“My Dog Ate My Homework”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s arguments concerning Rule 59(e). The court noted that relief from judgment under the rule is “an extraordinary remedy that should be used sparingly,” solely to correct manifest errors of law or address newly discovered evidence or a change in controlling law. Computer-related mishaps within counsel’s “reasonable control,” the court held, are not grounds for relief under the rule. Even though the court did not “question the good faith” of the attorney, it observed that he was “in the best position to ensure that his own email was working properly” and admonished him for not checking the docket after the deadline for dispositive motions had passed. Quoting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s decision in Fox v. Am. Airlines, Inc., the Fifth Circuit characterized counsel’s arguments as “an updated version of the classic ‘my dog ate my homework’ line.”
As to the plaintiff’s argument that the district court’s order granting summary judgment was wrong on the merits, the appellate court ruled that the plaintiff forfeited the argument by failing to raise it below. Conceding that there are exceptions to this rule for purely legal questions that would result in a “miscarriage of justice” if not considered, the court saw “no principled basis” for allowing an exception here. There was no “manifest injustice” to correct, the court held, because “nothing prevented [the plaintiff] from alleging a fact dispute in the district court.”
A “Terrifying” Cautionary Tale
Litigation Section leaders view the case as an instructive example of how over-reliance on technology can go awry. “It was a compound mistake that doomed” the plaintiff’s attorney, explains Don W. Davis, Akron, OH, cochair of the Section’s Trial Practice Committee. “He doesn’t get the email, he files a motion to fix it, and then doesn’t state his underlying defense, thereby waiving it,” Davis elaborates. “This is terrifying,” he adds. “I feel bad for this counsel, but it was good for me to read this opinion. It is a cautionary tale about email and office process. People need to be reminded to focus on the details every once in a while,” says Davis.
“Technology allows us to work more efficiently, but it isn’t failproof,” cautions Jennifer L. Seme, Philadelphia, PA, cochair of the Section’s Trial Practice Committee. “This was a compound failure which could have been corrected at multiple points in time if counsel had policies and procedures in place to ensure compliance with case management deadlines,” she explains. “The decision serves as a cautionary tale for the younger generation of lawyers who are so accustomed to technology and fail to appreciate the gravity of this type of error,” she notes. When technology fails in this manner, Seme warns, “[T]he lawyer’s honest mistake could harm the client’s interests, thereby exposing the lawyer to a potential malpractice claim.”