Mata v. Lynch,
576 U.S. ___ (2015)

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Justia Opinion Summary

After Mata, an unlawful alien, was convicted of assault in a Texas court, an Immigration Judge ordered him removed to Mexico. Mata’s attorney filed notice of appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), but never filed a brief; the appeal was dismissed. Acting through different counsel, Mata moved to reopen his removal proceedings, 8 U.S.C. 229a(c)(7)(A). Acknowledging that he had missed the 90-day deadline for such motions, Mata argued that his previous counsel’s ineffective assistance was an exceptional circumstance entitling him to equitable tolling. The BIA dismissed the motion as untimely and declined to reopen Mata’s removal proceedings sua sponte based on its separate regulatory authority. The Fifth Circuit construed Mata’s equitable tolling claim as a request that the BIA exercise its regulatory authority to reopen the proceedings sua sponte, and, because its precedent forbids review of BIA decisions not to exercise that authority, dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court reversed. A court of appeals has jurisdiction to review the BIA’s rejection of an alien’s motion to reopen. Nothing about that jurisdiction changes where the BIA rejects a motion as untimely, or when it rejects a motion requesting equitable tolling of the time limit, or when the denial also contains a separate decision not to exercise its sua sponte authority. If Mata is not entitled to relief on the merits, the correct disposition is to take jurisdiction and affirm the BIA’s denial of his motion. A federal court has a “virtually unflagging obligation” to assert jurisdiction where it has that authority; recharacterizing pleadings cannot be used to sidestep the judicial obligation to assert jurisdiction.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Elena Kagan)  | 
  • Dissent (Clarence Thomas)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

REYES MATA v. LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 14–185. Argued April 29, 2015—Decided June 15, 2015

After petitioner Noel Reyes Mata, an unlawful resident alien, was convicted of assault in a Texas court, an Immigration Judge ordered him removed to Mexico. Mata’s attorney filed a notice of appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA or Board), but never filed a brief, and the appeal was dismissed. Acting through different counsel, Mata filed a motion to reopen his removal proceedings, as authorized by statute. See 8 U. S. C. §1229a(c)(7)(A). Acknowledging that he had missed the 90-day deadline for such motions, see §1229a(c)(7)(C)(i), Mata argued that his previous counsel’s ineffective assistance was an exceptional circumstance entitling him to equitable tolling of the time limit. But the BIA disagreed and dismissed the motion as untimely. The BIA also declined to reopen Mata’s removal proceedings sua sponte based on its separate regulatory authority. See 8 CFR §1003.2(a). On appeal, the Fifth Circuit construed Mata’s equitable tolling claim as an invitation for the Board to exercise its regulatory authority to reopen the proceedings sua sponte, and—because circuit precedent forbids the court to review BIA decisions not to exercise that authority—dismissed Mata’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

Held: The Fifth Circuit erred in declining to take jurisdiction over Mata’s appeal. A court of appeals has jurisdiction to review the BIA’s rejection of an alien’s motion to reopen. Kucana v. Holder, 558 U. S. 233 . Nothing about that jurisdiction changes where the Board rejects a motion as untimely, or when it rejects a motion requesting equitable tolling of the time limit. That jurisdiction likewise remains unchanged if the BIA’s denial also contains a separate decision not to exercise its sua sponte authority. So even assuming the Fifth Circuit is correct that courts of appeals lack jurisdiction to review BIA decisions not to reopen cases sua sponte, that lack of jurisdiction does not affect jurisdiction over the decision on the alien’s motion to reopen. It thus follows that the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction over this case.

The Fifth Circuit’s contrary decision rested on its construing Mata’s motion as an invitation for the Board to exercise its sua sponte discretion. Court-appointed amicus asserts that the Fifth Circuit’s recharacterization was based on the premise that equitable tolling in Mata’s situation is categorically forbidden. In amicus’s view, the court’s construal was therefore an example of the ordinary practice of recharacterizing a doomed request as one for relief that may be available. But even if equitable tolling is prohibited, the Fifth Circuit’s action was not justified. If Mata is not entitled to relief on the merits, then the correct disposition is to take jurisdiction and affirm the BIA’s denial of his motion. For a court retains jurisdiction even if a litigant’s request for relief lacks merit, see Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83 , and a federal court has a “virtually unflagging obligation,” Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U. S. 800 , to assert jurisdiction where it has that authority. Nor can the established practice of recharacterizing pleadings so as to offer the possibility of relief justify an approach that, as here, renders relief impossible and sidesteps the judicial obligation to assert jurisdiction. Pp. 4–8.

558 Fed. Appx. 366, reversed and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Primary Holding

A federal court must assert jurisdiction when it has the authority to do so, rather than recharacterizing pleadings to avoid that obligation. Therefore, a federal court of appeals may review the Board of Immigration Appeals' rejection of a non-citizen's motion to reopen, even if the rejection was based on procedural grounds.

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