The Governor Won't Help

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen
March 14, 2013 — 827 views  

I’ve lost count of how many times people have called the office after spending considerable time, often years, writing to their elected government representatives, requesting help with or seeking advice for a legal problem.  They also usually write to many people, like their council-people, mayor, state representatives or senators, governor, federal representatives and senators, United States cabinet officials, and the President.  By the time they talk with or meet with a lawyer, they have missed their deadlines to either file for claims with agencies, or pursue their matters in court. In the United States there is a separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches, and spending time writing to the above people is often a fruitless exercise, but even more so, it does not preserve one’s legal remedies.

There is a legal concept called “statute of limitations” that seems to elude many people. Every action that can be undertaken under the law must be done so within a given timeframe called a statute of limitations. Every single cause of action that can be undertaken under the law must be undertaken within a certain time period, and that time period can vary from months to years. These statutes vary from state to state, and are codified into state law.  There is a practical reason for statutes of limitations  because after a certain period of time documents or electronic information are/is lost or destroyed, or witnesses have moved, disappeared or passed.

Statutes of limitations also vary depending on the type of action that can be undertaken under the law. So, in Pennsylvania, the statue of limitations is usually 2 years for personal injury matters, and 4 years for contract matters. There are certain circumstances that can delay or toll when a statute of limitations begins, but that is not an automatic process, and the reason for delay must be argued in a legal setting so judges can determine whether a legal action was timely undertaken. Also, just because one isn’t aware of a statute of limitations, or didn’t learn about it until a later date, doesn’t necessarily toll a statute of limitations. The standard is that the statute of limitations starts when one should have known about it, including self-education, and making inquiries, rather than when one actually knew about it.  There is also an argument that can be made if someone deliberately tried to defraud another person or gave them incorrect information so that a statute would be missed.

Many people do not understand this concept, and they call years after they were permitted to take some type of legal action, and by that time it is too late. Often their reason for waiting so long is very vague, and run the gamut from forgetting about the event, being too busy to do anything about it, being ill or having family situations preventing them from taking action, or being given wrong advice by another lawyer.  For the most part my experience has been that they are just not motivated to do anything and they think that they have an unlimited time to take legal action.

These people are quite shocked that they have missed their statute of limitations, and they don’t think is fair that so and so got away with something. Fairness doesn’t necessarily enter into the legal process. The law is a system designed to resolve disputes, and someone in the process usually doesn’t think they were treated fairly. It is usually the losing party, which means that at any given time 50% of people involved in the legal process don’t think they got a fair shake. Other people may feel they got a fair shake, but that they didn’t get enough money from the process, that the other person wasn’t punished enough, etc.

What is even more disturbing to me that people ignore letters from the court and do not defend a case in which they have been sued, do not appeal the case within the time they have an opportunity to do so, and generally ignore that a judgment has been taken against them until the sheriff appears at their door to take their property or their bank account is attached. Sometimes they have had a judgment taken against them due to mistaken identity or some other reason, but more often than not, they have missed deadlines when they were aware of them and didn’t do anything about them. It always surprises me when people think the legal system doesn’t have the authority to do anything to them when they ignore the legal process.

So the lesson is that a lawyer should be consulted as soon as possible if one is sued or if one has a legal action they wish to undertake in order to determine what their deadline for doing so is.    

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen

Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C.

I am Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire and am a Philadelphia attorney who has been practicing law since 1974. I am the president and managing attorney of both the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C. and Legal Research, Inc.