Generally, the Fourth Circuit has a “strong preference that cases be decided on their merits.” Aikens v. Ingram, 652 F.3d 496, 523 (4th Cir. 2011) (Davis, J., dissenting). However, practitioners should remember that every rule has its exceptions. In a per curiam opinion released last year, the Fourth Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction based on a seemingly innocent mistake.
The underlying dispute in Symbionics Inc. v. Ortlieb involved a corporation and its former president. After a bench trial, the corporation lost on the vast majority of the issues (although it did prevail on its claim for breach of fiduciary duty). Not surprisingly, then, the corporation sought to appeal.
But counsel for the corporation filed the notice of appeal one day late. In calculating the deadline, counsel mistakenly used the January calendar from the year before rather than the calendar from the present year. That simple mistake made the deadline one day later, according to counsel’s calculations.
Realizing the mistake, counsel moved for an extension of time under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. The trial court found that the miscalculation was “excusable neglect” and granted the motion, but the Fourth Circuit reversed. The court stated:
We find nothing extraordinary or unusual about counsel’s calendaring error that should relieve [the corporation] of its duty to comply with the time limit of Rule 4(a)(1). Counsel’s total dependence on a computer application—the operation of which counsel did not completely comprehend—to determine the filing deadline for a notice of appeal is neither “extraneous” to nor “independent” of counsel’s negligence. Rather, the failure to discover that the calendar display had reverted to January 2009, and the reliance on the resulting incorrect deadline computation, are the very essence of counsel’s negligence here. Furthermore, this neglect is precisely the sort of “run-of-the-mill inattentiveness by counsel” that we have consistently declined to excuse in the past.
Thus, the trial court abused its discretion by granting the motion for extension of time; the appeal was dismissed.
Practitioners should remember not only that should they check, double check, and triple check appellate deadlines, but they should also remember that a trip to the Fourth Circuit is not always a free ride.