Seventh Circuit Determines that Complaint was Timely Filed, Even Though It Was Rejected By Electronic Filing System
Per Farzana K. v. Indiana Department of Education, ---F.3d----, 2007 WL 16217 (7th Cir. Jan. 4, 2007):
[The district court] dismissed the complaint for want of jurisdiction. . . . Farzana K.'s lawyer made the mistake of waiting until late afternoon of the last possible day [to file the complaint]. . . . The Northern District of Indiana accepts electronic filings, and counsel submitted the complaint online. Making a second mistake, counsel used the docket number of the 2004 suit. The computer rejected the filing with the notation that the case had been closed. . . . Farzana K.'s lawyer then dispatched paper copies, but the courier did not reach the courthouse until the clerk's office had closed. The district court held that . . . counsel's delay had deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction. 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38561 (N.D.Ind. Dec. 20, 2005). . . . Timely filing may be a condition to success, but it is not a jurisdictional requirement in federal court. See, e.g., Day v. McDonough, --- U.S. ----, ----, 126 S.Ct. 1675, 1681 (2006); Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385 (1982). The law is full of rules that are mandatory in the sense that courts must enforce them punctiliously if a litigant insists. Rules are not jurisdictional, however, no matter how unyielding they may be, unless they set limits on the federal courts' adjudicatory competence. See, e.g., Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500 (2006); Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12 (2005); Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443 (2004).
Plaintiff submits that equitable tolling excuses the delay, but that doctrine deals with situations in which timely filing is not possible despite diligent conduct. See, e.g., Cada v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 920 F.2d 446 (7th Cir.1990). Waiting until the last hours is not diligent; the errors that often accompany hurried action do not enable the bungling lawyer to grant himself extra time. See Johnson v. McBride, 381 F.3d 587 (7th Cir.2004). Nothing prevented plaintiff's lawyer from acting a day or a week earlier, so that counsel could recover from any gaffe. If counsel blundered to his client's prejudice, the remedy is malpractice litigation against the culprit, not the continuation of litigation against an adversary who played no role in the error. See, e.g., Pioneer Investment Services Co. v. Brunswick Associates L.P., 507 U.S. 380, 396-97, 113 S.Ct. 1489, 123 L.Ed.2d 74 (1993); United States v. 7108 West Grand Avenue, 15 F.3d 632 (7th Cir.1994). Allowing more time under the rubric of equitable tolling, when a federal rule covers the subject of extensions, would just contradict the rule--and for no good reason. . . . Because this 30-day time limit has been borrowed from Indiana law, however, whether it is subject to equitable tolling (and, if so, under what circumstances) is a question of state law. Farzana K. does not cite any Indiana decision holding that the period supplied by Ind.Code § 4-21.5-5-5 may be extended via a tolling doctrine; our own research has not turned up any such holding. Instead Indiana's courts treat this time limit as absolute. See Warram v. Stanton, 415 N.E.2d 114 (Ind.App.1981). Tolling therefore cannot save this litigation.
So was this complaint filed on time? It was. . . . Litigation in federal court commences with the filing of the complaint, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 3, and the plaintiff then has 120 days to serve copies on each defendant, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m). All defendants received copies well inside the 120-day window after filing (indeed, all but the state agency received the complaint electronically on July 6). Defendants insist that this complaint was not "filed" because a computer rejected it. . . . Still, the fact remains that the complaint was tendered to the clerk's office on the 30th day, and the computer's reaction does more to show the limits of some programmer's imagination than to render the suit untimely. Had a paper copy of the complaint been handed over the counter on July 6, a deputy clerk would have crossed out the old docket number, stamped a new one, and filed the document; there is no reason to throw this suit out of court just because the e-filing system did not know how to take an equivalent step. By refusing to accept complaints (or notices of appeal) for filing, clerks may prevent litigants from satisfying time limits. To prevent this--to ensure that judges rather than administrative staff decide whether a document is adequate-- Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(e) was amended in 1993 to require clerks to accept documents tendered for filing. The last sentence of this rule provides: "The clerk shall not refuse to accept for filing any paper presented for that purpose solely because it is not presented in proper form as required by these rules or any local rules or practices." See also Fed.R.Civ.P. 83(b). The software that operates an e-filing system acts for "the clerk" as far as Rule 5 is concerned; a step forbidden to a person standing at a counter is equally forbidden to an automated agent that acts on the court's behalf.
Clerks thus must take in whatever is tendered to them; a document may be rejected later if a judicial officer finds a problem, but the initial filing ensures that the process of vetting papers for compliance with the rules does not prevent satisfaction of time limits. An e-filing system likewise must accept every document tendered for filing; it cannot reject any paper that the clerk must accept.