The district court then dismisses the battery under § 1367(c).

Were we to take § 1367 at its apparent word, the two-year statute for citizen’s battery claim would have been tolled throughout the federal case and for thirty more days after dismissal. Since citizen had a year and 364 days left when he filed his federal case, Citizen would still have two years and twenty-nine days to refile his claim in state court. Thus, by virtue of its lengthy but ultimately temporary time in federal court, the state battery case could be brought years after the statute would have otherwise run.

The court, like many before it, doesn’t like this result. So—relying in part on the split of authority—it finds § 1367(d) to be ambiguous.  According to the court, because of the indeterminacy of the word “tolled,” the “limitations” being tolled could be the expiry of the statute of limitations, as opposed to its running. Under this “grace period approach,” § 1367(d) creates a thirty-day window for plaintiff to refile in state court if the statute ran while is federal case was pending. 

The court then looks to: (1) the legislative history of the 1990 enactment (§ 1367 was passed in 1990 to codify the common-law doctrines of pendant and ancillary jurisdiction); (2) federalism concerns in effectively preempting a state court limitations period; and (3) the problems § 1367 was meant to solve. Taking these into account, it adopts the grace period approach.  As the court’s penultimate paragraph explains, § “1367(d) is no paragon of clarity , but among those readings plausible from the text, the grace period construction cleaves closest to the goal of avoiding the loss of claims that otherwise would be barred, while impinging least on state sovereign prerogatives to establish statutes of limitations. In the absence of evidence Congress intended any more, we must adopt that interpretation.”


Given the national split, certiorari in this one seems reasonably likely. Under Supreme Court Rule 13, Kern County has 90 days to file its petition. Just what the Court needs is more argle bargle over federalism concerns

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