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9th Cir. Clarifies Mailbox Rule

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Appeals set forth numerous time limits by which motions and other documents must be filed, answered, etc. This has led to a large body of case law concerning how prisoners comply with these time limits due to the difficulties associated with litigating from within' prison, namely, having to rely on prison officials to forward their legal mail to the post office in a timely manner. In Houston v. Lack, 487 US 266, 108 S.Ct. 2379 (1988) the supreme court held that a pro se prisoner's "notice of appeal was filed at the time petitioner delivered it to the prison authorities for forwarding to the court clerk."

Since then various appeals courts have expanded this rule to include bankruptcy petitions, motions, discovery replies, etc. and the rulings have dealt with the means by which prisoners actually mailed the documents at issue, i.e. through legal mail systems that logged the mail, certified mail, etc. Under the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FRAP) litigants have thirty days from the time of the lower court ruling within which to file their notice of appeal, this time limit is mandatory and jurisdictional. Mark Koch is an Arizona state prisoner who sought to appeal an adverse district court ruling. His notice of appeal did not arrive at the court until well after the 30 day limit had passed. After a remand from the appeals court, the lower court held that the appeal was not timely filed, the court of appeals for the ninth circuit affirmed.

Koch claimed that he gave his notice of appeal to a prison guard collecting regular mail three days before the last day for filing the notice. He chose not to use registered, insured, or certified mail, which are logged by prison officials but which also involve additional postage fees. The appeal notice arrived in the district court nine days after the deadline.

In Miller v. Sumner, 921 F.2d 202 (9th Cir. 1990) the court had held that dropping an appeal notice into a prison mailbox does not satisfy the requirements in Houston. "Fox the exception to filing requirements for pro se prison appeals to apply, the prisoner must deliver the notice to prison authorities in a timely fashion for mailing so that the authorities may post it through the prison log system. This is the only way to avoid uncertainty and chicanery." The court noted it had always held materials to be timely filed if they arrived in court slightly past the deadline which indicated they were mailed within the deadline. See: Sudduth v. Arizona Attorney General, 921 F. 2d 206 (9th Cir. 1990).

Analyzing the rationale behind Houston the appeals court held that while prisoners cannot personally deliver their legal papers to court clerks for filing, courts may "demand that he take reasonable steps to prove the relevant date-when the notice of appeal left his control." The court held that when a prisoner mails his legal filings in a manner which can be expected to create documentary evidence of when it was mailed (i.e. mail logs, date stamp, etc.) or actually creates indisputable circumstantial evidence that the papers left his control on a date prior to the expiration period for appeal (i. e. receipt the day after it was due by the court) the material is deemed filed on the date established. "However if a prisoner just sends the notice on its way without providing some reliable evidence of the date on which he relinquished control he bears the risk of delay just like any other party. A prisoner may be required to take special steps to obtain special relief from the filing deadlines and he forgoes that relief by mailing by ordinary methods. Any other rule would render the filing deadlines so uncertain adjudication would be impossible."

The court noted that Koch is an experienced litigant who was aware of the manner in which legal mail is sent out of prison yet he did not use the approved legal mail system in place which would have logged the date of receipt. "It might have been a different case if he had attempted to document the date but was denied." Of course readers can easily avoid this type of problem by immediately filing notices of appeal and similar documents as soon as possible rather than procrastinating until the last minute. See: Koch v. Ricketts, 38 F. 3d 455 (9th Cir. 1994).

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Related legal case

Koch v. Ricketts

Koch v. Ricketts, 38 F.3d 455 (9th Cir. 10/20/1994)


[2] No. 92-16517

[3] 1994, 38 F.3d 455

[4] filed: October 20, 1994.


[6] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. D.C. No. CV-84-00624-CAM. C.A. Muecke, District Judge, Presiding.