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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2022

Overlooked E-Filing Notices Leads to Adverse Judgment

Derek Wallen


  • In Rollins v. Home Depot USA, the plaintiff's attorney missed a motion for summary judgment due to a computer system issue and failure to check the case docket.
  • The district court denied the plaintiff's motion for relief under Rule 59(e), and the Fifth Circuit upheld the decision, stating that computer-related mishaps within counsel's control are not grounds for relief.
  • This case serves as a cautionary tale about over-reliance on technology and the importance of implementing procedures to ensure compliance with case management deadlines.
Overlooked E-Filing Notices Leads to Adverse Judgment
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An attorney’s failure to receive email notice of an opposing party’s motion for summary judgment, caused by inadvertent filtering of the email into an account that the attorney does not monitor, is not grounds for relief from judgment under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A federal appeals court held that a district court did not abuse its discretion by granting a defendant’s motion for summary judgment and denying a plaintiff’s motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter the judgment because of “a glitch in his [attorney’s] email system.” In what the appellate court described as a “cautionary tale for every attorney who litigates in the era of e-filing,” the court also held that the plaintiff waived his objections to the merits of the summary judgment motion by failing to raise them before the district court. According to ABA Litigation Section leaders, the case is a reminder to monitor court dockets regularly and implement airtight e-filing practices.

The Case of the Missing Email

The plaintiff in Rollins v. Home Depot USA, Inc. sued his employer for personal injury. The employer moved for summary judgment immediately before the deadline for dispositive motions. The plaintiff’s lawyer never saw the emailed notice of that motion because his firm’s computer system routed it to a folder called “other” that he did not monitor regularly. He also did not check the case docket after the dispositive motion deadline passed. The district court granted the unopposed motion and entered judgment for the defendant.

The plaintiff’s attorney discovered these events about a week later. Citing the email snafu, the plaintiff moved for relief under Rule 59(e), which permits district courts to “alter or amend a judgment.” The district court denied the plaintiff’s motion, which did not challenge the merits of the holding that summary judgment was proper given the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to alter its judgment. And, for the first time on appeal, he argued that the district court should have granted his Rule 59(e) motion so that he could demonstrate disputed factual questions as to duty and causation.

“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.”