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Acknowledging a Debt to Toll the Statute of Limitations

As every lawyer knows, the statute of limitations is the death knell for any case if the deadline it sets to bring a lawsuit is missed.

Collecting on money owed pursuant to a contract is generally governed by a four (4) year statute of limitations which begins to run upon the breach of that contract. One way to extend that four (4) year statute is to find a way to toll it. The case of In Re Michael Angelo Corry Inn, Inc., 297 B.R. 435 (W.D., PA 2003), provides one innovative way to try and toll it.  Specifically, the Court in the above case analyzed whether acknowledging a debt and promising to repay serves as a way to toll the statute of limitations.

The underlying case involved the filing of a proof of claim by a creditor against a debtor who has filed for bankruptcy. The fact that the context of the case was bankruptcy has no effect or relevance on how the statute of limitations for a contract claim functions and/or applies. The issue was the fact that the creditor did not pursue the alleged debt with any alacrity and many years passed with no action taken on the loan and/or its repayment. The time that elapsed from the potential breach was longer than four (4) years in this case and, therefore, on its face, any action to pursue the contract claim would then be barred by the relevant statute of limitations. In order to avoid the contract claim from being a non-starter due to being barred by the statute of limitations, the creditor attempted to argue that the aforesaid statute is tolled by an acknowledgment of the debt made my the debtor.

The Court agreed that the statute of limitations on contract claims can be tolled if the debtor acknowledges a debt. The caveat, however, is that acknowledgment is more than merely expressing a willingness to pay it.

The acknowledgement doctrine requires a debtor’s acknowledging the existence of, and obligation for, a debt to be clear, distinct, and unequivocal, along with a promise to pay that is similarly doubtless. The Court made it clear that there must be no uncertainty in the debtor’s identification of the specific debt owed, acknowledgment of his own obligation to pay that debt, and a clear promise to pay. A debtor who simply declares an intention or desire to honor his obligation is not considered to have made a promise to pay sufficient to toll the statute of limitations under the acknowledgment doctrine.

So, when litigating a breach of contract claim for an unpaid debt, if one thinks the case can no longer be pursued due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, remember to fully explore the acknowledgement doctrine. It may allow a creditor to successfully pursue a debtor far beyond the four (4) years permitted by the statute of limitations.

Originally published on September 8, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be found here.

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