Unique Circumstances Save Untimely Civil Appeal
Cabral v. State (HSC May 9, 2012)
Background. After a fatal car accident on the Big Island, the Cabrals and other plaintiffs sued the State of Hawai'i. After a bench trial, the circuit court ruled for the State and dismissed all other claims. The court entered judgment on April 20, 2007. Ten days later, the plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration. That motion was denied on June 7, 2007. On July 6, the parties submitted a one-page stipulation to continue the time to file a notice of appeal for two weeks. The circuit court approved the stipulation and ordered it so. The stipulation failed to explain why two more weeks were necessary, and the circuit court made no findings explaining the need for the continuance. Within the two week period, the plaintiffs filed a motion to continue the time for filing the brief into September on the grounds that they were trying to settle the case. Before the circuit court ruled on the motion--and days before the deadline was up--the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal on July 23. On September 7, the circuit court granted the motion, but it was moot already as the notice of appeal had been filed. The ICA held that there was no jurisdiction to hear the appeal as the court's order granting thestipulated extension was invalid. Chief Judge Nakamura dissented.
How to Calculate a Deadline for Filing a Notice of Appeal. In a civil case, the "notice of appeal shall be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment or appealable order." Hawai'i Rules of Appellate Procedure Rule 4(a)(1). Here, the judgment was entered on April 20, 2007. That meant that the notice of appeal had to be filed by May 31. However, if a motion for reconsideration is filed, the time for filing the notice of appeal is "extended until 30 days after the entry of an order disposing of the motion." HRAP Rule 4(a)(3). The circuit court denied the motion for reconsideration on June 7. That puts the deadline to July 7, 2007. But because that day falls on a Saturday, the deadline extends to the "next day that is not a Saturday, Sunday, or a legal holday[.]" HRAP Rule 26(a). The deadline was originally July 9, 2007.
No Motion, No Good Cause, No Extension. This deadline is not set in stone. A trial court, "upon a showing of good cause, may extend the time for filing a notice of appeal upon motion filed" before the deadline passes. HRAP Rule 4(a)(4)(A). Here, however, the plaintiffs filed a stipulation before the original deadline passed. The stipulation was approved and so ordered without a finding of good cause by the circuit court.
The HSC agreed with the ICA that the circuit court erred in extending the deadline by two weeks. There was no motion and there was no evidence of good cause being shown. Even the words "good cause being shown" were not found on the stipulation itself. So the HSC held that the circuit court erred in extending the deadline in violation of HRAP Rule 4(a)(4)(A).
But the Introduction of the "Unique Circumstances" Saves the Day! Unlike the ICA, the HSC did not end the inquiry there. It agreed with Chief Judge Nakamura and introduced to Hawai'i jurisprudence the unique circumstances doctrine. This is an equitable exception to the time limitations for filing a notice of appeal. It derived from federal courts--particularly the Supreme Court of the United States. The doctrine had a run in the federal courts from 1962 to 2007.
Under this doctrine, when the appellant's filing of its notice of appeal is untimely solely because it relied on an erroneous finding or decision by the trial court, the appellate court will allow the appeal to proceed on its merits. Harris Truck Lines, Inc. v. Cherry Meat Packers, Inc., 371 U.S. 215, 217 (1962); Thompson v. Immigration & Naturalization Serv., 375 U.S. 384, 387 (1964). The doctrine was abolished in 2007 by a bare majority in Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 206-07 (2007). There, the majority held that the time limitations imposed by the federal rules were a "jurisdictional" requirement that could not be overlooked by an equitable doctrine. Justice Souter dissented and found it "intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way." Id. at 215. He would have recognized unique circumstances there because "it certainly seems reasonable to rely on an order from a federal judge." Id. at 220, 223.
Hawai'i's Gloss on the Federal Doctrine. The HSC unanimously adopted the "unique circumstances" doctrine. As in the federal cases, the erroneous trial court's order was issued before the original deadline passed and the plaintiffs relied on it. Moreover, the appellee was not prejudiced by the defective extension--especially since it stipulated to it. The HSC agreed with Chief Judge Nakamura's dissent: "We require and permit parties to comply with court orders. We should permit them to rely on court orders in determining whether the time for filing a notice of appeal has expired."
Having its Cake and Eating it too. The HSC also made a very fine distinction to explain why it did not have to adopt the majority's position in Bowles. In the federal system, the deadline for filing an appeal is jurisdictional because it is a creature of statute. According to the HSC, the authorizing statute--HRS § 641-1(c)--allows appeals "to be taken in the manner and within the time provided by the rules of the court." Still yet, even though the time constraints in HRAP Rule 4 are jurisdictional, Bacon v. Karlin, 68 Haw. 648, 650, 727 P.2d 1127, 1129 (1986), the procedure for requesting the extension--a motion and a good-cause finding--is not and principles of equity apply. And thus, the HSC allowed itself to apply the unique circumstances doctrine.