Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Statute Limitations Do Not Bar a Lawsuit, but Here is What Does

A statute setting the time limit for filing a lawsuit bars a claim after that date. That kind of statute is not a statute of limitations.

Attorneys call a statute of limitations an affirmative defense. Defendant has the job of pleading the defense and proving it. The plaintiff wins if defendant either does not plead or pleads but does not prove. (See Indiana Trial Rule 8(c)).

JOHN R. SAND & GRAVEL CO. v. UNITED STATES (html format) gives us the example of a statute creating a deadline for filing a lawsuit against the federal government. The following paragraphs from the United States' Supreme Court opinion contain the facts:

The Government initially asserted that petitioner's several claims were all untimely in light of the statute providing that "[e]very claim of which the United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction shall be barred unless the petition thereon is filed within six years after such claim first accrues." 28 U. S. C. §2501. Later, however, the Government effectively conceded that certain claims were timely. See App. 37a-39a (Government's pretrial brief). The Government subsequently won on the merits. See 62 Fed. Cl. 556, 589 (2004).

Petitioner appealed the adverse judgment to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. See 457 F. 3d 1345, 1346 (2006). The Government's brief said nothing about the statute of limitations, but an amicus brief called the issue to the court's attention. See id., at 1352. The court considered itself obliged to address the limitations issue, and it held that the action was untimely. Id., at 1353-1360. We subsequently agreed to consider whether the Court of Appeals was right to ignore the Government's waiver and to decide the timeliness question. 550 U. S. ___ (2007).

The court cannot raise the issue of an affirmative defense but it can always raise the issue of having jurisdiction over a case. Justice Breyer explains the legal differences here:

Most statutes of limitations seek primarily to protect defendants against stale or unduly delayed claims. See, e.g., United States v. Kubrick, 444 U. S. 111, 117 (1979). Thus, the law typically treats a limitations defense as an affirmative defense that the defendant must raise at the pleadings stage and that is subject to rules of forfeiture and waiver. See Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 8(c)(1), 12(b), 15(a); Day v. McDonough, 547 U. S. 198, 202 (2006); Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U. S. 385, 393 (1982). Such statutes also typically permit courts to toll the limitations period in light of special equitable considerations. See, e.g., Rotella v. Wood, 528 U. S. 549, 560-561 (2000); Zipes, supra, at 393; see also Cada v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 920 F. 2d 446, 450-453 (CA7 1990).

Some statutes of limitations, however, seek not so much to protect a defendant's case-specific interest in timeliness as to achieve a broader system-related goal, such as facilitating the administration of claims, see, e.g., United States v. Brockamp, 519 U. S. 347, 352-353 (1997), limiting the scope of a governmental waiver of sovereign immunity, see, e.g., United States v. Dalm, 494 U. S. 596, 609-610 (1990), or promoting judicial efficiency, see, e.g., Bowles v. Russell, 551 U. S. ___ , ___-___ (2007) (slip op., at 7-8). The Court has often read the time limits of these statutes as more absolute, say as requiring a court to decide a timeliness question despite a waiver, or as forbidding a court to consider whether certain equitable considerations warrant extending a limitations period. See, e.g., ibid.; see also Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U. S. 500, 514 (2006). As convenient shorthand, the Court has sometimes referred to the time limits in such statutes as "jurisdictional." See, e.g., Bowles, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5).

You can find most of Indiana's statute of limitations by following this link here.

Take a look at Court Imposes Strict Deadline in Lawsuit, if you want to read more about JOHN R. SAND & GRAVEL CO. v. UNITED STATES.