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Supreme Court Holds Dismissal Not Required in Case About Extensions of Time Under the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure

Timely filing a notice of appeal is one of the most important steps in the appellate process. In most appeals from a final judgment of a federal district court, a party has 30 days within which to file a notice of appeal. But sometimes, life happens. Situations arise where a party needs a little more time. And in recognition of that fact, the federal rules provide a way forward. Under certain circumstances, a party can ask the court to give it an extension of time to file the notice of appeal—of up to 30 days. But what happens if the court grants more time than is permitted by the rules? Will the appellate court lack jurisdiction to proceed? That was the issue confronted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its latest case on the subject: Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.1

An Extension of Time Presents a Big Problem

An employee, Hamer, filed an employment discrimination claim against her employer. The employer prevailed in the district court when the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and entered final judgment in the case on September 14, 2015. At this point, the appellate clock started ticking. Under the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, the employee had 30 days within which to file her notice of appeal, making the deadline October 14, 2015.

Before the employee’s deadline, her attorneys decided they were out of the case. The attorneys moved to withdraw from the case, but asked the court to give the employee an extension on the deadline to file her notice of appeal, so she could find another attorney and get him or her up to speed. The district court allowed the attorneys to withdraw, and granted the motion for extension of time. But the district court gave the employee a two-month extension, nearly double the time permitted by the rules. And that extension created a jurisdictional quagmire for the case.

Under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(c), a district court has the authority to grant extensions of time to file a notice of appeal. But under the rule, those extensions are not supposed to be more than 30 days. Here, the district court granted an extension beyond the time allowed by rule.

When the case got to the court of appeals, the appellate court zeroed in on this potential issue. Concluding that Rule 4(a)(5)(C)’s time prescription was jurisdictional, the appellate court concluded it had no choice but to dismiss the appeal.

Ultimately, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue before the Court was whether Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C) was jurisdictional. In a decision for a unanimous court, Justice Ginsburg delivered an opinion explaining it was not.

Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C) is Not Jurisdictional

In describing why Rule 4(a)(5)(C) was not jurisdictional, the Court explained that normally, an appeal filing deadline that is contained in a statute is a jurisdictional requirement, meaning that if it is not met, the court is without jurisdiction to proceed. On the other hand, if a time limit is simply prescribed by court rule, it is not jurisdictional. Instead, it is a mandatory claim-processing rule. The difference between the two is the fact that the latter is waivable, while the former is not. Jurisdictional defects cannot be waived or forfeited, and they can be raised at any point in the proceeding.

Because only Congress can determine a federal lower court’s subject matter jurisdiction, the Court looked at whether a statute limited extensions of time for filing a notice of appeal. The statute in question did have a time limitation, but it only applied to cases where a party had not received notice of the judgment. In all other cases, the district court had power to extend the time for filing upon excusable neglect or good cause, but no time limit was placed on the extensions granted under that provision. So the statute did not provide for a 30-day limit on extensions under these circumstances.

The limit on the extension came instead, from court rule. “Because Rule 4(a)(5)(C), not §2107, limits the length of the extension granted here, the time prescription is not jurisdictional.”2 The Court reversed the court of appeals’ ruling, but noted that the employee’s appeal was not entirely in the clear. The case was remanded for further proceedings to decide some open questions, such as whether the employer below had objected to the 60-day extension (and if not, had forfeited the right to complain).

Conclusion

The Hamer case is a good summary of the Supreme Court’s general rule about when a time prescription is jurisdictional or is simply a claim-processing rule. For those who get extensions beyond 30 days, this case gives ammunition against the argument that a jurisdictional defect is present, though the better approach may be to at least file within the additional 30 days. For those defending against an appeal, this is a reminder to be on guard for situations where the district court grants an extension beyond what the rule allows. In that situation, objecting may be key to avoid forfeiting the argument.

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1 583 U.S. ___ (2017).
2 Id. (slip op. at 10).
Featured Image: "Unnamed" by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.
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