If you’ve struggled to understand a recent emergency order issued by a court or other branch of government, you’re not alone. These orders, often written expeditiously in response to a declaration of emergency or in the hopes of providing direction in a time of shut-downs, can be unclear or confusing—in fact, many courts have had to revise their initial orders. One question that has arisen is whether these orders postpone court deadlines and statutes of limitations. There is no answer to this question that applies nationwide. Instead, it is up to the individual courts and states to decide whether to and how to flex the rules in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Nolo has compiled a chart of each state’s legal system’s response to COVID-19 that includes links to state court websites, as well as information about when jury trials and in-person proceedings are currently set to resume.
When an order extends court deadlines, do not assume that it also tolls statutes of limitations as well—courts might not have the discretion to toll statutes of limitations, as they are a completely different legal construct. While reviewing orders, keep in mind these basic descriptions:
These rules establish the timelines for managing court matters. Nearly every court has its own specific procedural rules—you can usually access these on the court’s website or get a copy from the clerk of the court. State and federal laws also establish procedural deadlines for the courts, for example, how long a party has to answer a complaint, and how quickly a case must be scheduled for a hearing or trial after the initial papers are filed. These deadlines are typically expressed in terms of days or months. Generally speaking, deadlines for filing appeals are not considered court deadlines—rather, they are considered statutory deadlines (statutes of limitations).
When you suffer a harm, a legal clock begins ticking, counting off the time you have to file a lawsuit. This hypothetical legal clock has an alarm set to go off when the statute of limitations expires—in other words, when the law has determined a case or claim about the matter can no longer be filed. Most statutes of limitations govern civil claims, but some relate to criminal matters: For example, misdemeanors might be prosecuted for only two years after the crime is committed, while other crimes, such as murder, might not have a deadline for prosecuting. Often, statutes of limitation allow litigants years to pursue their claims, for example, up to six years to pursue a contract dispute, or 2 years to file a suit regarding a car accident.
Many courts are extending filing deadlines, at least temporarily. You’ll want to visit your local court’s website to review the court’s orders—most courts’ websites have a special section dedicated to COVID-19 related matters.
In an effort to resume (at least somewhat) normal procedures, some courts that extended deadlines at the beginning of the pandemic are beginning to lift extensions. For example, Hawaii had extended certain deadlines until April 6, 2020, but did not renew the extension, meaning that normal deadlines now apply.
If you are involved in a court matter, you should consider checking the court’s website on a regular basis, as courts are frequently updating and revising orders as needed in response to coronavirus developments.
Courts are less likely to extend statutes of limitation due to the coronavirus pandemic. The courts’ reluctance to toll statutes of limitations makes sense, considering that these statutes tend to set deadlines that are far-off in the future—often a year or more—from the triggering event. In other words, because potential claimants have had months or even years to prepare for the deadline, it makes less sense for the courts to extend them.
Coronavirus-related emergency orders coming from states and courts are, for the most part, at least mentioning the status of statutes of limitations, but how they address the issue runs the gamut of possibilities. As an illustration, state governments, state courts, and federal courts have specifically ordered that:
Here are some ways to research the current status of deadlines and statutes of limitations in various courts:
United States Supreme Court. For cases that have not yet received a ruling on a petition for a writ of certiorari, the United States Supreme Court has extended certain deadlines. All other deadlines under the Court’s Rule 30.1 (Computation and Extension of Time) have not been changed.
Each court is issuing its own orders regarding deadlines, court access, hearings, and trials. In general, most courts do not appear to be extending deadlines. The Federal Judiciary is regularly posting updates from the courts. You can also visit the court’s specific website to read the latest directives and orders about deadlines and court status.
The status of court deadlines in state courts is all over the place. Most of the time, any extensions of deadlines statewide will be ordered by either the state’s chief justice or the state’s supreme court. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is maintaining information about state court coronavirus-related actions, along with links to each state court’s COVID-19 website. You can also find your local court’s website using NCSC’s state court website directory.
Although not many governors have tackled these topics, some governors do have the power to order the tolling of deadlines and statutes of limitations. Visit your state’s official website or your governor’s official website to find out if they address these deadlines.
If you are involved in a court case, or think that you might be running out of time to file a claim for an injury you’ve suffered, consider contacting a local attorney for advice. Missing a court deadline or letting the statute of limitations run without taking action can have disastrous effects—such as losing the right to present certain evidence in court or even losing the right to pursue your claim at all. A knowledgeable attorney can help you navigate the rapidly changing rules and perhaps help you get more time to respond to a matter or file a lawsuit.