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Supreme Court Generally Disapproves of a Discovery-Rule Exception to Federal Statutes of Limitations

Not so long ago, federal courts began to hold that a federal statute of limitations did not run until the plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known of his or her claim.  This is commonly called the “discovery rule.”  The rule originated in state court tort cases involving surgical implements left in patients who did not discover their surgeons’ negligence until long after the limitations period had run.

From there, the doctrine spread to many other legal settings, including some federal statutes.  This led the late Justice Antonin Scalia to lament that the doctrine is a “bad wine of recent vintage.”  Later, the Supreme Court of the United States disapproved of its use in federal civil administrative penalty prosecutions.

Despite Supreme Court cases suggesting that the Court would eventually disapprove of the discovery rule as a general way of applying federal statutes of limitations, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit continued to apply it.  It held that “the general federal rule is that ‘a limitations period begins to run when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the action.’”  The Fourth Circuit in an unpublished decision followed the Ninth Circuit’s view.

In Rotkiske v. Klemm, No. 18–328 (December 10, 2019), the Supreme Court considered a Third Circuit decision rejecting application of the discovery rule under the one-year limitations period in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).  That statute states that the period begins on “the date on which the violation occurs.”  The Third Circuit had held that the use of the word “occurs” means just that, and that it leaves no room for a discovery rule.

The Supreme Court agreed.  The word “occurs,” it stated, “unambiguously sets the date of the violation as the event that starts the one-year limitations period.”  The Court rejected the argument that it should “read in” a discovery rule because it is “atextual” and because Congress had written discovery rules into other statutes, indicating that it was not intended in this one.

The importance of the case is not the particular holding under the FDCPA but the straightforwardness and breadth of the Supreme Court’s reasoning.  Unless the language of a statute, or possibly its legislative history, indicates that Congress intended that a discovery rule be applied, it will not be.  Instead, the words of the statute will be applied.

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About this Author

Arthur Sapper, Administrative and Regulatory Attorney, Ogletree Deakins, Law Firm
Of Counsel

Arthur G. Sapper is Senior Counsel in the Washington, D.C. office of Ogletree Deakins, where he practices administrative and regulatory law. Art focuses his practice on all areas of occupational safety and health (OSHA) law and mine safety and health (MSHA) law, including inspections, discrimination investigations, litigation, rulemaking, counseling and lobbying.

Art litigates regularly before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the federal appellate courts and various...