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Seventh Circuit Remands Untimely Appeal for Rule 4(a) Extension

On April 29, 2016, the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of a civil detainee’s untimely appeal with instructions to treat a pro se post-judgment motion as a request for an extension of time under Fed.R.App.P. 4(a)(5).

In 2006, Timothy Bell was civilly committed to the Treatment and Detention Facility in Rushville, Illinois as a sexually dangerous person. He was later convicted of violently assaulting a guard and sentenced to four years in prison. When Bell’s prison term expired in 2010, he was returned to Rushville. Believing he was entitled to release, he refused to cooperate.

Ultimately, guards forcibly segregated Bell and took his clothing; he was held in solitary for eight days, naked, in uncomfortably cold conditions. When he finally cooperated on the ninth day, the guards returned his clothes and moved him to general population.

Bell filed suit in federal court, alleging that his due process rights were violated by his confinement in a cold segregation cell without clothes for eight days. Observing that “routine discomfort is part of the penalty” for committing crimes, the district court held the “terms of Bell’s confinement therefore did not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.”

The court’s judgment was entered on August 11, 2014, giving Bell until September 10, 2014 to file a notice of appeal. Instead, he filed a motion on September 11 that the district court treated as a motion for relief from judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). That motion was denied on October 1, 2014, but Bell again failed to file a proper notice of appeal. Rather, he submitted “a flurry of other papers,” and the Seventh Circuit held that a very tardy October 16, 2014 filing “contained the information required by Fed.R.App.P. 3(c) and should be treated as a notice of appeal.”

The Court of Appeals first found that the district court erred in “equating civil detainees to convicted prisoners.” Given that Bell was not a prisoner, the lower court had improperly applied an Eighth Amendment analysis to his claims. Saying “that harsh conditions are proper as part of the penalty for crime is not remotely to justify Bell’s treatment,” the Court wrote.

Yet the appellate court was required to address whether Bell’s failure to file a timely notice of appeal deprived it of jurisdiction. “The Rules of Appellate Procedure ... offer some assistance to litigants who misunderstand when an appeal must be filed,” the Seventh Circuit observed. “Rule 4(a)(5)(A)(i) permits a district judge to add another 30 days to the time for appeal, if ‘a party so moves no later than 30 days after the time prescribed by this Rule 4(a) expires.’”

Appellate courts cannot grant relief under Rule 4(a)(5), but the district court could, “even now, because the document that Bell filed on September 11 was within the time allowed by Rule 4(a)(5)(A)(i),” the Court of Appeals concluded. As such, it remanded the case with instructions to treat Bell’s motion as a request for an extension of time under Rule 4(a)(5). See: Bell v. McAdory, 820 F.3d 880 (7th Cir. 2016). 

Related legal case

Bell v. McAdory