Martin v. Dep't of Corr.

Decision Date24 July 2018
Docket NumberDocket: Kno-17-51
Citation190 A.3d 237
CourtMaine Supreme Court

E. James Burke, Esq., and Alec Youngblood, Stud. Atty. (orally), Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, Portland, for appellant Charles M. Martin

Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and James E. Fortin, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine



[¶ 1] This case calls for us to consider whether in Maine, pursuant to the "prisoner mailbox rule," a pro se prisoner's civil petition for review of a decision by the Department of Corrections should be deemed "filed" on the date it is delivered to prison officials to be forwarded to the clerk of court rather than the date it is received by the clerk of court. We conclude that in circumstances where, as here, (1) a prisoner is forced to rely on the Department of Corrections to ensure that his Rule 80C petition—challenging the Department's administrative action against him—is filed; (2) that prisoner places the petition into the "control" of the Department; and (3) the Department fails to timely deliver his petition to the clerk of court, the open courts provision and due process clause of the Maine Constitution require that the prisoner mailbox rule apply and the petition be deemed timely filed. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment.


[¶ 2] The following facts are undisputed. See Ewing v. Me. Dist. Court , 2009 ME 16, ¶ 3 & n.2, 964 A.2d 644. On May 16, 2016, Charles M. Martin, a prisoner incarcerated at the Maine State Prison, signed a petition pursuant to 5 M.R.S. § 11002 (2017) for judicial review of a Department decision finding that he had committed a disciplinary infraction. Two days later, on May 18, 2016, he submitted that petition to prison authorities for forwarding to the Superior Court. However, the clerk of court did not receive the petition until May 26, 2016.

[¶ 3] After accepting service of the petition, the State moved to dismiss it for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See M.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). According to the State, because Martin's petition did not specify "any date related to the action being challenged," he failed to "make the factual allegations necessary" to show that he filed the petition within the thirty-day period prescribed by 5 M.R.S. § 11002(3). Martin responded with a motion to amend the petition, a supporting affidavit, and a proposed amended petition specifying that he was notified of the Department decision on April 25, 2016. The Superior Court (Knox County, Stokes, J. ) granted that motion.1

[¶ 4] Consequently, the State filed a second motion to dismiss, arguing that because the clerk of court received Martin's petition on May 26, 2016—thirty-one days after Martin was notified of the Department's decision and therefore one day outside the thirty-day statutory window—the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction over the matter. See M.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Martin opposed the State's motion to dismiss, submitting an affidavit averring that he signed the petition on May 16, 2016, and that he gave the petition to a unit sergeant to mail on May 18, 2016. Citing the United States Supreme Court's decision in Houston v. Lack , 487 U.S. 266, 108 S.Ct. 2379, 101 L.Ed.2d 245 (1988), Martin urged the Superior Court to apply the "prisoner mailbox rule," whereby the court would consider his petition filed on the date he deposited it with prison officials for forwarding to the clerk of court, May 18, rather than when it was received by the clerk of court, May 26.

[¶ 5] The court granted the State's motion to dismiss, concluding that the thirty-day time limit pursuant to section 11002(3) is "jurisdictional and mandatory" and that "Maine has not yet adopted the so-called federal mailbox rule." Martin then filed a M.R. Civ. P. 60(b) motion for relief from judgment, which the court denied. This appeal followed. See 5 M.R.S. § 11008(1) (2017) ; M.R. App. P. 2(b)(3) (Tower 2016).2


[¶ 6] Citing Houston v. Lack , Martin argues that the court's failure to apply the prisoner mailbox rule violated his constitutional right to meaningful access to the judicial process because he "had no opportunity to bypass the prison personnel and ensure that his petition was mailed in a more reliable fashion." According to Martin, his "only option, beyond breaking out of jail to hand deliver the package himself, was to give his mail to the prison authorities, the representatives of the very agency against whom he was seeking an appeal." In response, the State contends that Martin was not denied access to the courts because even accounting for the jail's delay in delivering his petition for review to the court, he was still provided the "ample time" of 23 days to prepare his petition and ensure that it was timely received.

[¶ 7] We review de novo a court's denial of a motion pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 60(b)(4)3 to set aside a judgment because of a constitutional violation. See Reliable Copy Serv., Inc. v. Liberty , 2011 ME 127, ¶ 8, 32 A.3d 1041.

