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Vermont Supreme Court Adopts Prison “Mailbox Rule”

In Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was unfair for courts to refuse to file prisoners’ pleadings because they were filed late if the prisoner delivered the pleading to prison officials before the filing deadline. The Court then created the “mailbox rule,” stating that documents would be accepted as being filed the day they were placed in a prison mailbox or otherwise turned over to prison officials for mailing. Since then, the mailbox rule has been incorporated into the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and a myriad of states have adopted similar policies. In 2016, Vermont finally adopted the mailbox rule, too.

Joseph Bruyette, a Vermont state prisoner, had appealed a superior court’s summary dismissal of his petition for post-conviction relief. His notice of appeal arrived at the incorrect court – the Vermont Supreme Court instead of the superior court – one day after the filing deadline. The Supreme Court treats improperly filed notices as if they were properly filed, forwarding them to the superior court and accepting the day they arrived at the Supreme Court as the filing date. However, in this case the Court dismissed the appeal as untimely.

Bruyette filed a motion for reconsideration, asserting that he had given the notice to prison officials ten days prior to the day the Supreme Court received it, thus the Court should accept his notice as timely filed under the mailbox rule. The Defender General filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of adopting the rule, which was not opposed by the Attorney General.

The Vermont Supreme Court accepted the reasoning in Houston v. Lack as persuasive and adopted a similar mailbox rule, holding “that an unrepresented prisoner is deemed to have filed a notice of appeal at the time it is delivered, properly addressed, to the proper prison authorities to be forwarded to the clerk of the court.” Consequently, Bruyette’s notice was deemed timely filed, his motion to reconsider was granted and the appeal reinstated. See: In re Bruyette, 2016 VT 3, 136 A.3d 575 (Vt. 2016). 

Related legal case

In re Bruyette