Court of Appeals Clarifies Rules for Filing a Timely Appeal in a Civil Case

On August 22, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Clark v. Bridges, No. 12-CV-49, slip op. (D.C. Aug. 22, 2013), in which it considered an appeal arising from a landlord-tenant dispute. Id. at 1. This case note discusses a part of the Court of Appeals’ opinion that “highlight[s] a change in court rules that may create a trap for the unwary civil litigant who wishes to file a timely appeal.” Id. at 3.

By way of background, the Court of Appeals’ rules provide that, subject to certain exceptions, “an appeal in a civil case must be taken ‘within 30 days after entry of the judgment or order from which the appeal is taken.'” Id. (quoting D.C. App. R. 4(a)(1)). However, “for a time, almost all parties received the benefit of [an] extra five days” to file a timely appeal because (1) the Court of Appeals’ rules provide an extra five days “[w]hen a rule of the Superior Court requires service of the notice of entry of judgment or order to be made by mail,'” id. at 4 (alterations in original; quoting D.C. App. R. 4(a)(1)), and (2) up until a change in 2005, the D.C. Superior Court’s rules required service by mail in almost all civil cases. Id. at 5 (citing, inter alia, Super. Ct. Civ. R. 77(d) (2005)). In 2005, the Superior Court amended its rules such that service by mail is no longer required. Id. at 5-6 (citing, inter alia, Super. Ct. Civ. R. 77(d) (2006 & 2013)). As a result, parties are no longer entitled as they were before to the extra five days to file a timely appeal. Id. at 6-7.

In this case, the appeal was untimely but would have been timely had the appellant “been entitled to the extra five-day period.” Id. at 9. The Court of Appeals concluded that, due to “legitimate uncertainty” about whether a civil litigant is entitled to the extra five days to file a timely appeal, the appellant in this case would be able to show “excusable neglect” and thereby obtain an extension from the trial court to enable consideration of the appeal on the merits. Id. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals deemed “it appropriate to treat this appeal as though [the appellant had] obtained the necessary extension from the trial court and [to] consider [the appeal] on the merits.” Id.

Of course, civil litigants in future cases may not find themselves so lucky if they make the same mistake as the appellant did in this case. The Court of Appeals has highlighted the above-discussed change in the applicable court rules, and thereby provided civil litigants with notice that they cannot rely as they did before on having the extra five days to file a timely appeal.