Monday, March 8, 2010

Equitable tolling revives habeas corpus action

You have one year to bring a habeas corpus action, thanks to a 1996 law intended to reign in habeas petitions. That deadline is sacrosanct for convicts and their lawyers. Are there any exceptions to this deadline? Yes, the Court of Appeals holds.

The case is Bolarinwa v. Williams, decided on January 28. Bolarinwa was convicted of killing her son. At trial, she called seven experts to say that she was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. After she lost all her appeals in the state court system, she brought what we call a "440 motion" named after the provision in the Criminal Procedure Law which allows you to attack your conviction after-the-fact, on the basis that a juror was sleeping during the trial and there was insufficient evidence of her guilt. That effort failed and she then brought a habeas action in federal court.

Bolarinwa had a timeliness problem, the district court held, because the habeas petition was brought outside the one-year statute of limitations. Her argument was that she could not file it any earlier because of her mental illness. The Second Circuit has not handled this issue before, but it resolves it now. Following the lead of other federal circuits which have granted equitable tolling of the statute of limitations on mental illness grounds.

The general rule is that "a litigant seeking equitable tolling must establish two elements: (1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way and prevented timely filing. Accordingly, this Court has clearly stated that the ... limitations period will only be tolled in 'rare and exceptional circumstance[s],' and where the petitioner demonstrate[s] a causal relationship between the extraordinary circumstances . . . and the lateness of his filing, a demonstration that cannot be made if the petitioner, acting with reasonable diligence, could have filed on time notwithstanding."

As mental illness has extended deadlines in the employment discrimination context (filing EEOC complaints, for example), it can apply here, also, if the facts warrant it. The case is remanded to the district court to consider this matter anew.

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