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In A Question Of First Impression, the Sixth Circuit Holds That An Electronic Filing Error Does Not Doom A Party’s Appeal

Posted in Recent Cases

We’re all too familiar with them:  Electronic filing mistakes in the Case Management and Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system (now adopted by every Circuit).  They include everything from filing in the wrong case to submitting the wrong document.  And we’re just as familiar with corrected electronic docket entries.  As we all know, the CM/ECF system does not allow for mulligans.  Once a filing error is made, an updated or corrected docket entry is necessary because the original entry cannot be updated or deleted.  While this makes for long and messy dockets, a party’s right to pursue a case is generally unaffected.

The real problem arises in those rare cases when a lawyer’s filing error jeopardizes his or her client’s right to appeal.  Earlier today, in a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit addressed that very issue: Can a technical error in an electronic filing make an appeal untimely?  Guided by the weight of authority from its sister courts, the Sixth Circuit panel unanimously answered, “no.”  See Shuler, Shuler v. Garrett (6th Cir. Case Nos. 12-6270/13-5050) (PDF).

(You may now breathe a sigh of relief.)

As all Sixth Circuit practitioners (hopefully) know, a notice of appeal “must be filed with the district clerk within 30 days after the entry of the judgment or order appealed from.”  Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1)(A).  But this 30-day period for filing can be tolled.  If a party files a timely Rule 59 motion, the time to file a notice of appeals runs instead from the entry of the order dismissing the motion.  See Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(4)(A)(iv).  In Shuler, the defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ appeal as untimely because of a technical error in the filing of the plaintiffs’ Rule 59 motion.  Federal Civil Rule 59 gives parties 28 days to file a motion to alter or amend a judgment.  See Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e).  Unfortunately, when plaintiffs’ counsel went to file a motion to amend on the last day of the 28-day period provided by the rule, she entered the wrong docket information and her client’s motion ended up being listed as filed on the docket of another case.  After realizing her mistake the next day, the lawyer promptly filed a notice of ECF correction with another copy of the motion attached.  She did not actually re-file the motion, however, until six days later.  The defendants seized upon the district court’s ruling that the Rule 59 motion was untimely and argued before the Sixth Circuit that the filing of the Rule 59 motion did not toll the running of the 30-day period for filing a notice of appeal from the district court’s judgment.  In effect, the defendants argued, the filing of the Rule 59 motion under the wrong docket meant that it had not been filed at all.

In a panel opinion written by Judge Daughtrey, the Sixth Circuit unanimously rejected the defendants’ argument and denied the motion to dismiss the appeal.  Following the lead of other Circuit Courts that have addressed the issue in similar contexts, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court erred in ruling that the plaintiffs’ Rule 59 motion was not timely filed, and thus “[i]t follows that the motion effectively tolled the 30-day period for filing the notice of appeal, which was, in turn, timely filed.”  In so ruling, the panel highlighted how the Sixth Circuit has “honored the admonition in Rule 5(d)(4) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure since its amendment in 1991,” which provides that “[t]he clerk shall not refuse to accept for filing any paper presented for that purpose solely because it is not presented in proper form as required by these rules or any local rules or practices.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(d)(4).  In denying the motion to dismiss, the panel also noted that there was “no evidence that defendants suffered any prejudice as a result of the delay in filing because, on the same day that plaintiffs’ counsel filed the motion electronically (albeit under the wrong docket number), counsel also served paper copies of the motion on the defendants, as local rules required.”  The panel thus ordered the Sixth Circuit clerk to issue a new briefing schedule.

As Shuler shows, electronic filing errors all too common in the federal courts.  Fortunately, the Sixth Circuit offers a number of online links providing guidance on how to file electronic documents properly, including addressing common technical problems as well as providing a list of permissible filings (to make sure that your document is properly categorized).  And when in doubt, call the Case Manager assigned to your case.  The Case Managers at the Sixth Circuit are very friendly and helpful.  They would rather receive your call than fix your filing error.

Expect the Sixth Circuit’s Shuler decision to be followed in the remaining Circuits.