Benefits of Pandemic-Prompted Court Extensions Are Limited
Civil litigation is a highly deadline-driven activity — statutes of limitation, discovery responses, notices of appeal. The “use it by a certain date or lose it” nature of all of these deadlines pushes the wheels of justice forward, steadily, if sometimes slowly.
In response to the novel coronavirus, state and federal courts across the country have applied the brakes to the judicial system — canceling appellate arguments, postponing jury trials, and pushing out deadlines, sometimes potentially for months.
In the short-term, the orders provide welcome relief for firms and clients coping with office closures and directives in many parts of the country to shelter in place. But the relief in many cases may be incomplete: In some instances, courts lack the power to relieve parties from jurisdictional deadlines.
As illustrative examples, here we look at a series of orders, all effective March 17, from a federal court in Chicago, and from state courts in Illinois, California and New York.
On March 16, U.S. Chief District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer of the Northern District of Illinois signed Amended General Order 20-0012. For civil cases, the order extended all deadlines set by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or by local rules by 21 days, and struck hearings, trials and settlement conferences that had been set to occur between March 17 and April 3 to be reset after April 6.
But the order notably did not — because it could not — extend the deadline for appeal:
Instead, the order invited parties to file timely extension requests under Appellate Rule 4(a)(5)(A), and stated that that rule’s good-cause requirement would be deemed to exist.
What the order also did not do is extend the deadline for challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a jury verdict under Rule 50(b), because Rule 6 specifically strips district courts of the power to extend that deadline. This matters, even in light of the order, because an evidentiary sufficiency challenge must be raised in the district court in order to be raised on appeal.
All of this means that for any party who lost a jury trial and had a judgment entered against it before March 17 — or who has one entered afterward — the order may provide no relief. Instead, unless Congress passes a stop-gap measure to realign the post-judgment and appellate rules, it will be business as usual for parties seeking post-judgment relief.
Timely Rule 50(b) motions filed within 28 days of entry of judgment do stay appeal deadlines, but those motions can be a weeks-long effort; a notice of appeal can be prepared in much less time.
Unlike the federal courts, the Illinois Supreme Court appears to be less constrained in moving appellate deadlines. On March 17, the court entered an order empowering lower courts to suspend deadlines for as long as 30 days following the end of the current state of emergency.
The court also suspended any Illinois Supreme Court Rules “to the extent contrary to any provision of this order.” The order noted that it was “subject to constitutional limitations,” but where civil litigation is concerned, the Illinois Constitution simply creates the Illinois courts and defines their subject matter and appellate jurisdiction.
The Illinois Supreme Court itself sets by rule the deadlines for invoking that jurisdiction. Accordingly, the March 17 suspension of rules may well include Illinois Supreme Court Rule 303, which sets the 30-day deadline filing a notice of appeal in a civil case following entry of judgment; that suspension in turn may occur without a party needing to seek an extension of time.
But here too, the rules are complex, and there is a potential glitch. Under the Illinois post-trial motion statute, Chapter 735 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes Section 5/2-1202(b), a post-trial motion challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to a support a judgment following a jury verdict (or to seek a new trial) must be filed within 30 days following entry of judgment. As with a Rule 50(b) motion in federal court, a timely Section 2-1202(b) motion stays the appeal deadline.
And as with Rule 50(b), failing to file a Section 2-1202(b) motion operates as a forfeiture of an evidentiary sufficiency challenge, and in Illinois, also of the right to seek a new trial on appeal. But Section 2-1202 is a statute, not an Illinois Supreme Court rule, so the Illinois Supreme Court’s March 17 order could not suspend it. Here, though, and unlike in federal court, the Illinois trial courts are already empowered by statute to extend the Section 2-1202(b) deadline, but the March 17 order did not automatically extend all post-judgment motion deadlines.
On March 17, the California Supreme Court took yet a third approach, directing in Alameda County Superior Court cases that any dates between March 17 and April 3, inclusive, would be deemed holidays for purposes of computing time under California Code of Civil Procedures Sections 12 and 12a, without purporting to amend or suspend the code.
In New York City, the trial court on March 17 adjourned to a future date all applications and all motions that had not been fully submitted and directed that it would hear only essential applications. The same day, the New York intermediate appellate court suspended indefinitely all appellate filing deadlines, other than those where a deadline is conferred by statute.
While all of these orders — and many others that have recently been entered and will be in the days to come — aim to provide relief to anxious litigators and their clients, the orders are complex and the relief they provide is necessarily incomplete.
This article is reprinted with permission from Law360, April 3, 2020, www.Law360.com.
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