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Mailbox Rule Inapplicable to Prisoners Represented by Counsel

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “in the context of civil complaints, the prison mailbox rule applies only to prisoners who are not represented by counsel and are proceeding pro se.”

The court’s February 17, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Blake Cretacci, who alleged that guards at Tennessee’s Coffee County Jail failed to protect him and used excessive force on him. His complaint is for three separate incidents that occurred on September 29, 2015, October 11, 2015, and January 14, 2017 while he was a pretrial detainee at the jail.

That occurred on September 29, 2015, October 11, 2015, and January 14, 2017. Cretacci alleged that during those incidents guards failed to protect him from assault by other detainees and that guards used excessive force by shooting pepperballs at him.

Cretacci secured attorney Andrew Justice to represent him in a lawsuit against the jail. On the eve of the one-year statute of limitations expiring to bring suit, Justice realized he was not admitted to practice law in the Middle District of Tennessee. He then took the complaint to Cretacci on September 29, 2016, and told him to give it to jail officials immediately to file. Justice hoped to take advantage of the prison mailbox rule by having Cretacci file the complaint from jail.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It found counts I and II were barred by the statute of limitations. It also found there was no constitutional violations underlying counts III and IV. Cretacci appealed.

The Sixth Circuit said the mailbox rule considers a filing from a prisoner to be filed at the moment it is handed to prison authorities for mailing. The rule addresses the unique challenges that face prisoners, for they cannot directly place the documents in the mail or go to the courthouse to file their pleadings, nor can they track the progress of their case. “The prison mailbox rule was created to prevent pro se prisoners from being penalized by any delays in filing caused by the prison mail system.”

Cretacci, however, was not acting pro se. He and Justice “had an explicit attorney-client relationship in which Justice agreed to represent Cretacci in his lawsuit against the jail,” the Sixth Circuit said. “Importantly, Justice developed Cretacci’s case against Coffee County, identified the proper legal causes of action to bring, and wrote the complaint.”

The district court was correct in finding Cretacci was represented by counsel and that he could not benefit from the mailbox rule due to that relationship. The Sixth Circuit also affirmed judgment on the claims that were not subject to the statute of limitations, finding there was no constitutional violation. See: Cretacci v. Call, 988 F.3d 860 (6th Cir. 2021). 

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