Mendoza v. Carey

Decision Date07 June 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-56733.,04-56733.
Citation449 F.3d 1065
PartiesCarlos MENDOZA, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Tom L. CAREY, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Stephen M. Lathrop, Rolling Hills Estates, CA, for the petitioner-appellant.

Keith H. Borjon, Deputy Attorney General, Los Angeles, CA, for the respondent-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Cormac J. Carney, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV 04-02632 CJC.

Before: KLEINFELD, TASHIMA, and FISHER, Circuit Judges.

TASHIMA, Circuit Judge:

Carlos Mendoza, a California state prisoner, appeals from the judgment of the district court, which dismissed as untimely his petition for writ of habeas corpus. Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), habeas petitions must be filed within one year from the date when the petitioner's judgment of conviction became final. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d). Mendoza, who is a Spanish speaker, argued that he should qualify for equitable tolling of the one-year limitations period because the prison law library failed to provide Spanish-language books or Spanish-speaking clerks or librarians to assist Spanish-speaking inmates.1 The magistrate judge concluded that the absence of Spanish-language materials from Mendoza's prison library did not amount to an extraordinary circumstance for purposes of the equitable tolling analysis. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's report and recommendation; accordingly, it dismissed Mendoza's petition as untimely. On appeal, Mendoza contends that he is entitled to equitable tolling because the lack of Spanish-language assistance was an extraordinary circumstance beyond his control that made it impossible to file a timely petition. Further, he contends that the district court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether equitable tolling was appropriate.

We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2253. We agree that an evidentiary hearing is required because Mendoza has alleged facts which, if true, could entitle him to equitable tolling. We therefore reverse and remand to the district court for development of the factual record.

Factual and Procedural Background

Mendoza is currently serving a 14-year sentence after pleading no contest to a charge of assault with a firearm. Mendoza did not appeal; therefore, his conviction became final on August 21, 2001, 60 days after the judgment of conviction. He filed his first petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of California on May 14, 2003.2 He subsequently filed a second habeas petition in the Superior Court, a petition in the California Court of Appeal, and two petitions in the California Supreme Court. All of these petitions were denied, with the final denial from the California Supreme Court occurring on March 17, 2004. Mendoza then filed his federal habeas petition on April 3, 2004. On April 26, 2004, the district court issued an order requiring petitioner to show cause why the petition should not be dismissed as untimely. It noted that the AEDPA's limitations period expired on August 21, 2002, one year after Mendoza's conviction became final, and that absent equitable or statutory tolling, his petition was time-barred. According to the district court, Mendoza had not "provided any explanation for the lengthy delay in filing," other than the allegation that he had been "hindered because he speaks Spanish and the prison does not provide Spanish language law books."

Mendoza responded to the order to show cause on May 24, 2004, stating that the prison law library possessed no Spanish books, no Spanish-English legal dictionaries, and no postings about the AEDPA time limitations in any language. In a declaration filed in support of his response, Mendoza stated that during his first three months of incarceration, he was held at the Reception Center, where there were no Spanish-language books and where he was told that he "would have to wait until [he] got to [his] regular assigned prison." When he arrived at Solano State Prison, Mendoza found no Spanish language books or forms, and returned to the library "several times" but found only English-language books and English-speaking clerks and librarians. He further stated that he became "very discouraged" due to this inability to obtain information in Spanish. He "finally engaged in conversations with people on the prison yard" and found a recently-arrived inmate named Antonio who, for a fee, assisted Mendoza in filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the California Superior Court. Later, another inmate, Antolin Andrews, prepared and filed petitions on Mendoza's behalf in the California Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court, and finally, the district court. Mendoza further asserted in his declaration that he would have challenged his sentence within a year if he had seen any notice in the prison alerting him to the one-year limitations period.

