Supreme Court Update: Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (16-658)

November 8, 2017 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!

Well, despite (because of??) our mild ribbing yesterday about the Court's tendency to start each term with per curiam decisions saying what the law isn't, The Nine sprung into action this morning with their first signed opinion of the year, holding in Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (No. 16-658) that Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C), which limits extensions of the time for filing a notice of appeal to thirty days, is not jurisdictional. That's good news for Charlene Hamer (and perhaps for her trial counsel's malpractice carriers). Hamer's lawyers sought a 60-day extension of time for her to file an appeal from a district court judgment dismissing her Title VII claims, in order to enable her to find new counsel to take the appeal. Notwithstanding Rule 4(a)(5)(C)'s clear 30-day limit, the District Court granted the 60-day extension and Hamer filed her appeal within the extended period of time. The Seventh Circuit dismissed the appeal, however, concluding that Rule 4(a)(5)(C) imposed a jurisdictional limit that could not be excused.

The Supreme Court reversed, in a short and sweet unanimous opinion by its resident Civ Pro expert, Justice Ginsburg. Only Congress can determine a lower federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction, RBG reminded us, so a provision governing the time to appeal a civil action is jurisdictional only if it appears in a statute. Time prescriptions appearing in other sources (like the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure) are characterized as judge-made "mandatory claim-processing rules," which, unlike jurisdictional rules, are subject to waiver and forfeiture. Although a federal statute, 28 U.S.C. 2107(c), provides courts with the authority to extend the time available to file an appeal, it does not set a limit on how long an extension may be, at least where the extension is based on a motion showing "excusable neglect or good cause," made within 30 days of the appeal deadline. (In cases where the extension request is based on the appellant's lack of notice of entry of judgment, the statute imposes a 14-day extension limit, but the motion can be made within 180 days of the judgment.) Unlike the statute, Rule 4(a)(5)(C) provides a 30-day extension limit in all cases, but it is a judge-made rule that does not appear in the U.S. Code. In deciding that Rule 4(a)(5)(C) is nevertheless jurisdictional, the Seventh Circuit misapplied the Court's decision in Bowles v. Russell (2007), which held that "the taking of an appeal within the prescribed time is mandatory and jurisdictional." Justice Ginsburg clarified that "[t]he ‘mandatory and jurisdictional' formulation is a characterization left over from days when we were less than meticulous in our use of the term ‘jurisdictional.'" While the statement was correct in Bowles, which involved the Congressionally imposed 14-day limit for extensions based on lack of notice of entry of judgment, it "is erroneous and confounding terminology where, as here, the relevant time prescription is absent from the U.S. Code." Seizing this early opportunity to clearly establish the law, Justice Ginsburg summarized as follows: "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." Thus, the Seventh Circuit was reversed and the case remanded for consideration of several other issues that the lower court hadn't addressed, including whether equitable situations (like relying on an erroneous district court order) warrant an exception to Rule 4(a)(5)(C) and whether the respondents forfeited any objection to the overlong time extension.

Hamer was a relatively light lift for the Court, which ordinarily doesn't grace us with signed opinions until after late November or December. But if we get any more pre-Thanksgiving treats, we'll be sure to pass the news along.