On January 22, 2013, the Supreme Court decided a case of potential interest to appellate practitioners in general and those who engage in regulatory appeals in particular. The case is Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, No. 11-1231 (U.S. Jan. 22, 2013). It concerns the time limits for hospitals to appeal to a review board certain determinations regarding Medicare reimbursement. The relevant statute provided a 180-day appeal limit. A regulation permitted extensions by the Secretary of HHS for “good cause” up to three years. The Court considered whether the 180-day administrative appeal time limit should be considered “jurisdictional,” which would preclude not only the possibility of equitable tolling of the time limit but also would render void any purported extension granted by the Secretary. In other words, since the three-year extension provision appears in a regulation, not a statute, a finding by the Court that the 180-day limit was “jurisdictional” would mean that any appeal filed after more than 180 days would necessarily be untimely even if the appellant hospital had sought, obtained, and relied upon an extension from the Secretary under the regulation.
Several prior cases had held that the time limits for filing appeals in federal courts are, indeed, “jurisdictional” in this sense and can have such harsh consequences. In particular, if a mandatory time limit for a judicial appeal is set forth in a statute, it cannot be extended except pursuant to the express terms of any exception in the statute itself, no matter how inequitable that rule might seem in a given case. Thus, in Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007), the Court rejected an appeal in which appellant had relied on an express district court order incorrectly stating the date on which the notice of appeal could be filed. Since the time limit was “jurisdictional,” the district court lacked authority to enter the order, and no “equitable exception” could be sought or considered. Similarly, in United States ex rel. Eisenstein v. City of New York, 556 U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 2230 (2009), the Court adopted the shorter of two potential appeal periods in qui tam cases and held its rule was “jurisdictional,” retroactive, and binding in all cases notwithstanding any party’s reliance on prior lower court rulings adopting the longer period.
In Auburn Regional Medical Center, the Court seemed to recognize these potential harsh consequences that can accompany use of the “jurisdictional” label. Slip Op. at 7. It held that a statutory time limit to file a regulatory appeal should be considered “jurisdictional” only where Congress has “clearly stated” an intention to depart from the regular understanding that filing time limits are but “quintessential claim-processing rules.” Id. at 7-8. The Court distinguished Bowles, noting the statute at issue there used the mandatory word “shall,” id. at 7, and the Court held the 180-day Medicare reimbursement appeal provision to be non-jurisdictional.
Does Auburn Regional Medical Center signal a softening by the Court with respect to time limits for appeals in federal courts? How about other quasi-appellate time limits or similar judicial time-for-filing rules scattered throughout the U.S. Code? It is difficult to say. On the one hand, some of the language in Auburn Regional Medical Center is difficult to square with language in Bowles and Eisenstein. On the other hand, however, the rules for proceedings before Article III courts (as opposed to administrative bodies) are grounded in constitutional limited-power principles. Bowles expressly held that Congress’s constitutional power to limit the subject matter of cases before federal courts necessarily includes the lesser power statutorily to limit the conditions – such as the time periods – under which cases can be brought or maintained. At most, Auburn Regional Medical Center may represent a slightly more generous statutory interpretation rule – when in doubt, statutes should be interpreted to be non-jurisdictional. As in Bowles, however, statutes using words such as “shall” are unlikely to be construed as permitting equitable exceptions. Moreover, given the long judicial history of treating notices of appeal as mandatory, such arguments face long odds when applied to federal court appellate time limits. In the face of any uncertainty about appeal time limits, careful practitioners should not delegate their docketing responsibilities or calculations, should always interpret rules about time periods conservatively, and should endeavor to file appeals as soon as possible.