In addition to his own declaration, Mendoza filed 47 identical, form declarations, each signed by a Spanish-speaking inmate. Each declaration stated that the inmate had been to the legal library at the prison; had found no Spanish books that could assist the inmate in pursuing court action; and that the librarians and legal clerks did not speak Spanish. Antolin Andrews, the inmate who assisted Mendoza with his petitions, also filed a declaration asserting that in his experience with many California state prisons, he had never seen any Spanish books in the prison law libraries.

After reviewing this response to the order to show cause, the magistrate judge recommended that Mendoza's habeas petition be dismissed as untimely. The magistrate judge first found that statutory tolling was not applicable in this case because statutory tolling extends the filing deadline only during the time in which a "properly filed state habeas petition [is] pending," and Mendoza did not file any state habeas petitions until after the federal filing deadline had passed. On the issue of equitable tolling, the magistrate judge found that Mendoza's "general lack of legal knowledge, indigenc[e], and limited English skills are not external factors or extraordinary circumstances beyond his control that made it impossible for him to file a timely petition."

The district court adopted the report and recommendation of the magistrate judge, and dismissed the habeas petition as untimely. Mendoza appealed, and the district court declined to issue a Certificate of Appealability ("COA"). We granted a COA on the following issues: (1) whether Mendoza is entitled to equitable tolling based on his inability to comprehend English and the lack of Spanish-language materials in the library; and (2) whether the district court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue.

Standard of Review

A district court's denial of a petition for writ of habeas corpus is reviewed de novo, and denial of an evidentiary hearing is reviewed for abuse of discretion. United States v. Sandoval-Lopez, 409 F.3d 1193, 1195 (9th Cir.2005) (citing United States v. Rodrigues, 347 F.3d 818, 823 (9th Cir.2003)). Findings of fact made by the district court are reviewed for clear error. Moran v. McDaniel, 80 F.3d 1261, 1268 (9th Cir.1996).

Discussion

"[A] litigant seeking equitable tolling [of the one-year AEDPA limitations period] bears the burden of establishing two elements: (1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way." Pace v. DiGuglielmo, 544 U.S. 408, 125 S.Ct. 1807, 1814, 161 L.Ed.2d 669 (2005). "[T]he threshold necessary to trigger equitable tolling under [the] AEDPA is very high, lest the exceptions swallow the rule." Miranda v. Castro, 292 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir.2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). This high bar is necessary to effectuate the "AEDPA's statutory purpose of encouraging prompt filings in federal court in order to protect the federal system from being forced to hear stale claims." Guillory v. Roe, 329 F.3d 1015, 1018 (9th Cir.2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Equitable tolling determinations are "highly fact-dependent." Whalem/Hunt v. Early, 233 F.3d 1146, 1148 (9th Cir.2000) (en banc) (per curiam). Accord Lott v. Mueller, 304 F.3d 918, 923 (9th Cir.2002) (observing that equitable tolling determinations "turn[ ] on an examination of detailed facts").

Whether a habeas petitioner's inability to obtain Spanish-language materials or procure translation assistance can be grounds for equitable tolling of the AEDPA's one-year limitations period is a question of first impression in this Circuit. In Whalem/Hunt, 233 F.3d at 1148, we held that the unavailability of a copy of the AEDPA in a prison law library could, but did not necessarily, constitute grounds for equitable tolling.3 We remanded the case to the district court for appropriate development of the record. Id. So long as there are some circumstances "consistent with petitioner's petition and declaration" that would entitle the petitioner to equitable tolling, remand is appropriate. Id.; see also Laws v. Lamarque, 351 F.3d 919, 921 (9th Cir.2003) (holding that "[b]ecause [petitioner] ... made a good-faith allegation that would, if true, entitle him to equitable tolling," the claim should be remanded to the district court for further factual development of petitioner's claim that he was mentally incompetent during the limitations period).

While Whalem/Hunt does not directly control the facts of this case, we find its reasoning instructive. In Whalem/Hunt, the state's failure to provide access to the text of the AEDPA constituted possible grounds for equitable tolling because, according to the petitioner's allegations, the absence of a copy of the AEDPA prevented him from learning about the AEDPA's one-year deadline...

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