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English-Speaking Union v. Johnson

January 16, 2004

THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING UNION, APPELLANT
v.
JAMES JOHNSON, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 02cv00605)

Before: Henderson, Tatel, and Roberts, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tatel, Circuit Judge

Argued October 14, 2003

Exercising its appellate jurisdiction to review orders of the bankruptcy court, the district court dismissed an appeal for want of prosecution after the appellant missed the deadline for filing its brief. This appeal presents two questions: whether the district court had jurisdiction to dismiss the case in view of the fact that appellant had previously filed an appeal to this court, and if so, whether the district court properly exercised its discretion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. We conclude that the district court retained jurisdiction, but because it failed to explain why the harsh sanction of dismissal was necessary under the circumstances of this case, we reverse.

I.

In 1993, The English-Speaking Union (ESU), an organization established to promote strong relations among Commonwealth nations, sold its Washington, D.C. branch headquarters to James and Geraldine Johnson, who, before paying ESU its note for part of the building's purchase price, filed for bankruptcy. In November 2001, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia entered a settlement order dismissing ESU's claim to funds from the estate and favoring appellee The Elm Company (Elm). See English-Speaking Union v. Johnson, No. 99-10076, slip op. at 1 (Bankr. D.D.C. Nov. 29, 2001).

Dissatisfied with the bankruptcy court's conclusions, ESU appealed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The district court, exercising its appellate jurisdiction over final orders of the bankruptcy court, see 28 U.S.C. § 158(a) (2000 & Supp. III 2003), docketed ESU's appeal on March 29, 2002, starting the clock ticking on the fifteen days allotted for ESU to file its brief. See Fed. R. Bankr. P. 8009(a)(1) ("Unless the district court ... excuses the filing of briefs or specifies different time limits ... [t]he appellant shall serve and file a brief within 15 days after entry of the appeal on the docket...."). Before that deadline arrived, ESU filed a motion for an extension of time, explaining that the transcript of the bankruptcy court proceedings was not yet complete. The district court granted ESU's request and gave it until June 12, warning " [t]here will be no further extensions." English-Speaking Union v. Johnson, No. 02-605, slip op. at 2 (D.D.C. Apr. 25, 2002).

On June 12, with the transcript still unavailable, ESU filed a second motion requesting an additional extension of time. Eight days later, the district court, unaware that ESU had submitted such a motion, dismissed ESU's appeal with prejudice for failure to prosecute. English-Speaking Union v. Johnson, No. 02-605, slip op. at 3 (D.D.C. June 20, 2002) (June Dismissal Order). In that order, the district court also dismissed ESU's "Second Amended Appeal," which ESU had filed after its original appeal to the district court in order to include in its appeal a May 2002 bankruptcy court order requiring ESU to pay certain costs incurred by its adversaries. The district court found that it lacked jurisdiction over this cost appeal because ESU had failed to file a timely notice of appeal. Id. at 2-3. On July 1, ESU filed a motion to vacate the June Dismissal Order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60, arguing that it had in fact filed a pleading by the June 12 deadline and that its cost appeal was timely.

On July 19, while its motion to vacate was still pending in the district court, ESU appealed to this court, seeking reversal of the district court's June Dismissal Order. In August, after the appeal was docketed, the district court granted part of ESU's motion:

For a reason unknown to the Court, counsel, or the Clerk's Office staff, Appellant's motion to amend the briefing schedule never appeared on the docket in this action, nor was the Court's copy sent to Chambers. As such, when the Court issued its June 20, 2002, Order dismissing the appeal for want of prosecution, it was without Appellant's motion to extend the time in which to file its brief. Despite the Court's admonition in its April 25, 2002, Order to counsel that no further extensions of the briefing schedule would be permitted, the Court would have allowed Appellant the opportunity to late file its brief, had it received Appellant's motion, because counsel should have a certified transcript when preparing briefing for an appeal.

English-Speaking Union v. Johnson, No. 02-605, slip op. at 2 (D.D.C. Aug. 27, 2002). The court thus resurrected ESU's appeal (but not its cost appeal) and gave the organization until September 9 to submit its brief. Id. at 2-4.

The September 9 deadline passed without ESU filing a brief. On September 12, the district court -- on its own initiative -- again dismissed ESU's appeal for want of prosecution. English-Speaking Union v. Johnson, No. 02-605, slip op. at 5 (D.D.C. Sept. 12, 2002) (September Dismissal Order). In response, ESU amended its appeal to this court to include this second dismissal order. Because that order constitutes a final judgment, we have jurisdiction to consider ESU's challenge here. See 28 U.S.C. § 158(d).

II.

We begin with ESU's challenge to the district court's dismissal of its appeal. In ESU's view, the district court lacked jurisdiction to enter its September Dismissal Order because the organization's July notice of appeal to this court divested the district court of authority to issue orders in this case. Whether the district court retained jurisdiction to dismiss ESU's appeal following the organization's appeal to this court turns on whether ESU's motion to vacate was governed by Bankruptcy Rule 8015 (as the district court ruled) or Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60 (as ESU argues) -- a legal question that we review de novo. See Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

Bankruptcy Rule 8015 expressly authorizes litigants to ask district courts exercising bankruptcy appellate jurisdiction to reconsider unfavorable rulings and tolls the time for seeking ...


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