BNSF Ry. Co. v. Cringle

Decision Date05 July 2012
Docket NumberNo. DA 11–0404.,DA 11–0404.
Citation281 P.3d 203,115 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1102,2012 MT 143,365 Mont. 304
PartiesBNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Petitioner and Appellee, v. Chad CRINGLE, Respondent and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court


For Appellant: Peter M. Meloy, Meloy Law Firm, Helena, Montana, Terry N. Trieweiler, Trieweiler Law Firm, Whitefish, Montana.

For Appellee: Jeff Hedger, Benjamin O. Rechtfertig; Hedger Friend, P.L.L.C.; Billings, Montana.

Justice BETH BAKER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

[365 Mont. 305]¶ 1 Chad Cringle appeals the order of the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, remanding this case to the Montana Human Rights Commission for further proceedings in his discrimination complaint against BNSF Railway Company (BNSF). The dispositive issue on appeal is whether BNSF has demonstrated sufficient grounds to excuse its noncompliance with the fourteen-day filing deadline of § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA.

¶ 2 We reverse the District Court's order and remand with instructions to deny BNSF's petition for judicial review and to enter judgment in favor of Cringle.


¶ 3 This case is before the Court for a second time regarding the fourteen-day time limit for appeal to the Human Rights Commission (Commission). BNSF Ry. Co. v. Cringle, 2010 MT 290, 359 Mont. 20, 247 P.3d 706. The background is summarized briefly before turning to the issue raised in the present appeal.

¶ 4 On July 7, 2008, Cringle filed a complaint with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry charging that BNSF had illegally discriminated against him in employment. The complaint was referred to a hearing officer for contested case proceedings. On May 1, 2009, the hearing officer granted summary judgment to Cringle on the issue of liability. The hearing officer determined that BNSF had “engaged in and is liable for a discriminatory refusal to hire Cringle.” Following proceedings on the issues of damages and affirmative relief, the hearing officer issued a final decision in Cringle's favor on September 2, 2009. That same day, the hearing officer issued notice of his decision by mail to counsel for Cringle and to counsel for BNSF.

¶ 5 The hearing officer's decision and the notice of that decision were received at the office of BNSF's counsel the next day, September 3. This was a “particularly busy day” at the law office, with staff working on a voluminous discovery project. The office was short-staffed and both documents were “set aside.” Nineteen days elapsed. Then, on September 22, a legal secretary discovered the hearing officer's decision and the notice “under papers” on her desk. By that time, the decision had become final under § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, which states that if the hearing officer's decision is not appealed to the Commission within fourteen days after issuance of the notice, “the decision becomes final and is not appealable to district court.”

¶ 6 BNSF filed a notice of appeal to the Commission under § 49–2–505(4), MCA. BNSF also filed a request to the Commission for an extension of time in which to file its notice of appeal. Citing Rule 24.9.113(3) of the Administrative Rules of Montana, BNSF argued that the time to file its appeal to the Commission could be enlarged for good cause. That rule provides: “Except as to dates fixed by statute and not subject to modification, the commission may enlarge the time to perform an act. In accordance with Rule 6(b) of the Montana Rules of Civil Procedure, the time may be enlarged for good cause shown.” Cringle objected to BNSF's request for an extension of time and argued that the filing deadline is a “jurisdictional” bar that deprives the Commission of authority to entertain untimely appeals.

¶ 7 The Commission entered an order on October 5, 2009, denying BNSF's extension request and dismissing BNSF's appeal. Based on the plain language of § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, the Commission observed that the hearing officer's decision became “final” on September 16, six days before BNSF filed its notice of appeal.

¶ 8 BNSF sought judicial review in the District Court of the Commission's order dismissing its appeal. BNSF advised the District Court that the hearing officer's decision and notice were “either misfiled or otherwise misplaced by counsel's staff, and the time in which to file a notice of appeal was accordingly not placed on counsel's calendar.” BNSF argued that the Commission had authority to extend the fourteen-day period for BNSF's appeal from the hearing officer's decision on the ground that filing periods are subject to “equitable modification.” BNSF asked the District Court to reverse the Commission's decision denying BNSF's extension request and to remand the matter to the Commission with instructions either to accept BNSF's notice of appeal as timely or to consider in the first instance whether to grant BNSF's extension request.

