How flexible is that midnight electronic filing deadline in federal court?

The witching hour approaches (Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net)

When I was a young lawyer, my mentor told me, “Practice law as if the rules will always be strictly enforced against you but will never be strictly enforced against the adverse party.” Wise words.

Last week I posted about a party that applied for a 15-minute extension of time to file its documents with the federal district court in Ohio because of some technical difficulties it encountered with the electronic filing. In doing so, it lived out the first half of my mentor’s adage, as it did not assume that it would get a break of even 15 minutes without explicitly requesting such relief.

In Hyperphrase Technologies, LLC, et al. v. Microsoft Corporation, a patent infringement case in a Wisconsin federal district court, Microsoft electronically filed its summary judgment motion about 4-1/2 minutes after the midnight deadline, and did not complete uploading the supporting papers until 1:11 in the morning. Microsoft did not ask for an extension, thus ignoring the rule to “practice law as if the rules will always be strictly enforced against you.”

Hyperphrase moved to strike Microsoft’s summary judgment motion as untimely. The magistrate judge had great fun in his order denying the motion to strike:

Microsoft’s insouciance so flustered Hyperphrase that nine of its attorneys, [listed by name], promptly filed a motion to strike the summary judgment motion as untimely. Counsel used bolded italics to make their point, a clear sign of grievous iniquity by one’s foe. True, this court did enter an order on June 20, 2003 ordering the parties not to flyspeck each other, but how could such an order apply to a motion filed almost five minutes late? Microsoft’s temerity was nothing short of a frontal assault on the precept of punctuality so cherished by and vital to this court.

I’m hardly the first blogger to note this 14-year-old order, and many people have no doubt gotten a good laugh from it. Allow me to be a killjoy and inject some seriousness.

At first glance, it might appear that Hyperphrase ignored the rule to “practice law as if the rules . . . will never be strictly enforced against the adverse party.” But did it?  This adage does not mean that a lawyer should ignore rules infractions by the other side, only that a lawyer should weigh the seriousness of the infraction within the context of the case before committing the client’s money to an effort to make the adverse party pay a price for that infraction.

I suspect Hyperphrase’s lawyers made that analysis, and the decision to move to strike was carefully considered rather than a reflex reaction. This was a patent infringement action against Microsoft targeting two of Microsoft’s flagship products, Word and Excel. There had to be many millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, at stake. Would you not at least be tempted to move to strike the summary judgment motion as untimely? Would you let the risk of looking silly stop you from taking every conceivable step to get the case in front of a jury? And even if you were reluctant to move to strike, how do you think your client, with many millions of dollars on the line, would react to you saying you would not move to strike the motion because you did not want to look petty? Maybe the magistrate judge had a reputation for being a stickler on timeliness. Finally, maybe Hyperphrase’s attorneys believed the motion would be impossible to beat on the merits and saw the motion to strike as the only reasonable shot at derailing it. (The district judge granted the motion.)

Consider also this occurred in 2003, when electronic filing was relatively new. (I don’t believe mandatory electronic filing was in place in California until a few years later.) With little or no history to go on, who knew how strictly the midnight deadline would be enforced? If one hour and eleven minutes past midnight is OK, how about 2 a.m.? 3 a.m.? The judge is almost certainly still in bed at those times, and the courthouse is still hours from opening. At what point is tardiness inexcusable?

There are judges who take untimely filing, even by a matter of minutes, seriously. Since you never know how your judge will view it, perhaps the safe course is to ask for an extension when your filing will be even a few minutes late and to move to strike anything of significance filed late, even if it is just by a few minutes.

If you have experience with missed electronic filing deadlines (in either federal or state court) in the early morning hours, please share your story in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *