February 26, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert

On February 26, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert, holding that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f)’s requirement that a party petition a federal appeals court for authorization to appeal an order granting or denying class-action certification “within 14 days after the order is entered” is not subject to equitable tolling.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f) provides that a court of appeals may permit an appeal from an order granting or denying class certification if a petition for permission is filed “within 14 days after the order is entered.” Plaintiff Troy Lambert sued Nutraceutical Corporation on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals alleging that the company’s marketing of a dietary supplement violated California law. The district court initially certified the class of plaintiffs, but on February 20, 2015, the district court decertified the class. 

Rather than petitioning immediately for leave to appeal, Lambert informed the district court that he planned to file a motion for reconsideration within 14 days. The district court instructed Lambert to submit the motion by March 12, 2015—20 days after the decertification order. Lambert complied and filed the motion on March 12. The district court denied the motion on June 24. On July 8, 14 days after the district court denied Lambert’s motion for reconsideration, but over four months after it decertified the class, Lambert petitioned the Ninth Circuit for permission to appeal the decertification order.

The Ninth Circuit treated Lambert’s petition as timely, concluding that, because Rule 23(f)’s time limit is nonjurisdictional, equitable tolling could apply. Such tolling was appropriate because Lambert had complied with the district court’s requirements and acted diligently. 

The Supreme Court disagreed and unanimously reversed. Because Rule 23(f) is contained in a procedural rule, the Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit that “it is properly classified as a nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule.” That did not end the analysis, however, because “[w]hether a rule precludes equitable tolling turns not on its jurisdictional character but rather on whether the text of the rule leaves room for such flexibility.” The Court noted Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (5)(a)(2) and 26(b), which mandate that a petition for permission to appeal must be filed within the time specified and that the deadline may not be extended. Citing these Rules and Rule 23(f), the Court held that the federal rules “express a clear intent to compel rigorous enforcement of Rule 23(f)’s deadline, even where good cause for equitable tolling might exist.” Because Lambert did not comply with Rule 23(f) by filing his petition within 14 days after the decertification order was issued, the Ninth Circuit erred in accepting his petition on equitable tolling grounds.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous court. 

Download Opinion of the Court

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