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Fifth Circuit Holds Mailbox Rule Applies to Legal Mail Rejected Under Bogus Prison Rule

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that legal mail rejected by prison officials under a purported rule that does not exist is still entitled to the “mailbox rule.”

Clifford Medley, a Texas state prisoner, tried to mail his federal habeas corpus petition to the U.S. district court about a week before the one-year AEDPA limitations period would have expired in October 2006. Because federal habeas petitions require a $5.00 filing fee, and because the processing of a withdrawal request from a Texas prisoner’s trust fund account takes several weeks, Medley put a trust fund withdrawal slip in his mailing with a request for prison mail room employees to hold the habeas petition until the trust fund withdrawal was processed so the check could be included.

The mail room instead returned the petition to Medley “with an explanation that the mail room was not permitted to hold the petition pending receipt of the filing fee.” Using Inmate Request Forms, Medley inquired multiple times concerning the proper procedure to have the filing fee sent along with the petition, only to be told that mail may not be sent along with withdrawal slips and that he could have someone outside the prison pay the filing fee. Finally, long after the expiration of the limitations period, Medley’s mother filed the petition and paid the filing fee.

Unsurprisingly, the district court dismissed the petition as untimely. Medley appealed. On appeal, the assistant attorney general (AAG) assigned to the case alleged that Medley had violated a reasonable prison mail rule that resulted in the rejection of his petition, and thus he was not entitled to the benefits of the mailbox rule established in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988). The Fifth Circuit affirmed, also finding that equitable tolling did not apply.

A few days after he filed his appellate reply brief, Medley received an answer to a grievance he had submitted on the matter. The answer stated there was no prison rule that prohibited mail from being submitted along with withdrawal slips. Medley filed a motion for panel rehearing, which was granted.

On rehearing the AAG admitted there was no such rule and said he had been merely assuming that the lies that prison officials told to Medley were true. In an October 12, 2011 opinion on rehearing, the Fifth Circuit withdrew its previous opinion and reversed the district court’s judgment, remanding the case for further proceedings.

The Court of Appeals noted “that the mailbox rule ‘constitutes an exception’ to [Habeas] Rule 3’s requirements; thus a pro se prisoner like Medley need not mail his fee with his petition in order for it to be treated as filed.” However, it has been the experience of many pro se litigators that district court clerks will return habeas petitions that are not accompanied by either a filing fee or a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. See: Medley v. Thaler, 660 F.3d 833 (5th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Medley v. Thaler