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Supreme Court: Only Statutory Deadlines Are Jurisdictional

Appellate Law Update E. King Poor, Jerome C. Mohsen

Justice Frankfurter once observed that the term “jurisdiction” was “a verbal coat of too many colors,” United States v. L. A. Tucker Truck Lines, Inc., 344 U.S. 33 (1952). But in its recent decision in Hamer v. Neighborhood Hous. Servs. of Chicago, 2017 WL 5160782 (Nov. 8, 2017), the Supreme Court makes plain that the color choices for that term are now more black and white.

In particular, when considering the time to appeal, the Court in Hamer held that only time limits set by Congress, as opposed to those set by a court rule, are jurisdictional.

In Hamer, a plaintiff’s discrimination claims were dismissed by the district court. Her lawyer then withdrew shortly before the notice of appeal was due, and the court granted her an extension of time to appeal, but beyond what was permitted by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C). The defendants did not oppose that request in the district court. But the Seventh Circuit, on its own, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction because the district court had no authority to extend the time to appeal beyond what it termed was a “jurisdictional” deadline and dismissed the appeal. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed. In doing so, it reinforced the distinction between jurisdictional deadlines and what it described as mandatory “claim-processing rules.” Drawing on earlier precedent, the Court explained that time limits are jurisdictional only when set by Congress in a statute. Such statutory deadlines cannot be waived or forfeited even if a party fails to raise the issue. These time limits may be raised at any time, even on appeal, and a court has a duty to raise them,

On the other hand, a time limit set by a court-made rule may still be enforced, but only if it is timely raised by a party. If it is not timely raised, it may be waived or forfeited, and a court has no duty to raise it on its own. The Supreme Court also explained that the distinction between time limits that are court-made and those that are statutory arises from the principle that "[o]nly Congress may determine a lower federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction."

The Supreme Court pointed out that the Seventh Circuit, like other courts of appeal, have “tripped over” the statement, in Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007), that the time for taking an appeal is “mandatory and jurisdictional.” This statement is still correct, the Court explained, when applied to Bowles. Yet Bowles was different. There, the district court granted an extension of the time to appeal, because the appealing party lacked notice of the judgment under Rule 4(a)(6)(B), which mirrors the fourteen-day statutory time limit in 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c). Because the time limit was grounded in a statute, it is jurisdictional and the district court had no authority to extend it.

On the other hand, the time limit in Hamer differed in this essential respect: it was derived only from a court-created rule. In Hamer, the district court granted an extension beyond the time limit based only on a court rule that had no statutory counterpart, and that made all the difference.  As a result, the time limit for the extension was only a mandatory claim-processing rule. When the defendants raised no objection to it, the Seventh Circuit could not dismiss the appeal on its own for lack of jurisdiction.

The Hamer decision reinforces that whether a federal time limit is jurisdictional is not a coat of many colors, but actually a black or white question: Is the time limit set by Congress or a court?  

For questions, please contact E. King Poor at [email protected]/(312) 715-5143, Jerome C. Mohsen at [email protected]/(414) 277-5860, or your Quarles & Brady attorney.