By Paul Iannaccone and Ryan Sullivan
If you have scrolled through an attorney listserv or bar association forum in the past month, you have probably noticed that Executive Order 7G has been the source of much vexation and confusion in the legal community. While the order concerns everything from the postponement of Connecticut’s presidential primary to the operations of local barber shops and tattoo parlors, it’s the provision regarding the suspension of non-critical court operations and all statutory deadlines that has left Connecticut attorneys in a precarious limbo. Understandably, the Governor’s order is worded broadly with the clear intent to cover the multitude of statutes and regulations prescribing time limitations and deadlines in civil, criminal and administrative proceedings. That said, its vagueness has left a lot of doubt as to what is and isn’t covered, and to what extent any protections conferred by the order will pass state constitutional muster. This article attempts to clarify (or complicate) Executive Order 7G as it applies to statutes of limitations and other trial court deadlines.
What does Executive Order 7G say?
Starting with the basics, Executive Order 7G broadly proclaims:
Notwithstanding any provision of the Connecticut General Statutes or of any regulation, local rule or other provision of law, I [Governor Lamont] hereby suspend, for the duration of this public health and civil preparedness emergency, unless earlier modified or terminated by me, all statutory (1) location or venue requirements; (2) time requirements, statutes of limitation or other limitations or deadlines relating to service of process, court proceedings or court filings; and (3) all time requirements or deadlines related to the Supreme, Appellate and Superior courts or their judicial officials to issue notices, hold court, hear matters and/or render decisions. . . .
The order then specifies that it suspends several statutes concerning time limitations (e.g., General Statues § 52-82m; § 51-183b; § 53a-29(g); etc.), including all statutes of limitations set forth in Chapter 926 of the General Statutes.
What is the Legal Authority for Executive Order 7G?
On March 10, 2020, the Governor declared a Public Health and Civil Preparedness Emergency pursuant to § 28-9. This law gives the Governor the authority to “modify or suspend in whole or in part, by order as hereinafter provided, any statute, regulation or requirement or part thereof whenever the Governor finds such statute, regulation or requirement, or part thereof, is in conflict with the efficient and expeditious execution of civil preparedness functions or the protection of the public health.” This broad authority, however, raises some concerns as to whether the suspension of certain laws violates the separation of powers provision of our state constitution. While it seems unlikely that a court would declare Executive Order 7G unconstitutional given the extraordinary and unprecedented nature of this crisis, it’s certainly a valid concern worthy of further discussion.
When does Executive Order 7G Expire?
The order was issued on March 19, 2020, and it states that it shall remain in effect for the duration of the Public Health and Civil Preparedness Emergency, unless earlier modified by the Governor. Currently, the Public Health and Civil Preparedness Emergency is scheduled to end on September 9, 2020. It should be noted that this is not an arbitrary date. Under § 28-9 (b), the Governor is only authorized to suspend or revoke a statute of limitations for a period no longer than six months. It is therefore unlikely that the order will remain in effect past this date absent action from the General Assembly.
Are the Statutes of Limitations Suspended for all Civil Case Types?
The short answer: most likely. The long answer: the order specifically suspends all statutes of limitation found in Chapter 926 of the General Statutes. This includes statutes of limitations for negligence and malpractice actions (§ 52-584), product liability actions (§ 52-577a), contract actions (§ 52-576), and actions for libel or slander (§ 52-597). However, not all statutes of limitations for civil cases are found in Chapter 926. For example, the time limitation for a wrongful death action (§ 52-555) is set forth in Chapter 925, the time limitation for a dram shop action (§ 30-102) is provided in Chapter 545, and the time limitation for a UM/UIM claim (§ 38a-336) is found in Chapter 700.
Arguably, the order corrects this possible oversight by stating that it also suspends “all statutory . . . time requirements, statutes of limitation or other limitations or deadlines relating to service of process, court proceedings or court filings.” One potential concern with this sweeping provision is that the Governor’s authority for suspending such statutes of limitation—namely, § 28-9 (b)—requires him to “specify in such order the reason or reasons therefor and any statute, regulation or requirement or part thereof to be modified or suspended.” It is questionable whether “all . . . statutes of limitations” satisfies the requirement of specificity envisioned by the drafters of § 28-9. But again, as with the constitutionality concern, it is difficult to imagine a court dismissing or granting summary judgment in a case that became “untimely” after March 19, 2020.
What about Administrative Appeals, Workers’ Compensation Claims, and Claims Commissioner Cases?
All time limitations for administrative appeals provided in § 4-183 are specifically suspended under Executive Order 7G. Workers’ Compensation Claims are not covered by the order, but are instead discussed in Executive Order 7K. By way of that order, the Governor suspended all time limitations set forth in the Workers’ Compensation Act until September 9, 2020, or further notice. As to Claims Commissioner cases, no specific executive order has been issued suspending the time limitations for filing such claims. However, the Claims Commissioner’s website states that the time requirements set forth in § 4-148 and 4-159a have been suspended 90 days, effective March 25, 2020. No legal authority is provided for this action and given that any statute concerning a waiver of the state’s sovereign immunity is to be “strictly construed,” relying on this announcement would seem a risky proposition.
Does Executive Order 7G also Suspend all Filing Deadlines in Active Cases, such as Pleading Deadlines, Discovery Deadlines, and Scheduling Order Deadlines?
To date, no specific guidance has been issued on whether all court filing deadlines have been suspended. As of May 4, 2020, the judges of the Superior Court have begun ruling on short calendar matters that were previously argued before the suspension of non-critical court operations and those matters that were marked “take papers.” Starting on May 18, 2020, the court will begin to rule on both arguable and non-arguable matters that are marked “take papers.” While it is unclear whether any party will be penalized for failing to respond in a timely fashion to a motion or discovery request during the next several months, given the broad language of Executive Order 7G, further explication from the executive or judicial branch would certainly be welcomed.
It should be noted that the Judicial Rules Committee has suspended certain Practice Book deadlines. For a full list of these rules, see the minutes from the March 24, 2020 meeting of the committee. Further, all civil scheduling agreements and case management orders have been suspended by order of the Chief Administrative Judge.
Will Executive Order 7G really matter once this is all over?
Given that this crisis affects all of us, it is hopeful that many of the issues presented by the suspension of non-critical court operations can be resolved by party agreement, as opposed to litigation. That said, just as it is difficult to imagine that we will all be back in crowded courthouses advocating zealously for our clients, it is just as difficult to imagine that once we return to some semblance of “normal,” one of the most sweeping pronouncements ever issued in this state will not be subject to legal dissection for years to come.