Porter v. Spader (CA1 9/21/10)

This case holds that excusable neglect is not a defense to the statute of limitations.

Porter’s Phoenix-area counsel mailed her personal-injury Complaint to the Navajo County Superior Court six days before the statute of limitations ran. They didn’t put enough postage on the envelope. You can pretty much guess the rest: when the Post Office returned it the office staff just stuck the Complaint in a new envelope, put enough postage on it, and sent it back; it arrived one day late. Defendant moved for summary judgment, which Plaintiff “opposed” by moving preemptively to it aside for excusable neglect. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion and ruled that Plaintiff had not adequately shown excusable neglect.

The Court of Appeals first takes a while explaining that there are these things called “statutes of limitations” and that they’re valid statutes and that you have to obey them absent certain circumstances that the court mentions even though they weren’t argued or suggested by the facts.

Then the opinion mentions something that was, perhaps (it’s hard to tell), argued – equitable tolling. But equitable tolling is normally caused by the defendant – he lies, conceals, etc. – and there was none of that here. As the court feels the need to point out in a footnote, Division Two suggested in dicta last year that an attorney’s illness might produce equitable tolling (McCloud; don’t get us started about that case) but even then the illness must be significantly incapacitating.

The court then addresses excusable neglect. The trial judge apparently assumed that Rule 60(c)(1) can apply here. The court holds that it can’t. No authority supports its use against the statute of limitations. The Rule allows a court to use its discretion to forgive a failure to adhere to its requirements; it does not give a court discretion about enforcing a statute.

That’s why, for those who consider it their professional obligation to be offended by such things, a staff mistake in filing an Answer late can be grounds for relief but a staff mistake in filing a Complaint late can’t.

 

(link to opinion)