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Liff v. Office of Inspector General for U.S. Department of Labor

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 26, 2016

STEWART LIFF, et al., Plaintiffs,


          JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

         This case sits at a jurisdictional crossroads. Earlier this year, Plaintiff Stewart Liff - a veteran public-sector consultant - survived a motion to dismiss, mostly unscathed. This Court's Opinion left him with a Fifth Amendment procedural-due-process claim against various federal agencies and a Bivens claim against several agency employees. The individual Defendants quickly moved for reconsideration of the decision on the Bivens claim, arguing that it is barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Before this Court could rule on that motion, however, they interlocutorily appealed the separate issue of qualified immunity to the Court of Appeals. Believing it had to yield, this Court pumped its brakes and stayed the case.

         Defendants now move to lift the stay so that the Court can resolve their pending Motion to Reconsider, which they maintain is not encompassed by their appeal. Liff responds that, having sought greener pastures in the D.C. Circuit, Defendants must await a ruling there. This Court does not interpret its jurisdiction so narrowly and will lift the stay.

         I. Background

         The parties' history with each other and before this Court is recounted in the prior Opinion resolving Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. See Liff v. OIG for the U.S. Dep't of Labor, 156 F.Supp.3d 1, 5-9 (D.D.C. 2016). There, the Court permitted Plaintiff's procedural-due-process claim against several agency Defendants to proceed and then dismissed his Administrative Procedure Act claim as duplicative. See id. at 10-16, 21-22. As to Liff's Bivens cause of action against the individual Defendants, the Court denied their Motion, holding that those Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, but it declined to reach their thorny statute-of-limitations defense. See id. at 16-21.

         Certain procedural logjams then developed. Roughly a month following the Opinion, on February 5, 2016, the individual Defendants asked the Court to reconsider the Bivens statute-of-limitations question - or, more precisely, to decide the timeliness issue in the first instance. See ECF No. 27-1 (Motion to Reconsider). On February 25, 2016, before the Court could resolve their Motion to Reconsider, they filed a Notice of Appeal to challenge the Court's decision on qualified immunity. See ECF No. 29 (Notice of Appeal); see also No. 16-5045 (D.C. Cir.).

         Sensing that the Government wished to press its chances on appeal, without the benefit of a trial court's second gander, this Court stayed the case pending an appellate ruling. See Feb. 26, 2016, Minute Order. Defendants' signals were apparently mixed. Soon after, they filed a request to lift the stay so that their Motion to Reconsider could proceed here. See ECF No. 32. Then, they filed in the Court of Appeals a motion to hold their appeal in abeyance instead. See No. 16-5045, Doc. No. 1604562 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 17, 2016). That motion remains unresolved.

         So what is Defendants' current relationship status with this Court? It's complicated. Observing that Defendants' toes were dipped into the jurisdiction of two courts - the district court and the court of appeals - this Court held a hearing on the lift-stay Motion to explore what, if anything, remained of its jurisdiction and ordered briefing on this question. The issue is now ripe for decision.

         II. Analysis

         Cases may be stayed for any number of reasons. Parallel criminal prosecutions may be ongoing; dispositive appellate decisions may be pending; or the parties may otherwise desire some respite. To accommodate these ups and downs of litigation, the Court wields a “power to stay proceedings [that] is incidental to the power inherent in every court to control the disposition of the causes on its docket with economy of time and effort for itself, for counsel, and for litigants.” Air Line Pilots Ass'n v. Miller, 523 U.S. 866, 879 n.6 (1998) (quoting Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254-55 (1936)). Once a stay is imposed, the Court may lift it “[w]hen circumstances have changed such that the court's reasons for imposing the stay no longer exist or are inappropriate.” Marsh v. Johnson, 263 F.Supp.2d 49, 52 (D.D.C. 2003).

         The Court stayed the case here because the individual Defendants had filed a Notice of Appeal to challenge an adverse immunity decision. It is “generally understood that a federal district court and a federal court of appeals should not attempt to assert jurisdiction over a case simultaneously.” Griggs v. Provident Consumer Disc. Co., 459 U.S. 56, 58 (1982). To avoid issues inherent in overlapping jurisdiction, the filing of a notice of appeal has become “an event of jurisdictional significance - it confers jurisdiction on the court of appeals and divests the district court of its control over those aspects of the case involved in the appeal.” Id. This Court's stay thus operated to allow the D.C. Circuit to resolve the appealed issues within that court's jurisdiction before further work was expended here.

         Defendants now contend that the stay was unnecessary because this Court nonetheless retains jurisdiction to decide their pending Motion to Reconsider the separate statute-of-limitations issue. Plaintiff rejoins that, at most, only the procedural-due-process claim against the agency Defendants can continue because it was untouched by the Notice of Appeal. See generally Williams v. Vilsack, 669 F.Supp.2d 16, 17 (D.D.C. 2009) (“The federal courts of appeals do not have jurisdiction over a party who is not specified in a notice of appeal . . . .”).

         As is often the case with jurisdictional issues, what from afar seems like an orderly wound ball of twine is, on closer inspection, a Gordian knot. The parties' interweaving strands of argument need not all be addressed, however, because Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(4) cuts cleanly through this jurisdictional tangle.

         That Rule provides, first, a list of motions that toll the time to file a notice of appeal. See Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(4)(A). Included in this list is a Rule 59 motion to alter or amend the judgment, which Defendants contend encompasses their Motion to Reconsider. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). The Rule also notes that if a party “files a notice of appeal after the court announces or enters a judgment - but before it disposes of any motion listed in Rule 4(a)(4)(A) - the notice becomes effective . . . when the order disposing of the last such remaining motion is entered.” Id. 4(a)(4)(B)(i) (emphases added). In other words, if a Rule 59 motion is pending, a later-filed ...

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