Thursday, December 3, 2015

Equitable tolling saves untimely habeas petition

This guy went to jail and hired a lawyer to file his habeas corpus petition. But, as the Court of Appeals dryly puts it, counsel "evidently showed a greater interest in collecting fee payments than in providing Martinez with adequate representation. The attorney missed the habeas petition deadline and was barely responsive to Martinez's case[.]" The district court chucked the habeas petition that Martinez finally submitted as time-barred. The Court of Appeals brings the habeas petition back, granting Martinez a rare exception to the blown-deadline rule.

The case is Martinez v. Superintendent of Eastern Correctional Facility, decided on November 10. You only have one year to file a habeas petition. As counsel did not do the work and only wanted to get paid, this one was filed much later. At least Martinez found a lawyer to handle the appeal. That lawyer knows something about equitable tolling, which allows you to bypass the statute of limitations if the blown deadline is not your fault and you acted with reasonable diligence to preserve your rights. Courts do not grant equitable tolling very often, but the Court of Appeals (Walker, Jacobs and Livingston) does so here.

Martinez acted with reasonable diligence here. He hired a lawyer to handle the case and that lawyer actively concealed his law firm's failure to do the work, writing him letters that suggested they were working on the case. Martinez was lulled into believing that someone was doing the work. He had no reason to suspect otherwise. While the district court said Martinez could have hired another lawyer, there is no basis to really know if that was true. And while the lower court said he could have drafted the petition himself, this capability was not clearly established on the record.

We have no idea if Martinez even has a meritorious habeas petition. But the Court of Appeals doesn't worry about that. By way, Martinez's first habeas lawyer got sanctioned by the grievance committee. And the Second Circuit opinion identifies him by name. It that does not motivate lawyers to do their job, then I don't know what will.

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