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Sixth Circuit Allows Revival of Untimely Habeas Appeal Using Rule 60(b)

The Sixth Circuit allowed a prisoner to revive the appeal of her federal habeas corpus action in the interests of justice after she won a civil rights lawsuit against prison guards who prevented her from filing a timely notice of appeal a decade earlier.

Hattie Tanner, a Michigan state prisoner who described herself as “functionally illiterate,” was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1995. She appealed and a state appellate court overturned her conviction based on a violation of her constitutional rights due to the state’s failure to provide her with DNA and serology experts. That reversal was itself later reversed by the Supreme Court of Michigan.

Unaided by an attorney, Tanner then drafted and filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus, which the district court dismissed on its merits on November 8, 2005. Following the dismissal, Tanner sought the assistance of a prison legal aide. The other prisoner helped Tanner request a certified copy of her prison trust account activity, which was needed to appeal in forma pauperis. The prison did not release the document until three days prior to the 30-day deadline for filing the notice of appeal. The legal aide prepared the notice, but before she could give it to Tanner for signing and mailing, Tanner’s housing unit went on lockdown. The other prisoner scheduled a “call-out” for Tanner to sign the notice the next day, but guards refused to allow her to go, telling her “too bad” when she explained the need to meet the filing deadline. The lockdown ended two days later and the notice of appeal was given to prison officials for mailing the next day – one day after the deadline.

The court clerk did not notice the late filing. Neither did the district court judge, who issued a certificate of appealability. The appeal was initially docketed with the Sixth Circuit, and a few weeks later the Court of Appeals recognized the error and notified Tanner that her appeal was tardy. By then, the time allowed for filing a motion to extend the time to file a notice of appeal had expired and Tanner had lost her chance to appeal.

Tanner filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the guards who prevented her from filing her notice of appeal on time had violated her constitutional rights. In March 2012, a jury awarded her $20,000 in compensatory damages and $7,000 in punitive damages. The guards did not appeal.

She subsequently filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(6), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), alleging “it would be a miscarriage of justice” to allow the guards’ unconstitutional actions – as verified by the jury in the civil rights case – to deprive her of her right to appeal. She asked the district court to vacate its judgment dismissing her habeas petition and reinstate the judgment, resetting the 30-day period during which she could appeal. Interpreting the motion as one to extend the time period to file a notice of appeal set forth in Rule 4, FRCP, the court denied the motion. Tanner appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that a district court cannot extend the 30-day period to file a notice of appeal. However, Tanner was not asking for an extension. Pointing out a tradition that predated the founding of this country, in which English courts would set aside a judgment whose enforcement would work inequity, the Court of Appeals held that the district court could and should set aside the habeas judgment and then reinstate it, resetting the 30-day period to appeal.

“By the time Tanner filed her Rule 60(b)(6) motion for relief from judgment in this case, she had established a violation of her constitutional right of access by means of a jury’s verdict – certainly a rare example of success for an inmate litigant,” the Sixth Circuit noted.

Accordingly, the district court’s order on the Rule 60(b)(6) motion was reversed, and the case remanded for the court to dismiss the judgment and reinstate it, so Tanner could appeal the dismissal of her habeas action. A petition for rehearing en banc was denied in April 2015. See: Tanner v. Yukins, 776 F.3d 434 (6th Cir. 2015), petition for rehearing en banc denied. 

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Related legal case

Tanner v. Yukins