Earlier this week, the Sixth Circuit issued a ruling in Maxwell v. Dodd (6th Cir. 09-2538 & 10-1663, Dec. 6, 2011) (PDF), a case involving a Bivens and civil conspiracy claim filed against federal agents for an allegedly unconstitutional search of a residence.  The Court affirmed the trial court and the jury’s verdict, but, along the way, addressed a significant distinction between jurisdictional restrictions and mandatory restrictions on appellate review of district court rulings.

Among other things, the complainant in Maxwell appealed the jury’s verdict on her illegal-entry claim, asserting insufficiency of the evidence and arguing that she should have won that issue as a matter of law.  Writing for a unanimous panel that included Judges Norris and Griffin, Judge Sutton began by observing that, where a plaintiff believes that judgment is warranted as a matter of law, such plaintiff must move, first, under Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules for judgment as a matter of law before the claim goes to the jury and then, second, under Rule 50(b) or 59 after the jury issues its verdict.  Because Maxwell failed to do so, the district court never ruled on sufficiency, giving the Sixth Circuit nothing to review and therefore necessarily collapsing Maxwell’s argument.

At that point, however, the Court further observed that even though the Federal Rules “prohibit us from reviewing this claim … does not establish that we lack jurisdiction to do so, as some of our cases have suggested” (emphasis in original).  The Court explained that “[n]ot all mandatory rules are subject-matter jurisdictional rules.”  Congressional acts “that unambiguously restrict[] the adjudicatory authority of the federal courts … will be treated as jurisdictional.”  By contrast, other restrictions — including those of the Federal Rules — “will be treated as mandatory but not jurisdictional.”  Judge Sutton explained that the “distinction matters a great deal because the parties retain control over invoking mandatory claim-processing requirements while courts retain control over invoking jurisdictional requirements” — thus, while parties may forfeit mandatory claim-processing rules, they may not forfeit or waive jurisdictional limits.  The Court stated that earlier decisions that failed to account for this distinction — specifically citing Allison v. City of East Lansing, 484 F.3d 874 (6th Cir. 2007) — “are no longer good law on the point.”

Maxwell thus serves as a useful reminder to counsel of the distinction between mandatory and jurisdictional restrictions, and the different applications of those restrictions in practice.