Amid the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic (Pandemic), Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera continues to issue administrative orders broadly impacting the practice of law in Maryland.
The Pandemic immensely disrupted most business and government sectors — and the Maryland judiciary is no exception. Court dockets ground to a halt in March, except for a narrow list of emergency procedures, such as bail hearings and peace order requests. Judge Barbera has ordered all courts to remain closed to the public, except under limited circumstances until at least May 1, 2020.
While parties may still file pleadings in Maryland state courts in the jurisdictions which have yet to adopt electronic filing — Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County — parties must adhere to county-specific instructions posted on the courts’ respective websites. Many courts in those jurisdictions are urging parties to limit filings to emergency matters only, as the limited on-site court staff attempt to prioritize the processing of documents.
To prevent the Pandemic-related disruptions to Maryland’s legal system from adversely affecting a party’s substantive legal rights, Judge Barbera took dramatic action via administrative order April 3, 2020 (April 3 Order) by suspending “all statutory and rules deadlines” related to the filing of new matters in Maryland state courts. Judge Barbera reinforced this suspension in a subsequent April 8, 2020, order. The suspension is retroactive to March 16, 2020, and will continue “by the number of days that the courts are closed to the public due to the COVID-19 emergency by order of the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.”
In general, when a company or individual has a legal claim against another party, there is a limited period of time in which to file a lawsuit in Maryland. Many types of cases must be filed within three years from the date on which the action arose although certain types of claims have shorter or longer deadlines. This deadline is referred to as the statute of limitations and a lawsuit must be filed within this time frame or it will be dismissed even, if the underlying claim has merit.
Judge Barbera’s April 3 Order suspends operation of the statute of limitations for the duration of the emergency until further judicial order. This April 3 Order, therefore, may give potential plaintiffs more time to file a lawsuit than they otherwise would have had if the original limitations deadline expired during the Pandemic-related court closures.
Judge Barbera derived her authority to suspend the statute of limitations from the Maryland Constitution, which generally allows the Court of Appeals to establish rules and regulations for the practice of law in Maryland state courts. Pursuant to that authority, the Court of Appeals’ Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure recommended the adoption of new rules on March 16, 2020, titled “Emergency Powers of the Chief Judge of the Court of the Court of Appeals.” These emergency powers included the ability to modify deadlines, such as the statute of limitations, during an emergency like the Pandemic. Judge Barbera’s April 3 Order exercises this new authority.
It remains to be seen how broadly the April 3 Order will impact the practice of law in Maryland although some commentators have already questioned whether the order will withstand legal scrutiny following the Pandemic.
Statutes of limitation are generally governed by laws passed by Maryland’s General Assembly, and a significant constitutional question exists as to whether the judiciary has the authority to unilaterally alter these deadlines, which action may blur the traditional separation of powers between the government branches.
Related questions exist as to whether Judge Barbera acted too quickly, or whether the April 3 Order is overbroad since the emergency powers anticipated that the suspension of limitations would only occur when it was not possible for parties to adhere to regular deadlines, like statute of limitations, during an emergency. As noted above, e-filing is uninterrupted in many jurisdictions, and procedures have been established to handle paper filings elsewhere although several courts have issued local orders, requesting that parties refrain from filing anything that does not need to be reviewed on an emergency basis.
While future litigation may resolve these questions, the fact that Court of Appeal’s own Rules Committee adopted the emergency powers provision may indicate that many Court of Appeals judges would look favorably on the April 3 Order. Future courts faced with these questions may also be mindful that parties could reasonably yet detrimentally rely on the order in deciding when to file their lawsuits.
Given the stakes involved in missing a limitations’ deadline, prudent parties and practitioners should continue to analyze limitations issues in a conservative fashion and promptly file claims that are ripe, rather than relying on the Court of Appeals’ April 3 Order.
George F. Ritchie
410-576-4131 • email@example.com
Alexandria K. Montanio
410-576-4278 • firstname.lastname@example.org
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