Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
A statute of limitations does not deprive one of property without due process of law, unless, in its application to an existing right of action, it unreasonably limits the opportunity to enforce the right by suit. By the same token, a state may shorten an existing period of limitation, provided a reasonable time is allowed for bringing an action after the passage of the statute and before the bar takes effect. What is a reasonable period, however, is dependent on the nature of the right and particular circumstances. 1
Thus, where a receiver for property is appointed 13 years after the disappearance of the owner and notice is made by publication, it is not a violation of due process to bar actions relative to that property after an interval of only one year after such appointment. 2 When a state, by law, suddenly prohibits all actions to contest tax deeds which have been of record for two years unless they are brought within six months after its passage, no unconstitutional deprivation is effected. 3 No less valid is a statute which provides that when a person has been in possession of wild lands under a recorded deed continuously for 20 years and had paid taxes thereon during the same, and the former owner in that interval pays nothing, no action to recover such land shall be entertained unless commenced within 20 years, or before the expiration of five years following enactment of said provision. 4 Similarly, an amendment to a workmen’s compensation act, limiting to three years the time within which a case may be reopened for readjustment of compensation on account of aggravation of a disability, does not deny due process to one who sustained his injury at a time when the statute contained no limitation. A limitation is deemed to affect the remedy only, and the period of its operation in this instance was viewed as neither arbitrary nor oppressive. 5
Moreover, a state may extend as well as shorten the time in which suits may be brought in its courts and may even entirely remove a statutory bar to the commencement of litigation. Thus, a repeal or extension of a statute of limitations affects no unconstitutional deprivation of property of a debtor-defendant in whose favor such statute had already become a defense.
A right to defeat a just debt by the statute of limitation . . . [is not] a vested right, such as is protected by the Constitution. Accordingly no offense against the Fourteenth Amendment is committed by revival, through an extension or repeal, of an action on an implied obligation to pay a child for the use of her property, 6 or a suit to recover the purchase price of securities sold in violation of a Blue Sky Law, 7 or a right of an employee to seek, on account of the aggravation of a former injury, an additional award out of a state-administered fund. 8
However, for suits to recover real and personal property, when the right of action has been barred by a statute of limitations and title as well as real ownership have become vested in the defendant, any later act removing or repealing the bar would be void as attempting an arbitrary transfer of title. 9 Also unconstitutional is the application of a statute of limitation to extend a period that parties to a contract have agreed should limit their right to remedies under the contract.
When the parties to a contract have expressly agreed upon a time limit on their obligation, a statute which invalidates . . . [said] agreement and directs enforcement of the contract after . . . [the agreed] time has expired unconstitutionally imposes a burden in excess of that contracted. 10