Timeliness, Equity, and Federal Appellate Jurisdiction: Reclaiming the 'Unique Circumstances' Doctrine

38 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2007 Last revised: 26 May 2008

See all articles by Philip A. Pucillo

Philip A. Pucillo

Michigan State University College of Law


A federal court of appeals ordinarily has no authority to entertain an appeal that is filed out of time. On occasion, however, the untimeliness of an appeal will result not from the appellant's carelessness or lack of familiarity with governing timing prescriptions, but instead from reasonable reliance upon a district court's representation that the appeal period would be lengthier than it turned out to be. To provide the courts of appeals with an equitable basis upon which to reach the merits of such an appeal, the United States Supreme Court recognized what has come to be known as the unique circumstances doctrine. Employing this approach, the courts of appeals were able to preserve numerous appeals that were technically untimely.

The Supreme Court's most recent pronouncements on the unique circumstances doctrine, however, have narrowed it almost completely out of existence. Specifically, the Court recently declared that, given the jurisdictional nature of the timing prescriptions contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2107, the doctrine can no longer be applied in the context in which it was most often implicated: an appeal as of right from a decision by a federal district court in a civil proceeding. Even before that decision, the Court had generated significant confusion by imposing conditions for the doctrine's application that were both unduly demanding and inconsistent with its original understanding. Ironically, as a consequence of either of these rulings, the doctrine no longer encompasses the circumstances giving rise to Harris Truck Lines, Inc. v. Cherry Meat Packers, Inc., the very case in which the Court initially recognized and invoked the doctrine. The courts of appeals have thus been deprived of discretion to reach the merits of many appeals that would have fallen within the purview of the doctrine as originally conceived.

This Article urges that Congress reclaim legislatively the essence of the unique circumstances doctrine that the Supreme Court had implemented judicially in Harris. Such a measure would involve an amendment to § 2107 codifying a formulation of the doctrine that comports with its original understanding. To derive that formulation, this Article examines Harris and the Court's other key decisions addressing the doctrine. The formulation ultimately reached is that in determining whether an appeal is timely, a court of appeals is bound to accept as true any representation of a district court upon which a litigant reasonably relies in foregoing an opportunity to initiate an indisputably timely appeal. This quasi-estoppel approach to the doctrine appropriately emphasizes the notion that the timeliness of an appeal should not be governed by ordinarily applicable timing prescriptions when the appellant would have complied with those prescriptions but for the district court's representation that more time to appeal would be available. Instead, the court of appeals must assume the truth of the district court's representation, even if legally erroneous, and assess the timeliness of the appeal accordingly.

Suggested Citation

Pucillo, Philip A., Timeliness, Equity, and Federal Appellate Jurisdiction: Reclaiming the 'Unique Circumstances' Doctrine. Tulane Law Review, Vol. 82, p. 693, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=975796

Philip A. Pucillo (Contact Author)

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

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United States
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