It’s one of the most fundamental rules of appellate practice: the notice of appeal has to be timely filed, or the appellate court is without jurisdiction to do anything other than dismiss the appeal. In the closing days of the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court allowed a petition for leave to appeal in Williams v. BNSF Railway Company. Williams the second case on the Court’s civil docket relating to timely filing of the notice of appeal – poses the issue of whether a posttrial motion for setoff is a sufficient challenge to the judgment to stop the appellate clock governing the due date for the notice of appeal from running.

Williams involves claims under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, brought by an employee of the defendant railroad. Following a jury trial, the plaintiff was awarded damages for his injuries, and the jury found for the third-party defendant on the defendant’s contractual indemnity claim.

On April 18, 2012, the trial court “issued an oral ruling denying all posttrial motions.” No written ruling was ever entered. The only remaining issue following that oral ruling was a motion for a setoff against the judgment in the amount of taxes the defendant would have to pay on the lost wages awarded.

The defendant apparently did nothing further until May 31, 2012, when it filed an “emergency” motion for leave to file supplemental authority – which turned out to relate to one of the issues disposed of in the April 18 oral ruling, a request for partial remittitur based on disability payments. During the June 1 hearing on the motion for setoff, the court reiterated that posttrial motions had already been denied, but ultimately agreed to consider the new authority. Five days later, the court distinguished the new case and reiterated its earlier rulings. A written order was issued on June 6, 2012. The order stated that it was “final and appealable.” The defendant filed its notice of appeal on June 29, 2012 – less than thirty days after the June 6 written order, but 72 days after the trial court’s original oral denial of all posttrial motions.

The appellees moved to dismiss the appellant’s appeal, and the Division Three of the First District granted the motion. All posttrial motions had been denied on April 18, 2012, the Court found, reserving only the setoff. The setoff motion was not sufficient to keep the judgment open for purposes of appeal because a setoff relates to satisfaction of the judgment, not liability for it – as shown by the fact that the defendant could have pursued a request for a setoff more than thirty days after denial of its posttrial motion to vacate or modify the judgment. The defendant pointed out that the trial court had observed during the June 1 hearing that the defendant had properly brought new authority to its attention on the issue of a partial remittitur, but the Appellate Court pointed out that the defendant’s “emergency” motion had been filed more than thirty days after denial of the posttrial motions. The trial court’s observation did nothing to revest it with jurisdiction to consider the new case.

We expect Williams to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Dafne Cholet (no changes).