SCOTUS: Only Appeal Filing Deadlines Prescribed by Statute are “Jurisdictional”

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On November 8, 2017, the Supreme Court issued an unanimous opinion in Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Case No. 16-658, clarifying that an appeal filing deadline prescribed by statute is “jurisdictional,” whereas an appeal filing deadline merely prescribed by court-made rule, such as the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, is only a “mandatory claim-processing rule” that, unlike a jurisdictional rule, is subject to forfeiture or waiver.

Hamer involved a suit filed in the Northern District of Illinois alleging employment and age discrimination.  The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on September 10, 2015, and entered final judgment on September 14, 2015.  Before the expiration of the thirty-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1)(A), the plaintiff’s attorneys moved to withdraw as counsel, citing disagreement with their client over pursuing an appeal.  The attorneys, on behalf of the plaintiff, requested a two-month extension of the deadline for filing a notice of appeal.  The district court granted both motions and extended the notice-of-appeal deadline to December 14, 2015.  The defendants neither objected to the length of the extension nor moved for reconsideration.

On December 11, 2015, the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal.  The Seventh Circuit, on its own initiative, questioned the timeliness of the appeal and ordered briefing on the issue.  The appellees then argued (for the first time) that the appeal was untimely under Rule 4(a)(5)(C), which limits extensions to thirty days.  Relying on Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007), the Seventh Circuit agreed, reasoning that the district court had erroneously granted an extension that exceeded the time period provided by Rule 4(a)(5)(C) and that the notice of appeal was therefore untimely.  The court dismissed the appeal, holding that despite the appellant’s reliance on the district court’s order, it had no authority to excuse the untimely filing because the requirement of filing a timely notice of appeal is “mandatory and jurisdictional.”  See Bowles, 551 U.S. at 206 (“We have long and repeatedly held that the time limits for filing a notice of appeal are jurisdictional in nature.  Accordingly, we hold that petitioner’s untimely notice—even though filed in reliance upon a District Court’s order—deprived the Court of Appeals of jurisdiction.”).

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and vacated the court of appeals’ decision.  In so doing, it distinguished between deadlines prescribed by Congress and deadlines prescribed by court rule:

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 [and is subject to forfeiture or waiver].

The Court noted that only Congress can determine a lower court’s subject-matter jurisdiction and that the relevant statute to which Rule 4 corresponds, 28 U.S.C. § 2107, does not limit the length of the extension that the district court could have granted in this case.  Unlike Bowles, which involved a district court’s order granting an extension of time to appeal beyond a limit prescribed by Congress, the only applicable limit in Hamer was that provided by Rule 4(a)(1)(A).  Thus, because Rule 4 is not prescribed by Congress, the Supreme Court held that the Seventh Circuit erred by treating the time limit of Rule 4 as jurisdictional.  It remanded the case without addressing several arguments that the Seventh Circuit had not reached, including whether the timeliness objections had been either forfeited or waived and whether equitable considerations should provide for an extension to Rule 4(a)(5)(C)’s time constraints.

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