A. Statutory Provisions

[¶ 8] The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure govern the commencement of an appeal from a state agency's4 decision. See 5 M.R.S. §§ 11001 - 11008 (2017) ; M.R. Civ. P. 80C(b). Rule 80C(b) provides, "The time within which a review of final agency action or the failure or refusal of an agency to act may be sought shall be as provided by 5 M.R.S.A. § 11002(3)." Section 11002(3) of the APA provides, "The petition for review shall be filed within 30 days after receipt of notice if taken by a party to the proceeding of which review is sought." Although the APA does not define the term "filed," section 11002(1) specifies that the petition for review must be filed "in the Superior Court." 5 M.R.S. § 11002(1).

B. Houston v. Lack

[¶ 9] In Houston v. Lack , the Supreme Court articulated the unique obstacles facing pro se prisoners in exercising their right to access the courts. 487 U.S. at 270-71, 108 S.Ct. 2379. There, the Court considered whether a prisoner's civil appeal was timely filed where it was delivered to prison authorities three days before the expiration of the thirty-day filing period established by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1),5 but was received by the clerk of court one day after the filing period expired. Houston , 487 U.S. at 268-69, 108 S.Ct. 2379. The Court concluded that for purposes of then Rule 4(a)(1), the petitioner's appeal was filed at the moment it was delivered to prison authorities, and the Court's reasoning in so creating this prisoner mailbox rule warrants quotation at some length—

The situation of prisoners seeking to appeal without the aid of counsel is unique. Such prisoners cannot take the steps other litigants can take to monitor the processing of their notices of appeal and to ensure that the court clerk receives and stamps their notices of appeal before the 30-day deadline. Unlike other litigants, pro se prisoners cannot personally travel to the courthouse to see that the notice is stamped "filed" or to establish the date on which the court received the notice. Other litigants may choose to entrust their appeals to the vagaries of the mail and the clerk's process for stamping incoming papers, but only the pro se prisoner is forced to do so by his situation.... Worse, the pro se prisoner has no choice but to entrust the forwarding of his notice of appeal to prison authorities whom he cannot control or supervise and who may have every incentive to delay. No matter how far in advance the pro se prisoner delivers his notice to the prison authorities, he can never be sure that it will ultimately get stamped "filed" on time.

Id. at 270-71, 108 S.Ct. 2379.

[¶ 10] Because Houston v. Lack involved the interpretation of a federal rule of procedure and did not invoke the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court's decision is not binding on the states. See State ex rel. Tyler v. Alexander , 52 Ohio St.3d 84, 555 N.E.2d 966, 967 (1990). However, since Houston , numerous states have addressed the issue—twenty-two states have adopted a variation of the prisoner mailbox rule through court decision,6 and two states have adopted the Rule through state rules of procedure.7 Although many states, following Houston 's example, have adopted the Rule by interpreting state statutes and/or court rules, see, e.g. , Warner v. Glass , 135 S.W.3d 681, 682 (Tex. 2004) ; State v. Hurt , 107 Wash.App. 816, 27 P.3d 1276, 1282 (2001), other states have adopted the Rule by tolling the applicable statutes of limitations, see Taylor v. McKune , 25 Kan.App.2d 283, 962 P.2d 566, 570 (1998) ; Mose v. State , 420 S.C. 500, 803 S.E.2d 718, 721-23 (2017) ; State ex rel. Shimkus v. Sondalle , 239 Wis.2d 327, 620 N.W.2d 409, 412 (Wis. Ct. App. 2000).

[¶ 11] The circumstances of this case, however, preclude us from following either approach. In Houston , as here, the prisoner's appeal was subject to both a rule of procedure and a statute establishing the filing deadline. See Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1) ; 28 U.S.C.S. § 2107(a) (LEXIS through Pub. L. No. 115-196). Nevertheless, unlike this case, the statutory filing deadline in Houston did not specify where a notice of appeal was required to be filed. Compare 28 U.S.C. § 2107 (providing a deadline to file but not specifying which court to file in), with 5 M.R.S. § 11002(1) (2017) (specifying that petitions for review must be filed "in the Superior Court"). As such, whereas the Houston Court held that the absence of such a specification permitted its interpretation that a different meaning of the word "filed" could apply to pro se prisoners, 487 U.S. 266 at 272, 108 S.Ct. 2379, 101 L.Ed.2d 245, we are unable to reach the same conclusion here due to section 11002(1)'s clear directive that filing must occur "in the Superior...

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