The Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies For Whom The Order Tolled

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  by Emily C. Shanahan

   Case Focus

On September 3, 2021, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) issued its decision in Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc. v. Melendez, 488 Mass. 338 (2021) (“Melendez”). In Melendez, the SJC considered the scope of the tolling provision set forth in its Third Updated Order Regarding Court Operations Under the Exigent Circumstances Created by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic, No. OE-144 (June 24, 2020) (“Third Emergency Order”). The parties disputed whether the Third Emergency Order tolled only those civil statutes of limitations that expired during the period March 17, 2020, through June 30, 2020, or all civil statutes of limitations, irrespective of when they expired. The SJC held that the use of the word “all” in the Third Emergency Order encompassed all civil statutes of limitations, not only those expiring during the period between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020. In short, “‘[a]ll’ means all.” Melendez, 488 Mass. at 342. As a result, the SJC affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion to dismiss because the plaintiff’s complaint was timely filed.

Background

The complaint in Melendez alleges that on September 3, 2017, the plaintiff, Margarita Melendez, suffered injuries arising from an accident caused by an employee of the defendant, Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., in one of the defendant’s grocery stores. The plaintiff filed an action for negligence in the District Court on September 24, 2020. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it was untimely under the three year statute of limitations applicable to negligence claims, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 2A. The District Court denied the motion to dismiss because the complaint was timely filed under the tolling provision of the Third Emergency Order. The defendant sought emergency relief under the SJC’s superintendence authority pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3. The single justice reserved and reported the petition to the full SJC.

In its brief to the SJC, the defendant argued that the language of the Third Emergency Order was clear and unambiguous: It tolled civil statutes of limitations set to expire between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020. According to the defendant, the SJC did not intend to add 106 days to all civil statutes of limitations, including those set to expire after June 30, 2020. In contrast, the plaintiff argued that the plain meaning of the language of the Third Emergency Order was that all civil statutes of limitations were tolled, irrespective of when the statute of limitations was set to expire.

SJC’s Analysis

Like the parties, the SJC began its analysis with the language of the Third Emergency Order: “[a]ll civil statutes of limitations were tolled by Prior SJC Orders from March 17, 2020, through June 30, 2020.” The SJC agreed with the defendant to the extent the SJC also concluded that the phrase “[a]ll civil statutes of limitations” was “clear and unambiguous.” Melendez, 488 Mass. at 342. Relying on dictionary definitions of the word “all,” the SJC explained that the plain meaning of the word “all” in the Third Emergency Order “encompasse[d] each and every civil statute of limitations, not just those where the statutory period of limitation expired between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020.” Id.

As further support for its interpretation, the SJC contrasted the language of the Third Emergency Order relating to the tolling of civil statutes of limitations with language in other provisions of the order which expressly stated that only those deadlines expiring between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020, were tolled. That is, the SJC observed that it knew how to use language to limit the effect of its tolling orders in the manner advanced by the defendant. The use of different language with respect to civil statutes of limitations demonstrated the SJC’s intent that the tolling provision was not limited to civil statutes of limitations expiring during the period between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020. Moreover, the SJC rejected the proposition that the example in the Third Emergency Order illustrating the application of the tolling provision demonstrated an intent to limit the reach of the tolling order to statutes of limitations expiring during the relevant window.

In its conclusion, the SJC observed that “at least some of [the defendant’s] reasoning may be attributable to a misconception of the reference to the ‘statutes of limitations’” in the Third Emergency Order. Melendez, 488 Mass. at 345. The SJC sought to correct the misconception, explaining that “[a] statute of limitations does not refer to the date on which the cause of action expires, but, rather, to the period during which a legal proceeding may be initiated.” Id. (citation omitted). The SJC further noted that the term “toll” means “‘to stop the running of.’” Id. (citation omitted). To be consistent with the meaning of those terms, the SJC concluded that the language of the Third Emergency Order necessarily included “all causes of action for which the relevant limitations period ran for some period between, or through, those dates.” Id.

Practice Point

Going forward, practitioners will need to examine carefully how the decision in Melendez affects the calculation of the expiration of the statute of limitations in any given case. For causes of action which accrued on or before March 17, 2020, and for which the statute of limitations had not yet expired as of that date, an additional 106 days should be added to the limitations period, counting from March 17, 2020. For causes of action which accrued between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020, the number of days between the accrual date and June 30, 2020, should be added to the limitations period, counting from the date of accrual. Causes of action which accrued after June 30, 2020, do not benefit from any tolling under the Third Emergency Order because no part of the limitations period ran during the relevant period.

Looking Ahead – Other Issues On The Horizon

In Melendez, the SJC cited, but not did examine, the sources of its authority to issue the Third Emergency Order, including, among others, its rule making authority and superintendence authority under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3. In another appeal currently pending before the SJC, Podium Developer LLC v. Graycor Construction, Inc., SJC No. 13142, the Court has been asked to examine the scope of its superintendence authority under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3 with respect to the tolling of other statutory deadlines. In particular, the SJC granted direct appellate review to answer the reported question of whether the Court’s emergency orders tolled the statutory period for the filing of a Notice of Contract with the Registry of Deeds under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 254, § 2, the Mechanics Lien Statute. The Superior Court answered that question in the affirmative, concluding that because the tolling orders did not “supersede” the statutory deadlines, they fell within the SJC’s superintendence authority. The defendant/appellant argues that the Superior Court erred by failing to consider the fundamental issue, namely, the SJC’s superintendence powers under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3 do not extend to matters lacking a “nexus” to the SJC’s superintendence of inferior courts or the administration of the judicial system. The defendant/appellant argues that because the Mechanics Lien Statute lacks the necessary nexus, the application of the SJC’s tolling orders to the deadlines set forth in the statute violates separation of powers. Oral argument is currently scheduled for December 6, 2021.

Emily C. Shanahan is a partner and chair of the litigation department at Tarlow, Breed, Hart & Rodgers, P.C. Ms. Shanahan is an experienced litigator, handling a broad range of complex business and commercial disputes, including contract disputes, partnership disputes, and real estate litigation. Ms. Shanahan has served on the steering committee of the BBA’s Business and Commercial Litigation Section.