Maryland Court of Appeals Upholds its Tolling of the Statute of Limitations Due to the COVID-19 Court Closures



Murphy v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 2022 Md. Lexis 166 (Filed April 22, 202) (opinion by McDonald, J.)

        In a recently published opinion by the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court held that former Chief Judge Barbera acted within her authority when she issued an administrative order on April 24, 2020,  tolling the statute of limitations in civil matters due to the COVID-19 emergency court closures.

        The underlying commercial dispute in Murphy originally arose in Maryland’s Federal District Court. The parties in the federal suit disputed the timeliness of certain claims and whether the Federal District Court possessed diversity jurisdiction over the claims. As the resolution of these questions depended on the validity of Judge Barbera’s administrative order, the Federal District Court “certified” the question of the order’s validity to Maryland’s Court of Appeals.

        In upholding the administrative order’s validity, the Court of Appeals looked to the Chief Judge’s authority under the Maryland Constitution, the Maryland Code, and the Maryland Rules. The Murphy Court first referenced Art. IV. § 18 of the State Constitution, which confers both administrative and rulemaking authority on the Chief Judge, particularly as that authority pertains to the “practice and procedure” of the courts. The opinion also noted the General Assembly’s acknowledgment that the rulemaking power of the Court of Appeals, “shall be liberally construed.” Md. Code Ann. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 1-201(a).

        While recognizing that the statute of limitations is a “product of legislation,” the Murphy Court reasoned that it falls to the courts to “interpret and administer” the deadlines imposed by the statute of limitations. Ceccone v. Carroll Home Services, LLC, 454 Md. 680, 691, (2017); Md. Rule 1-203 (computation of time). To illustrate this point, the court observed that questions as to when an action accrues and triggers the statute of limitations are often left to judicial determination, citing Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 475 Md. 4, 38 (2021), Poffenberger v. Risser, 290 Md. 631, 634-38 (1981), and Hahn v. Claybrook, 130 Md. 179 (1917). The Murphy Court reasoned that, as with any other enactments of the legislature, courts must ascertain and carry out the legislative purpose behind the statute of limitations.

        In examining the various responsibilities of Maryland’s branches of government during the Pandemic, the court looked to Maryland Rule 16-1003(a)(7), which, during an emergency, allows the Chief Judge to: “suspend, toll, extend, or otherwise grant relief from time deadlines, requirements, or expirations otherwise imposed by applicable statutes,”

        Against this backdrop, the Murphy opinion recounted the various administrative orders issued in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and found “ample and explicit authority under Article IV of the State Constitution and the Maryland Rules” for the Chief Judge to issue the administrative tolling order.

        The remaining issue was whether the order “overreached the authority of the Judiciary” under Articles 8 (separation of powers) and 9 (prohibition against suspension of laws). Regarding separation of powers, the court looked to examples of shared authority between the branches to highlight that the powers of the three branches are often intertwined. For example, the General Assembly has a role in the election and appointments to positions in the Executive Branch while the General Assembly may entrust “legislative-type powers” to Executive Branch agencies charged with administering certain situates. Despite some shared authority, branches run afoul of Article 8 when they “usurp” the powers of another branch. In upholding the validity of the order, the court held that the order was not an expression of a judicial policy preference but rather fell under the court’s “practice and procedure” functions under the Maryland Constitution.

        Finally, the court considered where the order violated Article 9’s prohibition against the suspension of laws. Interestingly, despite being part of the Maryland Declaration of Rights since 1776, the provision had not yet been interpreted by the Court of Appeals. Article 9 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." The court noted that Murphy Enterprises, the party arguing the violation of Article 9, failed to articulate why the court’s order violated the article and, even if the order constituted a “suspension” of laws, doing so was under the court’s core constitutional powers was in coordination with the other branches of government.  

        While there may be some remaining questions as to how long the statute may be tolled when applied to a particular case, the Murphy opinion left no doubt that the Court of Appeals had the authority to issue the COVID-19 tolling orders. 

                -- Joseph Kavanaugh, Associate