On July 11, 2023, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) declined to extend its early COVID-19 emergency orders to the time limits established for filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). In Dunn v. Langevin, the court reasoned that its COVID-19 emergency orders applied only to courts of inferior jurisdiction—not to an agency of the executive branch like the MCAD.
- The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded that its COVID-19 emergency orders did not toll the 300-day time limit for filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
- The plaintiff had filed a complaint with the MCAD 61 days after the close of the 300-day window for filing complaints.
- The court held that its emergency orders applied only to lower courts. In addition, equitable tolling did not apply because the plaintiff could not demonstrate he was excusably ignorant of the MCAD’s 300-day statutory filing window.
The plaintiff, Matthew Dunn, was discharged from his position at Phoenix Communications, Inc., in November 21, 2019, but he did not first file a complaint with the MCAD until November 16, 2020—361 days after the latest alleged act of discrimination. His complaint was 61 days past the 300-day filing window prescribed by M.G.L. c. 151B, § 5. Dunn argued that the 300-day time limit was tolled by the SJC’s emergency orders, which tolled “[a]ll civil statutes of limitations” between March 17, 2020, and June 30, 2020. Dunn argued in the alternative that if the emergency orders did not extend the filing window, equitable tolling principles did.
The SJC, which transferred the case sua sponte from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was not persuaded by either argument. First, as the SJC explained in a pandemic-era opinion, the orders tolling statutory deadlines were issued pursuant to the SJC’s power to oversee “the administration of all courts of inferior jurisdiction,” G.L.c. 211, § 3, and designed to guide the “lower courts as to how to conduct court operations safely amid the ongoing public health crisis”—not to supervise executive agencies.
The SJC also determined that equitable tolling was not warranted because the MCAD had designed its own process for the tolling of the 300-day filing requirement and Dunn had not availed himself of this option. The court cited to an archived version of the MCAD’s COVID-19 Information and Resource Center that had informed visitors that extensions on filing deadlines might be available on a case-by-case basis and had detailed the process for requesting an extension. Accordingly, Dunn could not argue the excusable neglect necessary to warrant equitable tolling.
While the SJC’s decision in Dunn will now preclude potential MCAD complainants from claiming that their deadline to file was extended by the SJC’s COVID-19 emergency orders, employers may want to remain mindful of other arguments that may fall under the “equitable tolling” umbrella.