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Martin v. Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Maine

July 24, 2018


          Argued: March 6, 2018

          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


          JABAR, J.

         [¶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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶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 (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 ...

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