¶ 9 The Commission and Cringle filed separate motions to dismiss BNSF's petition. The Commission argued that its decision was in accordance with § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, and that it did not have discretion to extend the statutory deadline. Cringle argued, among other things, that the District Court could not review the hearing officer's decision because the fourteen-day filing deadline of § 49–2–505(3)(c) and (4), MCA, is jurisdictional. Alternatively, Cringle argued that even if the filing deadline is a “categorical time prescription,” rather than a jurisdictional limitation, the result is still the same. He observed that there is no language in § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, allowing the deadline to be extended based on good cause.

¶ 10 The District Court concluded that § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, “limit[s] this Court's jurisdiction” over decisions of the Department of Labor and Industry by requiring that they be appealed to the Commission within fourteen days. Thus, because subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be forfeited or waived, the District Court decided that BNSF's petition must be dismissed. The court also denied BNSF's alternative request for “a writ of mandate, writ of review, or other appropriate writ” directing the Commission to entertain BNSF's appeal. The court observed that the Commission “does not have authority to lengthen statutory deadlines.” Finally, the court granted Cringle's and the Commission's cross-petitions to enforce the hearing officer's decision.

¶ 11 BNSF appealed to this Court and argued that the District Court had jurisdiction to review the dismissal order under §§ 2–4–702 and 49–2–505(9), MCA, or alternatively under § 2–4–701, MCA. BNSF argued that the District Court had erred in interpreting the fourteen-day filing deadline as “jurisdictional,” and asked this Court to hold that the Commission “has the authority to extend the deadline.”

¶ 12 This Court articulated one issue on appeal: “Does the 14–day filing deadline in § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, deprive a district court of jurisdiction over matters arising between the parties after the deadline has expired?” Cringle, ¶¶ 3, 12. We answered this question in the negative, concluding that the fourteen-day filing deadline is a procedural time bar, not a limitation on a district court's jurisdiction. Cringle, ¶¶ 18, 20. Under § 2–4–702, MCA, the District Court “possesses jurisdiction to hear the parties' dispute and adjudicate their issues.” Cringle, ¶ 20, 247 P.3d 706. The Court remanded to the District Court to consider BNSF's “alleged good cause that would justify its motion for an extension of time.” Cringle, ¶ 28, 247 P.3d 706. If BNSF made a sufficient showing, then BNSF could pursue its appeal of the hearing officer's decision to the Commission. Cringle, ¶ 28, 247 P.3d 706. Otherwise, the District Court was directed to deny BNSF's request for an extension. Cringle, ¶ 28, 247 P.3d 706.

¶ 13 The case now returns to this Court following the District Court's determination on remand that BNSF has shown good cause for its untimely filing. The District Court cited three considerations in its ruling. First, the court observed that the fourteen-day filing period is “a very short procedural limitation which implicates due process rights for both claimants and respondents because valid claims can be lost because documents can easily be misplaced for that period of time.” Second, the court concluded that Cringle would suffer no prejudice if the fourteen-day time bar were waived because, [i]f successful, Cringle will be awarded his attorney fees for being required to march through the administrative hoops, a likely appeal to this Court or federal court, and another appeal to the Montana Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Lastly, the court stated that “it does not appear BNSF has acted in bad faith in misplacing the documents for a short period of time and acted promptly once the documents were found.”

¶ 14 Alternatively, the District Court noted that under an equitable tolling or excusable neglect standard, BNSF had presented evidence which the court viewed “as justifying relief from the very short 14–day administrative time bar.” The court reasoned that the interests of justice would be served by allowing BNSF's appeal to the Commission. The court entered an order on July 11, 2011, remanding this case to the Commission. Cringle timely appealed.

¶ 15 We now clarify that, because § 49–2–505(3)(c), MCA, is a statutory time prescription that provides an inflexible rule of finality, “good cause” for excusing noncompliance with the statute requires a showing of circumstances beyond the party's reasonable control that prevented the party from timely filing its notice of appeal. Applying this principle, we conclude that BNSF has failed to justify relief from the time bar.


¶ 16 The parties dispute the applicable standard of review. Cringle argues that de novo review applies, while BNSF argues that the standard is whether the District Court abused its discretion. We...

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