Knot, meet sword

Bell v. McAdory, No. 15-1036 (7th Cir. Apr. 29, 2016).

Detail from the “Alexander Mosaic” in Pompeii (credit: Wikimedia Foundation)

Detail from the “Alexander Mosaic” in Pompeii (credit: Wikimedia Foundation)

The federal rules governing when to file a notice of appeal can tie even lawyers up in knots. All the more easily can they tie up pro se litigants, like the plaintiff in this case. And these rules are supremely important. A late notice of appeal deprives a U.S. Court of Appeals of jurisdiction, no matter how weighty the excuse for lateness

The plaintiff here, who is a civilly committed sexual offender, asserts that the facility that is housing him violated his due-process rights by forcing him to spend eight days naked and shivering in a drafty infirmary. The district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants, which triggered the 30-day clock to file a notice of appeal. One day after that 30-day period had ended, the plaintiff filed a motion that the district court treated as a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b). While that kind of motion normally postpones the time for appealing, the plaintiff’s motion was itself late, and a late Rule 60 motion can’t postpone the notice-of-appeal clock. Even so, a denial of a late Rule 60 motion is separately appealable—and, when the district court denied the motion, the plaintiff here timely appealed that denial. 

The problem is that the plaintiff here isn’t challenging the denial of the Rule 60 motion—he’s challenging the underlying judgment, and he’s too late to do that. What can the Court of Appeals do? 

The Seventh Circuit, speaking through Judge Easterbrook, points out that the rules allow a district court to extend the 30-day notice-of-appeal period if the would-be appellant asks for such an extension within 30 days after the unextended notice-of-appeal period ends. (Got that?) And the district court could have treated the plaintiff’s Rule 60 motion as a request for just such an extension. So the court of appeals cuts the Gordian knot by remanding the case for the district court to consider whether to grant an extension, which can run until 14 days after the district court rules on the request for an extension. And now the plaintiff has appointed counsel. Hence, if the district court grants the extension, his counsel will no doubt be sure to appeal on time. 

The Seventh Circuit also takes the opportunity to throw serious doubt on the merits of the district court’s judgment. And it points out that if the district court, on remand, wants to reconsider that judgment, it is free to do so.