So your client wants you to file a declaratory judgment action, but you are unsure of whether the applicable statute of limitations has expired. But what is the applicable statute of limitations in a declaratory judgment action? Since there is no limitations period specifically addressed to the declaratory judgment action, it generally falls under the “catch-all” provision of CPLR 213 and gets six years as “an action for which no limitation is specifically prescribed by law.” That being the case, you assume your declaratory judgment cause of action is timely so long as it is filed within six years of its accrual. Think again.
Declaratory judgment actions are unique, in that the Court will actually examine the substantive nature of the claims and the relief sought to determine which limitations period applies. If the Court determines that the underlying dispute could have been resolved through another proceeding for which a specific limitations period is statutorily provided, the Court will apply that limitations period – even if it is much shorter than six years.
The Appellate Division, Second Department recently addressed this point in Save the View Now v Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp., 156 AD3d 928 (2d Dept 2017).
Save the View Now involved a challenge to the development of a hotel, restaurant, and residential units upland of Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (the “Park”). The overall plan and structure for the Park were set forth in a general project plan (“GPP”) first adopted by Defendants Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (“BBPDC”) and the Empire State Development Corporation (“ESD”) in July 2005. The general project plan, as modified (“MGPP”), stated that “[t]he residential and hotel uses would be located in two buildings, one of approximately 55 feet and one of approximately 100 feet in height.”
Construction began in July 2013 and, on September 10, 2014, the northern hotel building had already reached its maximum height. By this time, members of the community began objecting that the height of the northern hotel building violated the MGPP and was obstructing the view of the roadbed of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Promenade.
In April 2015, Plaintiffs, a group comprised of local members of the community, commenced an action against BBPDC and others seeking, among other things, a declaration that the buildings were being constructed in excess of their height limitation in violation of the MGPP. The Kings County Supreme Court (Knipel, J.) granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the action was untimely.
The Second Department affirmed. The Court noted that while an action for a declaratory judgment is generally governed by a six-year statute of limitations (see CPLR 213), the applicable statute of limitations in a declaratory judgment action is determined by the substantive nature of the claim. Thus, “where a declaratory judgment action involves claims that could have been made in another proceeding for which a specific limitation period is provided, the action is subject to the shorter limitations period.”
Because Plaintiffs’ declaratory judgment action could have been brought as an Article 78 proceeding (and indeed should have, since it involved a challenge to governmental conduct), the four-month statute of limitations governing Article 78 proceedings – rather than the six-year statute of limitations under CPLR 213 – applied.
So what’s the takeaway? The nature of the relief sought in a declaratory judgment action dictates the applicable limitations period. Thus, prior to relying on the catch-all provision in CPLR 213, a careful lawyer should analyze the substance of a complaint to determine if a shorter limitations period may apply. However, a lawyer may not use a declaratory judgment action as a vehicle to circumvent the statute of limitations that applies to the substance of a complaint.