Class Actions, Statutes of Limitations and Repose, and Federal Common Law

70 Pages Posted: 16 Feb 2018 Last revised: 3 Jan 2019

See all articles by Stephen B. Burbank

Stephen B. Burbank

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Tobias Barrington Wolff

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: 2018


After more than three decades during which it gave the issue scant attention, the Supreme Court has again made the American Pipe doctrine an active part of its docket. American Pipe addresses the tolling of statutes of limitations in federal class action litigation. When plaintiffs file a putative class action in federal court and class certification is denied, absent members of the putative class may wish to pursue their claims in some kind of further proceeding. If the statute of limitations would otherwise have expired while the class certification issue was being resolved, these claimants may need the benefit of a tolling rule. The same need can arise for those who wish to opt out of a certified class action. American Pipe and its progeny provide such a tolling rule in some circumstances, but many unanswered questions remain about when the doctrine is available.

Last Term, the Court decided CalPERS v. ANZ Securities, holding that American Pipe tolling was not available to a class member who opted out of a certified class in an action brought to enforce a federal statute (the Securities Act of 1933) that contained what the Court labeled a “statute of repose.” In the current term, the Court has granted review in Resh v. China Agritech, which presents the question whether American Pipe tolling is available when, following denial of class certification, absent members of the putative class seek to file another class action rather than pursuing their claims individually in subsequent proceedings.

In this article we develop a comprehensive theoretical and doctrinal framework for the American Pipe doctrine. Building on earlier work, we demonstrate that American Pipe tolling is a federal common law rule that aims to carry into effect the provisions and policies of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, the federal class action device. Contrary to the Court’s assertion in CalPERS, American Pipe is not an “equitable tolling doctrine.” Neither is it the product of a direct mandate in Rule 23, which is the source of authority, not the source of the rule. Having clarified the status of American Pipe tolling as federal common law, we explain the basis on which the doctrine operates across jurisdictions, binding subsequent actions in both federal and state court. We argue that the doctrine applies whether the initial action in federal court was based on a federal or state cause of action – a question that has produced disagreement among the lower federal courts. And we situate American Pipe within the framework of the Court’s Erie jurisprudence, explaining how the doctrine should operate when the putative class action was in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction and the courts of the state in which it was filed would apply a different rule. Finally, we discuss how CalPERS should have been decided if the Court had recognized the true nature of the American Pipe rule and if it had engaged the legislative history of the Securities Act rather than relying on labels.

Keywords: Civil procedure, class actions, litigation, statutes of limitation, tolling, successive class actions, FRCP 23, American Pipe, federal common law, Erie doctrine, Securities Act of 1933, CalPERS, cross-jurisdictional tolling, statutes of repose

Suggested Citation

Burbank, Stephen B. and Wolff, Tobias Barrington, Class Actions, Statutes of Limitations and Repose, and Federal Common Law (2018). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 167, Forthcoming, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 18-4, Available at SSRN:

Stephen B. Burbank (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Tobias Barrington Wolff

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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