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Interference With Access to Legal Materials by Federal Prison Officials May Warrant Equitable Tolling

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that interference with a prisoner’s access to legal materials by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) may warrant equitable tolling of the one-year deadline for seeking post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

Frank Galbadon, a federal prisoner incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton, had until March 21, 2006 to file a motion under § 2255. On February 2, 2006, however, he was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) and prison officials confiscated all of his legal materials. Despite repeated requests, his legal documents were not returned until April 4, 2006. Galbadon filed his § 2255 motion on April 26, 2006 – 36 days late.

The magistrate judge ordered Galbadon to show cause why his motion should not be dismissed as untimely. In response, Galbadon submitted a declaration from himself and his cellmate regarding his efforts to retrieve his legal materials, copies of his written requests to prison staff, and a memorandum from BOP officials corroborating his attempts to obtain his legal papers.

Despite this substantial showing, the magistrate judge found no grounds for equitable tolling and recommended that the § 2255 motion be dismissed as untimely. According to the magistrate, Galbadon had not been diligent in preparing his motion before being placed in the SHU, and the BOP’s confiscation of his legal materials was not an extraordinary circumstance justifying the late filing. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and dismissed the § 2255 motion as untimely over Galbadon’s objection. Galbadon then appealed.

Equitable tolling of a limitations period is available, the Tenth Circuit explained, “when an inmate diligently pursues his claims and demonstrates that the failure to timely file was caused by extraordinary circumstances beyond his control.” Applying this standard to Galbadon’s case, the appellate court concluded that the complete confiscation of his legal materials by BOP officials just weeks before his filing deadline would, if proven, constitute extraordinary circumstances for the purposes of equitable tolling.

Regarding the issue of due diligence, the Court of Appeals expressly rejected the district court’s contention that Galbadon had not been diligent because he did not file his § 2255 motion before being placed in the SHU. The statute allowed Galbadon “one year to file,” the court explained. Holding that “he could and should have filed the motion before his documents were seized ... would arbitrarily shorten his limitations period.” Finally, the appellate court noted, Galbadon had been diligent in attempting to retrieve his legal materials.

Because the district court’s dismissal was sua sponte, however, the Tenth Circuit declined to hold that Galbadon was entitled to equitable tolling. Instead, the case was returned to the district court for further proceedings in order to allow the government an opportunity to present evidence contesting Galbadon’s allegations. See: United States v. Galbadon, 522 F.3d 1121 (10th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

United States v. Galbadon