The Feats of Strength will follow the Airing of Grievances.
The Feats of Strength will follow the Airing of Grievances.

On December 18, the Fourth Circuit gave appellants an early Christmas/timely Hanukkah/late Ramadan present when it clarified the requirements for a notice of appeal in Jackson v. Lightsey, Case No. 13-7291. Jackson is a deliberate-indifference Section 1983 action. I am deliberately indifferent to its treatment of the merits, but I am deeply interested in its holding on a pair of procedural issues: Was the appellant’s notice of appeal sufficient to confer jurisdiction on the appellate court and, if so, what issues could the court review?

Here’s the background: Felicitously named inmate Samuel Jackson brought a 1983 action against two prison doctors and the medical staff of the North Carolina Department of Corrections. The district court reviewed his complaint for frivolity under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Finding that the complaint’s allegations pertained only to the doctors, the district court dismissed the staff as a party on July 6, 2012. The doctors then brought a 12(b)(6) motion, which the district court granted on July 31, 2013. The clerk of the district court entered final judgment later that day.

Jackson then filed a notice of appeal stating that he would “[a]ppeal the Order of the United States District Court [for the] Eastern District of North Carolina [] on this 31st day of July, 2013, by James C. Foxx [sic], Senior United States District Judge.” (Yes, Samuel Jackson and Jamie Foxx. Jackson was a Christopher Waltz away from Django Bingo.) The notice of appeal did not name the court to which Jackson planned to appeal–but since there was only one option, the clerk of the Fourth Circuit issued an informal briefing order. Jackson submitted an informal brief in which he argued only the 12(b)(6) issue from the 2013 order. The Fourth Circuit then appointed counsel for him, and Jackson argued both the 2013 dismissal of the doctors and the earlier 2012 dismissal of staff in his counseled briefs an at oral argument.

So what’s the problem?

Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure explains that a notice of appeal needs to:

  1. Specify the party taking the appeal;
  2. Designate the judgment, order, or part thereof being appealed; and
  3. Name the court to which the appeal is being taken.

These requirements are jurisdictional.

The appellees argued that the Fourth Circuit lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal, because Jackson failed to name the court in his notice of appeal. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. It explained that it construes Rule 3 liberally, and that it measures compliance by asking whether a litigant’s action is the “functional equivalent” of the rule’s requirements. Where a notice of appeal provides adequate notice and does not prejudice the complaining party, the court won’t let technical noncompliance foreclose appellate review. Applying those principles, the Court determined that Jackson’s failure to add the words “Fourth Circuit” to his notice did not bring him out of compliance with Rule 3–particularly given that there was only one court to which he could possibly have appealed. And everybody else in the case knew exactly what he was trying to do; the Fourth Circuit’s clerk issued an informal briefing order, and the appellees conceded that they’d received prompt notice and had suffered no prejudice.

Importantly, the Fourth Circuit did not limit its holding on this point to pro se litigants. Jackson will therefore be broadly useful to appellants going forward.

So far, so good: the Fourth Circuit had jurisdiction. But did that jurisdiction extend to the 2012 order dismissing the staff?

It did not. Jackson filed a notice of appeal and an informal brief addressing only the 2013 12(b)(6) order. Rule 3 required him to designate the judgment or order being appealed. Again, the Fourth Circuit took a liberal, functional approach, asking whether he’d manifested the intent to appeal a specific issue, and whether the opposing party had notice and a chance to brief the issue. The answer to both questions was “no.”

First, there was no indication that Jackson intended to appeal the 2012 order. He specifically identified only the 2013 order, and the fairest inference to be drawn from that specific designation was that he intended to appeal only that order. Jackson’s informal brief confirmed that inference. Under the local rules, the Fourth Circuit’s review was limited to issues preserved in that informal brief.

Second, Jackson had a serious notice problem. Because he did not designate the 2012 order in his notice of appeal, DOCS medical staff was never told of his appeal or asked to file an informal brief. As a result, they were not represented in the appeal, and they had no chance to defend the 2012 order.

What are the takeaways from Jackson?

  1. Although Rule 3 is jurisdictional, the Fourth Circuit will construe it liberally and take a functional approach to weighing compliance. Appellants can breathe a sigh of relief! At least under these facts, a “jurisdictional” requirement presents less of a hurdle in the Fourth Circuit than it does in, say, the Supreme Court of Virginia.
  2. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure include a form notice of appeal. Follow the form.
  3. Prejudice and surprise factored into the Court’s analysis. This brings to mind Justice Mims’ own “functional” recommendation for preserving error in the Supreme Court of Virginia: “When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!” You can never get in trouble for providing the trial court or opposing counsel too much notice of an appeal point. You may look a little silly every now and then, but that’s a small price to pay if excessive diligence lets you sleep at night.