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Ninth Circuit Applies Houston Mailbox Rule to § 1983 Actions

Ninth Circuit Applies Houston Mailbox Rule to § 1983 Actions

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined nine other Circuits in holding that the prison mailbox rule set forth in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988) applies to pro se civil rights actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Oregon prisoner Damien Douglas was confined at the Multnomah County Detention Center from July 2000 to December 2002. He was then transferred to the Oregon Department of Corrections and held at the Snake River Correctional Institution.

On November 30, 2004, Douglas mailed a civil rights complaint to federal court via registered mail. The complaint asserted six claims against Multnomah County officials for incidents occurring on July 14, 2000, May 19, 2001, July 15, 2001, October 30, 2001, April 29, 2002 and December 1, 2002. Each of his claims was based on a particular incident, but Douglas argued that the claims, taken together, were part of a pattern of illegal behavior by the defendants.

Douglas’ last cause of action accrued on December 1, 2002, but the district court clerk did not file his complaint until December 8, 2004 – seven days late. The court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as the claims were time-barred.

Douglas sought reconsideration, invoking Houston’s prison mailbox rule and providing the district court with a copy of a “Special Handling List” maintained by the prison, which stated “that registered mail from Douglas was sent to the district court on November 30, 2004.” He also submitted a photocopy of the face of the envelope, bearing a November 30, 2004 postmark. The district court denied reconsideration, concluding that Houston’s mailbox rule does not apply to § 1983 suits.

The Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal, holding for the first time “that the Houston mailbox rule applies to § 1983 suits filed by pro se prisoners,” joining the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th Circuits. “All of the rationales articulated by the Supreme Court in Houston for applying the mailbox rule ... apply equally, if not more strongly, to § 1983 complaints,” the appellate court found. This is true, in part, because “prison officials have a particular incentive to delay the filing of § 1983 suits because many of them are brought against those very officials.”

The Court of Appeals also rejected the defendants’ argument that Douglas did not comply with the Houston mailbox rule because he dropped his complaint in a mailbox at the prison rather than giving it to staff. The Court found that the case law the defendants relied upon – Miller v. Sumner, 921 F.2d 202 (9th Cir. 1990) – was effectively abrogated by Caldwell v. Amend, 30 F.3d 1199, 1202-03 (9th Cir. 1994) [PLN, Jan. 1995, p.7]. Further, Koch v. Ricketts, 68 F.3d 1191 (9th Cir. 1995) [PLN, April 1995, p.12; June 1996, p.8], demonstrated that the defendants’ “interpretation of the Houston mailbox rule in Miller is no longer good law.” Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “it is obvious in this case that Douglas complied with ‘the constructive filing rule in Houston.’”

Given that “the events that form the basis of Douglas’s sixth claim occurred on December 1, 2002,” and he had filed his § 1983 complaint “on November 30, 2004, just within the two-year statute of limitations,” the appellate court found “that Douglas has timely filed his sixth claim under § 1983.” Since the district court did not address Douglas’ arguments as to why his other claims were not time-barred, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for consideration of those arguments. See: Douglas v. Noelle, 567 F.3d 1103 (6th Cir. 2009).

Following remand the district court denied Douglas’ motion to appoint counsel and, on December 20, 2010, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss many of the claims raised in his amended complaint. Specifically, the defendants sought to dismiss the claims as they were beyond the statute of limitations, and moved for dismissal of claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) because “they fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and/or because one of the claims is beyond the statute of limitations.”

Even applying the mailbox rule to the challenged claims, they did not fall within the applicable two-year statute of limitations under Oregon law. While Douglas “alleges that he did not have reason to know that defendants’ alleged conduct was actionable as a civil rights lawsuit until ... he was informed of his legal rights by a prison legal assistant,” the district court held that “[a] pro se plaintiff’s ignorance of the law is not a circumstance that warrants equitable tolling of the statute of limitations.” Further, the district court found that the continuing violation doctrine did not apply.

This case remains pending on Douglas’ remaining non-time-barred claims. See: Douglas v. Noelle, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:04-cv-01774-AA.

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Douglas v. Noelle

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