When is a court order electronically filed?

by Ryan Koopmans | December 11, 2015

By Ryan Koopmans

*Disclaimer: This is boring stuff if you’re not a lawyer.  If you’re a lawyer, it’s still boring but really important

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a court order is “filed” when the judge submits it to the court’s electronic document management system (and thus when the system stamps it with the date), and not when the clerk approves and notifies the parties of that order.  That ruling clarifies an ambiguity in the Iowa rules that govern electronic filing.  And it’s one that every Iowa lawyer must commit to memory, because it can have significant consequences. 

In 2009, the Iowa Judicial Branch started the process of creating an electronic filing system for court records.  The project started in Plymouth County and has moved across the state over the last six years.  This summer, this electronic document management system (what we lawyers call “EDMS”) went statewide.

The process of going from paper to electronic records, while important, hasn’t been seamless.  Lawyers as a class are probably more habitual than others.  And for some, the word “electronic” is synonymous with “foreign.”  Most of the problems with EDMS have been or are being worked out.  And when lawyers make mistakes in filing their documents, the court system has usually been forgiving.  If you tell the system that you’re filing a document as a “proposed exhibit” when it should be filed as an “attachment” (those are two different things under the rules), then clerk’s office will either kindly tell you to refile or to do it correctly next time.

But there are some mistakes that the court system deems unforgivable.  (Judges and lawyers call them “jurisdictional” mistakes.)  And filing an appeal too late is one of them.   The Iowa Rules of Appellate Procedure state that if a party wants to appeal, it must do so “within 30 days after the filing of the final order or judgment.”  If you file an appeal just one day late, then there is no appeal. 

So it’s  important for lawyers to know when that 30 days runs.  And that depends, of course, on when the final order was “filed.”

In the paper world, a document was filed when the clerk stamped it and entered it in the docket.  But what about in the electronic world?

The EDMS rules (which are in the process of being revised) seem to say two different things on the subject.  Rule 16.307(2) says that the “filing” of a document constitutes the “electronic transmission of a document to the electronic document management system”–i.e., when the judge submits the order–“together with the production and transmission of a notice of electronic filing.”  Under that definition, it would seem that a document is not filed until both steps are completed–(1) the judge submits the order, and (2) there is a transmission of a notice to the parties of that order.  

But rule 16.311 says something different.  That rule–titled “Date and time of filing, deadlines”–states that “[w]hen a document is filed using the electronic document management system, the system will generate a notice of electronic filing” that “will record the date and time of the filing of the document in the local time for the State of Iowa.”  “This,” the Rule states, “will be the official filing date and time of the document regardless of when the filer actually transmitted the document.”  

So the second rule says that a document is filed when the judge submits the order to the system, and the first rule  says that an order is filed when the judge submits it and there is a transmission of a notice to the parties.

Sometimes those two things happen on the same day.  But only sometimes.  The system doesn’t generate the notice until the clerk’s office approves the order.  And that often happens a day or two later (and sometimes more).   

And that sets up the problem: Does a party have 30 days from the date the judge submits the order into the system (which is denoted by the electronic file stamp on the order) or when the notification is sent out to the parties?

In Concerned Citizens of Southeast Polk School District v. City Development Board of the State of Iowa, the district court judge submitted a final order into the electronic system on July 11, but the notice didn’t go out until July 15.  The losing party appealed on August 12 (32 days after the judge submitted the order, but 28 days after the parties received the notice).

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled, by a 5-2 vote, that the 30 days began running on July 11, when the judge submitted the order.  Chief Justice Cady, writing for the majority, ruled that all pleadings (not just court orders) are filed when they are submitted to into the electronic system and (instantaneously) receive a file stamp.  The date that the notice goes out is of no consequence.

Justice Mansfield, joined by Justice Waterman, dissented.  He acknowledged that the “probable intent” of the electronic rules is to state that a document is filed when it’s submitted into the system, rather than when the clerk approves it and sends out the notification.  But “in light of some internal inconsistency in those EDMS rules, as well as doubts about their legal status and consistency with Iowa Code,” Justices Mansfield  believed that the appeal was timely. 

The opinion is here, if you want further explanation.  But regardless of the explanation, the rule is now clear.  And lawyers–you are on notice. 




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