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Apparently timing isn’t everything.  The Alabama Supreme Court has allowed an appeal to proceed even though the appeal wasn’t filed in the clerk’s office until one day after time had expired.  The circumstances, however, for the court accept an appeal filed past its deadline must be extraordinary.

Appeal Filed Day After Deadline

After a mother’s parental rights were terminated in juvenile court, mom had 14 days to appeal to the circuit court.  On the 14th day, towards the end of the day, she went to the courthouse and found the clerk’s office where it took some time for a clerk to wait on her.  That clerk told her she was in the wrong office and sent her to the juvenile clerk’s office which was in another part of the courthouse.  By the time mom got there, the door was locked, the offices were closed, and she was told she’d have to come back tomorrow.

The next day mom returned to the courthouse and was told to go back to the office where she had initially gone the day before.  Eventually she was allowed to file the appeal, but it was stamped with both the date of the 15th day and the 14th day.  When the father learned the appeal hadn’t actually been filed until after the 14 day period had expired, he sought to dismiss it.

Appeal Must Be Timely For Jurisdiction

Whether it’s the Alabama Supreme Court, Court of Civil Appeals, Court of Criminal Appeals, or a Circuit Court, an appellate court can only issue rulings in cases where they have jurisdiction.  In order to have jurisdiction a notice of appeal must be filed within the time period allowed (here it was 14 days).  Time limits for filing a notice of appeal are traditionally a bright line rule.  If the notice of appeal isn’t filed in time the appellate court lack jurisdiction.  If there’s no jurisdiction, there can be no appeal.

After taking some evidence, the juvenile court dismissed mother’s appeal because the notice of appeal was not filed in time.  The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed and upheld the dismissal as untimely based on the bright line rule.  The Supreme Court disagreed reversed and has allowed the mother’s appeal to proceed.

Appeal Deadline a Bright Line Rule, Except…

The Supreme Court was wary of blurring the bright line rule previously applied in cases that addressed the timing of a notice of appeal and the jurisdiction of an appellate court.  It emphasized:

  • A notice of appeal must be received by the deadline;
  • Even overnight mailing the night before isn’t sufficient if the appeal isn’t received by the deadline – even where the delay is the fault of a third party;
  • Receipt doesn’t happen until actually received by a court; dropping it in the mail isn’t enough;

However, while there is a bright line rule around receipt, the rules are more liberal when it comes to whether something has been filed.

The Supreme Court noted that something is filed when it is delivered to the appropriate person.  If the clerk then mishandles the notice, the thing is still considered timely.  In this case a clerk failed to accept a notice appeal when it should have been accepted.  She was in the right place, at the right time, but the clerk sent her to the wrong place instead of accepting the appeal.  Therefore, the court ruled, mother’s notice of appeal was timely and the appeal should have been allowed to proceed.  The court was not concerned with the fact that the notice was not physically placed in the hands of the clerk.  It was enough that the notice of appeal was tendered to the clerk for filing.

Court Influenced by Fundamental Right

Lastly, although it is only barely mentioned, the Supreme Court seemed to take into consideration the fact that a fundamental right was involved.  A parent’s right to care, custody, and control of their child is a fundamental constitutional right.  When that right is taken away, there are strong due process rights at play.  It is possible that the outcome might have been different if a fundamental right had not been involved.

Read the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion here and contact Browne House Law about prosecuting or defending your appeal.