A civil case and a criminal case look the same to a mailbox

Prison CellFor an appellant whose mail slot looks like the one pictured, there was an important decision yesterday.

The California Supreme Court reached a sensible decision in Silverbrand v. County of Los Angeles, case no. S143929 (Apr. 23, 2009), in which the court holds that a prisoner’s pro se notice of appeal in a civil case is timely filed upon deposit with prison authorities for mailing. This brings the rule for timely filing of an appeal by a pro se prisoner in a civil case in line with the rule for a pro se prisoner’s filing of an appeal in a criminal case.

Silverbrand’s medical malpractice action against the county and jail medical personnel had been decided against him by summary judgment. He filed his notice of appeal by handing a correctly addressed, postage-paid envelope to prison officials the day before his deadline to file, but it did not reach the court until 2 days after the deadline. The court of appeal dismissed the appeal.

Here’s how the court introduced its decision reversing the court of appeal:

The prison-delivery rule — as most recently articulated by this court — provides that a self-represented prisoner’s notice of appeal in a criminal case is deemed timely filed if, within the relevant period set forth in the California Rules of Court, the notice is delivered to prison authorities pursuant to the procedures established for prisoner mail.  (See In re Jordan (1992) 4 Cal.4th 116 (Jordan).) The question before us in this case is whether the prison-delivery rule properly applies to a self-represented prisoner’s filing of a notice of appeal in a civil case.

Rooted in common law and well established in California jurisprudence, the prison-delivery rule, also referred to as the prison mailbox rule, “ensures that an unrepresented defendant, confined during the period allowed for the filing of an appeal, is accorded an opportunity to comply with the filing requirements fully comparable to that provided to a defendant who is represented by counsel or who is not confined.” (Jordan, supra, 4 Cal.4th at p. 119.)  It also “furthers the efficient use of judicial resources by establishing a ‘bright-line’ test that permits courts to avoid the substantial administrative burden that would be imposed were courts required to determine, on case-by-case basis, whether a prisoner’s notice of appeal was delivered to prison authorities ‘sufficiently in advance of the filing deadline’ to permit the timely filing of the notice in the county clerk’s office.”  (Ibid.)

There appears to be no sound basis for construing the relevant case law and rules of court as maintaining one rule in this context for criminal appeals and another for civil appeals.  Self-represented prisoners — who can file a notice of appeal only by delivering it to prison authorities for mailing — should be allowed the same opportunity as nonprisoners and prisoners with counsel to pursue their appellate rights, regardless of the nature of the appeal pursued.  Broadening the prison-delivery rule to include civil notices of appeal also should result in additional administrative benefits both for trial courts and reviewing courts, thereby improving judicial efficiency.  Therefore, for the same reasons that persuaded us that the prison-delivery rule should apply to the filing of a notice of appeal in a criminal case, we are persuaded that a notice of appeal by an incarcerated self-represented litigant in a civil case should be deemed filed as of the date the prisoner properly submitted the notice to prison authorities for forwarding to the clerk of the superior court.

That all seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t obvious at all from the relevant rules of court, as the rule for criminal appeals (rule 8.308) codifies (at subsection (e)) the prison-delivery rule, while the rule for civil appeals (rule 8.104) does not. That kind of distinction usually leads a court to infer that the drafter deliberately made the rules different, and that’s exactly what the court of appeal understandably concluded in dismissing Silverbrand’s appeal.

You’ve read warnings from me time and again that the notice of appeal deadline is a jurisdictional limitation. Miss it, and you’re stuck. There is no relief. Orange county DUI defense lawyer will successfully handle such a case.

But here, the Supremes note a tension between the unforgiving jurisdiction nature of the deadline and a policy of according the right to appeal “in doubtful cases ‘when such can be accomplished without doing violence to applicable rules.’ ” (Citation omitted.) This policy led to the development of the prison-delivery rule in the first place. Recapping that history and noting a national trend toward application of the prison-delivery rule in civil cases, the court reaches the conclusion summarized in the block quote above: there is no good reason to treat civil appeals different from criminal appeals.

The court overcomes the literal and harsh application of the court rule by noting that the rationale of the prison-delivery is not that it extends the deadline for filing to the date the notice of appeal is actually received by the court, but rather because the rule deems the notice of appeal constructively filed on the date of delivery to prison officials for mailing, despite the fact that it does not reach the court until later. I thought the opinion did some somersaults in its analysis of the rules, but was convinced nonetheless.

Please note, all you civil litigants, even self-represented ones, this does not mean your deposit in a mailbox on the last day for filing will suffice.  Remember, the court was deciding the effect of a prison-delivery rule.  If your mailbox doesn’t resemble the one pictured, you need to get your notice of appeal to the court — not the mailbox — on time.

It’s also worth noting that Silverbrand had the benefit of top-notch counsel in the Supreme Court at a bargain price (as in “free”). The Supremes appointed appellate powerhouse Horvitz & Levy to represent Silverbrand, and he had three amicus briefs filed on his behalf.

UPDATE: Thanks to Horvitz & Levy for linking to this post from their website “bragging page” about the case.

(Photo courtesy of Andrew Bardwell pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.)

One Comment

  1. They’re putting the legal issues of prisoners entirely in the hands of prison staff. Staff who couldn’t care less about medical malpractice issues or civil rights. It’s a wonder any mail at all is delivered from a prison to the outside world.

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