The US Supreme Court’s Decision in Mata v. Lynch

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The US Supreme Court’s Decision in Mata v. Lynch

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On June 15, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Mata v. Lynch, No. 14-185, holding that federal courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review the Board of Immigration Appeal’s (Board) decisions on motions to reopen.

A Motion to Reopen is a procedural measure that provides a party to the immigration proceedings in question an opportunity to present new facts that were not available at the time of the former hearing. A party is only allowed to file one Motion to Reopen and the motion must be filed within 90 days of the final administrative decision.

The petitioner in Mata v. Lynch, Noel Mata, filed a motion to reopen with the Board after the 90 day deadline and asked the Board to “equitably toll,” the time limit in his case. “Equitable tolling” is a legal principle under which courts have the authority to essentially waive a time limitation where the applicant acted diligently, but was still unable to meet the deadline. Mr. Mata was unable to meet the Court’s deadline due to the ineffective assistance of his previous counsel, who failed to file a brief with the Board setting forth grounds for reversal of the Immigration Judge’s decision. Because the brief was never filed, the Board dismissed Mr. Mata’s motion. With new counsel, Mr. Mata then filed a petition for review with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where his case originated.

Although nine different circuit courts have held that a motion to reopen deadline is subject to equitable tolling in some circumstances, this issue had not yet been decided by the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit court declined to address Mr. Mata’s argument with regard to equitable tolling and instead determined that in the Fifth Circuit, a request to the Board for equitable tolling is an invitation for the Board to exercise its discretionary authority to reopen the removal proceedings sua sponte – or on its own motion. The Fifth Circuit then relied on circuit precedent to determine that it did not have jurisdiction to review the Board’s decision not to exercise its sua sponte power to reopen cases.

The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdictional decision and held that federal courts of appeals do in fact have jurisdiction to review the Board’s rejection of motions to reopen. The Supreme Court found that the court’s jurisdiction does not change, even if the Board rejects the motion as untimely, if the Board rejects the motion requesting equitable tolling, or even if the Board separately declines to exercise its sua sponte authority. The Supreme Court did not address the question of whether the 90 day deadline for motions to reopen can be equitably tolled. As such, the case has been remanded to the Fifth Circuit to make a decision with regard to whether equitable tolling is applicable to motions to reopen.

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