In Chief Judge Gregory’s first published opinion since assuming his new role, the Fourth Circuit indicated yesterday that functional compliance with jurisdictional rules trumps formal compliance.  In Clark v. Cartledge, the Court addressed whether a pro se plaintiff’s filing of a request for an extension of time to request a certificate of appealability qualifies as the notice of appeal required by Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure when a formal notice of appeal was not timely filed.  The majority held that it did and determined that the Court therefore had jurisdiction over the appeal.

In coming to this determination, the Court noted that Rule 3(c) directs that “notice of appeal must specify the party or parties taking the appeal . . .; designate the judgment, order or part thereof being appealed; and name the court to which the appeal is taken,” and that the notice “must specifically indicate the litigant’s intent to seek appellate review . . . [to] ensure that the filing provides sufficient notice to other parties and the courts.” Quoting Smith v. Barry, 502 U.S. 244, 248 (1992).  The Court further explained:

While the requirements of Rule 3 serve important purposes and are mandatory and “jurisdictional in nature,”  “functional” rather than formalistic compliance is all that is required. As another subsection of Rule 3 warns, an appeal “must not be dismissed for informality of form or title . . . , or for failure to name a party whose intent to appeal is otherwise clear from the notice.”  And as the Supreme Court has instructed, “imperfections in noticing an appeal should not be fatal where no genuine doubt exists about who is appealing, from what judgment, to which appellate court.”

In analyzing the circumstances and result of the pro se litigant’s request for an extension of time, the Court focused on its belief that the document filed by the plaintiff clearly indicated an intent to appeal the district court’s order (which had denied his objections to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation denying his petition for writ of habeus corpus).  The Court rejected the argument of the defendant that the request for more time did not evince an intent to actually ultimately file an appeal, holding that while the document may have demonstrated some uncertainty about a future appeal, it nevertheless provided the defendant with the notice of an appeal required under Rule 3.  The Court further concluded that it was not fatal that the document filed did not reference the Fourth Circuit, as there was only one possible court to which the plaintiff could be appealing.   While the majority did not specifically indicate that the plaintiff’s pro se status was a deciding factor in its decision, it certainly appeared to be a consideration, as the Court stated that “to require more explicit language from a pro se litigant would turn Smith’s instruction that we liberally construe Rule 3’s requirements on its head.” 

Judge Niemeyer issued a strong dissent in the case, calling the majority’s ruling “unprecedented” and criticizing the majority for “dramatically overstep[ping] the bounds of liberally construing a document.”  Judge Niemeyer cautioned:

The majority’s decision will cause much mischief, some unintended but some quite foreseeable and damaging to the appellate process. Hereafter, for example, a litigant who files a request for an extension of time to file an appeal will, in effect, have his motion automatically decided in his favor without having to show any excusable neglect or good cause, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c) and Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(A), because his motion will have to be taken as a notice of appeal.

From a North Carolina appellate perspective, what is most striking about the opinion in Clark is the stark contrast between the Fourth Circuit’s liberal construction of jurisdictional rules and the approach to jurisdiction taken by the North Carolina Court of Appeals last week in Grasinger v. Williams.

–Patrick Kane