In a unanimous slip opinion decided less than one month after oral arguments, the Supreme Court in Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago et al., 583 U.S. _____ (2017), issued a bright-line rule for determining whether time limits for filing a notice of appeal are jurisdictional and thus cannot be modified or are mandatory claim-processing rules, which are subject to waiver or forfeiture. The Court held that prescribed time limits found only in court-promulgated rules but not in an underlying statute are mandatory claim-processing rules and not jurisdictional.
Petitioner Charmaine Hamer filed a complaint against Respondents Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago and Fannie Mae, her former employers, alleging employment and age discrimination claims. After the underlying case was resolved via the respondent’s successful motion for summary judgment on September 10, 2015, and subsequent entry of judgment on September 14, 2015, Hamer’s previous attorney sought to withdraw from the matter as counsel and obtain a two-month extension on Hamer’s notice of appeal filing date so that she could obtain new counsel. The district court granted the motion on both counts and extended Hamer’s notice of appeal deadline from October 14 to December 14, 2015. The respondents did not move for reconsideration or otherwise object to the new deadline.
Hamer filed her notice of appeal within the district court’s new deadline, and the respondent noted her filing was “timely” in its docketing statement filed in the court of appeals. However, the court of appeals, on its own accord, questioned the timeliness of Hamer’s notice of appeal based on Rule 4(a)(5)(C), Fed. Rule App. Proc. Rule 4(a)(5)(C) limits the extension of time that may be granted to “30 days after the prescribed time” of the original deadline—or, in this case, to November 14, 2015.
The court of appeals asked the respondents to brief the issue, wherein they raised for the first time the argument that Hamer’s notice of appeal was untimely, citing Rule 4(a)(5)(C). The court of appeals determined that Hamer’s appeal was untimely, and that Rule 4(a)(5)(C) created a jurisdictional limit precluding the court of appeals’ ability to hear the case. In reaching its conclusion, the court of appeals relied on Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 210-213 (2007), which states that an appeal deadline prescribed by statute shall be regarded as jurisdictional, requiring a dismissal of any late filing for want of jurisdiction. The court of appeals identified Rule 4(a)(5)(C)’s derivation from 28 U.S.C. § 2107, which permits extensions of time to file a notice of appeal, as the statutory authorization for the rule and the jurisdictional basis for the time limit.
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the conclusions of the court of appeals, saying the lower court “[i]n conflating Rule 4(a)(5)(C) with § 2107(c) . . . failed to grasp the distinction our decisions delineate between jurisdictional appeal filing deadlines and mandatory claim-processing rules, and therefore misapplied Bowles.” Noting that several courts of appeals have “tripped” over the language found in Bowles that “the taking of an appeal within the prescribed time is ‘mandatory and jurisdictional,’” the Court admitted that the phrase “mandatory and jurisdictional” was a “characterization left over from days when we were ‘less than meticulous’ in our use of the term ‘jurisdictional.’”
To clarify, the Court noted that section 2107(c) grants the right to the district court to grant an extension of a notice of appeal but does not contain a specified time limit for filing such a notice of appeal in cases where the appellant had notice of the original entry of judgment. The time limit is only found within Court-promulgated Rule 4(a)(5)(C), which means the time limit lacks a statutory basis. Application of “mandatory and jurisdictional,” therefore, is “erroneous and confounding terminology where, as here, the relevant time prescription is absent from the U.S. Code.” When a time-limit is set by the courts rather than Congress, it is a mandatory claim-processing rule “serving ‘to promote the orderly progress of litigation’” rather than a jurisdictional limit set by statute necessitating the “drastic” result of a dismissal. The Court further refused to consider the respondent’s arguments that time limits previously found in section 2107(c), but which were removed in revisions to the statute by Congress in 1991, were “inadvertent” omissions, saying the Court “resist[s] speculating” and that it will presume “that [the] legislature says . . . what it means and means . . . what it says.”
The Court concisely stated its holding, saying: “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.” Further, mandatory claim-processing rules may be waived or forfeited. This decision, the Court believes, is “both clear and easy to apply.”
The Court remanded the matter to the court of appeals for further proceedings, noting it did not consider additional issues raised by Hamer, such as whether the respondents’ failure to object to the district court’s extension constituted forfeiture, whether Respondents could only gain a review of the extension by filing their own appeal notice, or whether equitable considerations allow exception to Rule 4(a)(5)(c)’s time constraint.