By: Scott Hobson
Last June, in the final hours of the final day of session, the legislature passed a bill titled the “Uniform Notice of Claim Act,” which would streamline the process for suing municipalities and government entities. Certainly simplifying the process of getting justice is a worthy cause, but in this case, as is often the case with public policy, the devil was in the details.
The bill contained a seemingly innocuous provision, overlooked by many – a few words of language that could allow cases that had previously passed the statute of limitations to be reopened. Reopening “time barred” cases is somewhat murky business – defendants must be able to know with certainty that they will not have to face old claims from which they cannot adequately defend themselves. In criminal law, retroactive legal changes violate the U.S. Constitution – the line in civil law is far less clear.
Beyond compromising defendants’ right to a fair defense, we expressed concerns about the timing. Fighting stale lawsuits requires lots of staff and no small amount of money – two things that local governments are conspicuously lacking. As written, the proposal would put even more strain on taxpayers at a time when too many local governments are on the brink of insolvency, schools are struggling to provide even a basic education, and the state’s fiscal sustainability is being seriously questioned.
Despite the bill being “freight trained” through the senate and assembly and passed without a word of meaningful debate in a matter of hours, advocates were able to make our voices heard. Appealing to the Governor, LRANY and local government groups from across the state, including the NY Conference of Mayors and the Association of Towns, were able to express our concerns with the bill before it landed on Governor Cuomo’s desk.
On December 17, Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law, but in keeping with his commitment to reducing costs to taxpayers and local governments, included a caveat that the offending provision be removed:
“The legislature has agreed to a chapter amendment to improve the process described in the bill for service of notice of claim, correct technical errors and ensure that entities will not face shortened time periods within which to investigate claims. On that basis, I am signing the bill.”
We applaud Governor Cuomo for injecting a measure of sanity and common sense into a well-meaning but flawed piece of legislation. The resulting bill is a compromise that we can live with, and given New York’s track record on lawsuit reform, that’s quite an endorsement.