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March 4, 2019

Unanimous Supreme Court Rigid on Missed Appeal Deadline

In a unanimous decision with repercussions for class actions and other litigations, the US Supreme Court held that an appeal deadline was not subject to equitable tolling, showing a rigid approach to one procedural rule and suggesting stringent application of the rule in the future.

In Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert, decided February 26, 2019, Lambert had filed a class-action federal suit concerning alleged consumer protection violations. The district court initially permitted Lambert to litigate on behalf of a class, but thereafter, the class was ordered decertified. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f) explicitly provides that after a decertification order, Lambert had 14 days to ask the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for permission to appeal the decertification order.

However, Lambert first filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied months later. Then, 14 days after the denial of the motion for reconsideration, Lambert petitioned the Ninth Circuit for permission to appeal the decertification order. Nearly four months had elapsed since the order decertifying the class, far past the 14-day limit proscribed in Rule 23(f). Lambert asserted that his motion for reconsideration tolled Rule 23(f).

The Ninth Circuit held that Rule 23(f) should be equitably tolled because Lambert had "acted diligently" as it pertained to contesting the decertification order, and the court then reversed the decertification order. It noted that Rule 23(f) is "non-jurisdictional, and that equitable remedies softening the deadline are therefore generally available."

The Supreme Court disagreed. "The mere fact that a time limit lacks jurisdictional force . . . does not render it malleable in every respect," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a unanimous majority. "Where the pertinent rule or rules invoked show a clear intent to preclude tolling, courts are without authority to make exceptions merely because a litigant appears to have been diligent, reasonably mistaken, or otherwise deserving."

The Supreme Court held that Rule 23(f) is one such rule. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, the 1998 Advisory Committee Notes to Rule 23(f), and prior case law "express a clear intent to compel rigorous enforcement of Rule 23(f)'s deadline, even where good cause for equitable tolling might otherwise exist."

This ruling is, of course, a clear direction that Rule 23(f) may not be treated flexibly by federal courts. But it also may signal a preference toward strictness in interpretation of other non-jurisdictional rules. The Supreme Court has made evident that practitioners and judges should not assume that any procedural rule can be tolled for equitable reasons, no matter how good the reasons. As such, litigators should be cautious concerning non-jurisdictional deadlines and remain abreast of other applicable rules that might lead to a deadline being deemed inflexible, as the Supreme Court held in Nutraceutical.


If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Ryan Ganzenmuller, associate, at rganzenmuller@barclaydamon.com, or another member of the firm's Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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