December 11, 2017

Only Congressional Deadlines Are Jurisdictional; Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Servs. of Chi.

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Typically, we think of appellate deadlines as jurisdictional—the appellate court does not have jurisdiction to hear a matter until that jurisdiction has been properly invoked. But that is not necessarily the case in federal court, because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that on Congress can create jurisdictional rules.

Hamer brought an employment and age discrimination action in federal court against Neighborhood Housing Services and Fannie Mae. The defendants moved for summary judgment, that motion was granted, and final judgment was entered on September 14, 2015.

On October 8, 2015, Hamer’s counsel made two motions: (1) to withdraw as counsel, and (2) a two-month extension of her deadline for filing an appeal so she could find new counsel. The defendants did not object, the district court granted the motion, and the defendants did not move for reconsideration.

Hamer filed her notice of appeal on December 11, 2015, and the defendants’ docketing statement characterized this filing as “timely.” Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit sua sponte raised the timeliness of the appeal and had the parties brief the issue. The defendants then asserted that the appeal was untimely, citing Appellate Rule 4, which sets a 30-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal. The Seventh Circuit concluded that it lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal. The Court granted certiorari.

The Court began its analysis by noting that 28 U.S.C. § 2107 gives litigants the opportunity to seek an extension of the deadline to institute an appeal for “excusable neglect or good cause” or if the litigant did not receive notice of the entry if judgment. The statute does not limit the length of this extension if it is based on good cause. It then contrasted this statute with the Appellate Rule 4(a)(5)(C), which limits the amount of time for any extension of the time for filing a notice of appeal. This poses a problem because the Court had previously held that time limits on court-made rules are not jurisdictional. Rather, a rule-based time limit is “a mandatory claim-processing rule subject to forfeiture if not properly raised by the appellee.”

The defendants argued that the Rule’s limit on extensions of time has a “statutory basis,” even though it appears nowhere in the text, because a prior version of the statute limited all extensions it authorized to 30 days. And (the argument went) legislative history shows that the failure to extend these limitations to extensions for good cause was an oversight. This argument did not fly—“we resist speculating whether Congress acted inadvertently.”

The rule of decision our precedent shapes is both clear and easy to apply: If a time prescription governing the transfer of adjudicatory authority from one Article III court to another appears in a statute, the limitation is jurisdictional; otherwise, the time specification fits within the claim processing category.

The Court found that the Seventh Circuit misapplied this principle by concluding that the Rule is merely the vehicle through which the statute is employed.

In conflating Rule 4(a)(5)(C) with §2107(c), the Court of Appeals failed to grasp the distinction our decisions delineate between jurisdictional appeal filing deadlines and mandatory claim-processing rules, and therefore misapplied Bowles.

When issuing its opinion, the Court expressly avoided addressing whether the defendants had forfeited their timeliness arguments or whether other concerns apply.

We note, in this regard, that our decision does not reach issues raised by Hamer, but left unaddressed by the Court of Appeals, including: (1) whether respondents’ failure to raise any objection in the District Court to the overlong time extension, by itself, effected a forfeiture; (2) whether respondents could gain review of the District Court’s time extension only by filing their own appeal notice; and (3) whether equitable considerations may occasion an exception to Rule 4(a)(5)(C)’s time constraint.

Wise litigants should take these issues to heart, and learn to avoid forfeiting a timeliness issue in the future.

Lessons:

  1. In federal courts, time limits in rules are not jurisdictional and may be forwarded; only time limits in statutes are jurisdictional.
  2. Litigants need to act to protect their arguments concerning deadlines or risk forfeiting these arguments.