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Bizarre, banal Leap Day litigation

Leap Year comes around every four years, adding a day to the Julian calendar to balance the earth’s revolution around the sun.  That extra day this year comes on Monday, the last day of February.

The event parallels some other quadrennial events, like the Presidential campaign and election, which occurs every four years but seems these days to stretch out much longer, and the summer Olympics, scheduled for Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in beleaguered Brazil this year.

An added feature to this leap year 2016 is its Jewish counterpart:  the addition of a 13th month to the Jewish lunar calendar.  Unlike the four-year regularity it takes place seven of 19 years, adding 29 days to the traditional lunar calendar, which is 5776 in Jewish lore. 

Lawyers in Minnesota experience another predictable occurrence in Leap Year:  litigation concerning the effect of the extra calendar day.  A number of cases in this jurisdiction revolve around this issue. Here’s a look at some of those brouhahas, both bizarre and banal.

Ingenious Issues

It’s been more than a century since Minnesota’s landmark leap-year litigation, one of a number of cases raising ingenuous issues unique to the quadrennial occurrence.

In State v. Bates, 121 N.W. 225 (Minn. 1909), a man convicted in Duluth of selling liquor without a license challenged his 90-day sentence, the maximum allowed under the Duluth city charter,  in the county jail.  He asserted that the sentence violated the Minnesota Constitution, which restricted punishment for the offense to three months.

The liquor seller argued that the municipal charter provision violated the constitution because, in leap years, a three-month sentence that included the month of February was more than 90 days.  Although the claimant’s jail sentence did not even coincide with Leap Day, he persisted in his “highly technical” argument, which the Supreme Court rejected.

While recognizing the contention as “ingenious in the extreme,” the Supreme Court found it too “artificial and metaphysical,” and came down on the side of the general “presumption and the favor of constitutional legislative enactments,” which led to upholding the “ordinance of the 90-day imprisonment.”  Even if a defendant was in jail on a Leap Day, his sentence would be “void only as to the excess” day.  It would not invalidate the sentence as a whole.

Another sentencing argument that was recognized for its ingenuity but rejected by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was made in Yokley v. Belaski, 982 F.2d 423 (8th Cir. 1992).

The defendant, who was convicted of counterfeiting, claimed that his sentence of 10 years was invalid because it exceeded the statutory maximum of 10 years if a leap year day was included.  Although “novel,” the argument was “without merit” because the defendant had been sentenced to a term of years, not days.

Other positions embracing Leap Day arguments have been treated less lavishly by the courts.

In Neff v. Jackson Counties, 67 P.3d 977 (Ore. Ct. App. 2003), a defendant’s claim that a one-year statute of limitation lasts for 365 days, even if a Leap Day is included, was belittled by the court, which reasoned that, under that argument, “a juvenile would attain the age of 15 years of age … three or four days before his/her 15th birthday.”

Similarly, in Albertson v. Apfel, 247 F.3d 448 (2nd Cir. 2001), a woman whose divorce was finalized three days before her 10th anniversary claimed that, because three Leap Days were included during their marriage, the relationship lasted for 10 years, which satisfied a threshold necessary to qualify for additional spousal survival benefits from her decedent husband.  That argument, however, was rebuffed because the 10-year statutory requirement “does not differentiate between leap years and non-leap years.”  Leap year notwithstanding, “scientifically speaking, a year is 365 ¼ days, not 365 days,” as the former spouse asserted.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was even less enamored that the statute of limitations in a RICO case was not satisfied because of Leap Day in U.S. v. Marcello, 213 F.3d 1005 (7th Cir.).  The court said the statutory time period is the “anniversary” date of the triggering event, “even when the intervening period includes an extra leap year day.”  Measuring the limitations without counting Leap Days averts the unacceptable practice of “judges not becoming enmeshed in such nit-picking.”

English Enigma

The enigma of how the law should treat Leap Day also figures in a curious case involving filing deadlines.

In Walker v. Hazen, 90 F.2d 502 (D.C. App. 1937), an appeal in a leap year was deemed untimely because of a provision requiring a 20-day deadline for filing appeals.  The appeal was filed on the second day of March, which was 21 days after the filing on Feb. 10, including Leap Day.

The late-filing claimant asserted that the appeal was timely, based upon ancient English statute, dating back to the days of King Henry III of England, who reigned in the 13th century.  That measure provided that Leap Day “shall be taken and recond of the same month wherein it growth; and that day, and the day next going before, shall be accounted for one day.”

Based on the statute, incorporated in the municipal governing code, the claimant asserted that both Feb. 28 and the following Leap Day, Feb. 29, should be counted as one day, which made the appeal timely under the 20-day requirement.

But the court rejected the argument, concluding that “this statute applies only to periods measured in years, and where the period is measured in days, as in this case, the 28th and 29th of February are to be counted as two days.”

The old English statute also was not applied by the Indiana Supreme Court in Healthenstein v. Vincennes National Bank, 65 Ind. 582 (Ind. 1879).  The case involved a computer time period for responding to a summons served on Feb. 25 in a leap year.  Because state law provided that a day “means a period of time consisting of 24 hours,” each of the separate days of Feb. 28 and Leap Day, Feb. 29, “must be regarded as two days, not as one, for every purpose,” notwithstanding the old English law.

Leap law

In the past, the Minnesota Supreme Court has marked Leap Day by issuing a number of opinions. 

For instance, in In Re Indritz, 607 N.W.2d 139 (Minn. 2000), it suspended an attorney for six months for neglecting client matters, practicing law while suspended and lying to investigators.  More than a century earlier, in Owings v. Freeman, 51 N.W. 476 (Minn. 1892), the high court interpreted a flawed boundary line in a real estate deed.

Now that the Supreme Court issues its rulings on Wednesdays, no Leap Day decisions are expected this year.  But then, there’s the Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, whose opinions generally are released on Mondays. 

Get ready for a fusillade of them this Leap Day.

Perspective Pointers

 U.S. Supreme Court cases decided on Leap Day

  • U.S. v. Ballin (1892):Upholds right of Congress to establish quorum, majority vote requirements for itself;
  • Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S. (1892):  Hiring of clergy from England not violation of Federal law prohibiting employment contracts with immigrants;
  • Kunz v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., (2002):  State law asbestos personal injury claim by railroad employee pre-empted by Federal Locomotive Inspective Act.