Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

No Federal Statute of Limitations for Retaliation Claims Brought Under Qui Tam Act

The last employment related case on this term of the Supreme Court's docket was decided yesterday. It involved a complicated case of statutory construction in a qui tam retaliation case rather than sweeping principles that make for good news stories. Still for individuals, including KarenWilson whose case was before the Court, it will be the difference between having a case, or having it dismissed as untimely.

Justice Thomas writing for the Court found the 6 year statute of limitations for qui tam actions, added in 1986, is not applicable to the retaliation provision of that statute which which was added the same year. Instead, courts should look to the most applicable state statute of limitations. Graham County Soil & Water Conservation District v. United States ex. rel. Wilson (U.S. 6/20/05) [pdf].

All of the justices agreed there is a problem with the language of the statute as drafted by Congress, but the solution adopted by the majority comes at a price according to dissenting Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginzberg):

It substitutes for a fairly lengthy - and uniform - 6-year limitations term, a crazy-quilt of limitations periods stitched together from the laws of 51 jurisdictions which, in some instances, might require a plaintiff to bring a retaliation claim within 90 days, six months, or one year after the retaliation takes place.

The Court does offer a starting point for finding the approriate state statute of limitations in a lengthy footnote three. But it stresses that the statutes listed "are only the likely candidates for analogous state statutes of limitations; it may well not be an exhaustive or authoritative list of the possibilities."

Just looking at the statutes listed for Texas makes clear that the federal courts will still have work to do to decide the appropriate limitations period, as the Court offered the possibility of the two year statute of limitations for personal injuries, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §16.003 (West 2002), or the much shorter 90 day statute of limitations under the whistleblower statute, Tex. Govt. Code Ann. §554.005 (West 2004).

These cases are not all that common so it will probably be some time before the law in each jurisdiction is fleshed out. But if I were filing a case based in Texas, I would be operating under the 90 day rule until a court told me otherwise.


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