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Seventh Circuit Extends Appeal Filing Deadline for Prisoner Misled by Court Clerk

Seventh Circuit Extends Appeal Filing Deadline for Prisoner Misled by Court Clerk

by Matt Clarke

In a well-crafted opinion delivered on August 8, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner who was misled by a court clerk regarding the status of his habeas corpus petition should be allowed to appeal the district court’s ruling despite his notice of appeal being filed more than two years after the petition was decided.

Michael Carter, an Illinois state prisoner, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied the petition on February 10, 2011 but failed to make a separate judgment or send a copy of the opinion to Carter. On December 5, 2011, Carter wrote to the court clerk inquiring about the status of his petition. The clerk responded that no action had been taken and he would be promptly notified by mail when an order was entered. About a year later, Carter contacted the clerk again. This time he was informed of the judgment in a letter received on March 22, 2013.

Carter filed a notice of appeal less than a month later. The appellate court, in screening new filings for possible jurisdictional problems, noticed the length of time between the judgment and notice of appeal.

The Seventh Circuit held that because the district court had failed to issue a separate judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58(c)(2), the judgment would not be considered rendered until 150 days after the denial of the petition was entered on the docket. A petitioner who did not receive actual notice of the denial would then have 180 days to request reopening of the case in order to file a notice of appeal. The 150 days added to the 180 days would have brought the filing date up to January 7, 2012, about a month after Carter had been erroneously informed by the court clerk that his petition was still pending. Thus, had the clerk not misled him, he could have reopened the case and filed a timely notice of appeal.

The time for filing a notice of appeal is not subject to equitable tolling, “the judge-made doctrine, well established in federal common law, that excuses an untimely filing when the plaintiff could not, despite the exercise of reasonable diligence, have discovered all of the information he needed in order to be able to file his claim on time.” However, equitable tolling can be applied to the 150-day period, and it was in the interest of justice to do so since the clerk had misled Carter and “[h]e could not, considering his situation as a prisoner without legal sophistication or a lawyer, have learned this essential information earlier.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals tolled the 150-day period until March 22, 2013, when Carter learned of the judgment. This made his notice of appeal timely and the appellate court therefore declined to dismiss his appeal. See: Carter v. Hodge, 726 F.3d 917 (7th Cir. 2013).

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Related legal case

Carter v. Hodge