7th Circuit: Indiana prison mailbox rule misinterpreted in slip-and-fall case  

A prisoner who filed a complaint against a customer services company after injuring himself in a kitchen slip and fall has had his case reinstated by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The panel concluded Indiana’s prison mailbox rule had been misinterpreted in dismissal of the man’s case.

While inside the Pendleton Correctional Facility’s kitchen, Malcolm Cobb Jr. slipped and fractured his ankle after stepping on an uncleaned spill. Cobb brought a state-court negligence action against Aramark Correctional Services for failing to clean up the mess, claiming its failure to train its employees in safety rules, such as posting signs signaling a wet floor, caused his injury.

Aramark removed the action to the Southern District Court and argued the action was filed too late. The Southern District Court agreed with Aramark and granted its motion for summary judgment, finding the state statute of limitations controlled and that Cobb’s action was too late unless his delivery of the complaint to a prison counselor six days before the limitations expired constituted filing.

Additionally, the district court concluded that because the record showed that Cobb’s complaint was sent by regular first-class mail and received on Jan. 31, 2017, that his action was barred by the statute of limitations. But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in Malcolm Cobb, Jr. v. Aramark Correctional Services, 18-1909.

The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that Indiana’s prison mailbox rule applied to Cobb’s case, but noted the lower court too narrowly read Dowell v. State, 922 N.E.2d 605. 609 (Ind. 2010) in its decision to award judgment to Aramark.

“In Dowell, the plaintiff had no such ‘reasonable, legitimate, and verifiable documentation supporting [his] claim’ and therefore the court had no reason to evaluate what forms of documentation would be acceptable,” Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote. “But as appellate courts have interpreted the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Dowell, it has become clear that a certified mail return receipt is one way, but not the only way, for a prisoner-plaintiff to submit verifiable documentation.”

Thus, the 7th Circuit concluded that the Indiana prison mailbox rule was not limited to instances involving certified mail.

“Cobb submitted an affidavit from a prison counselor that attested to the fact that Cobb submitted his documents to the counselor on December 9, 2016 — six days before the statute of limitations expired. The counselor stated that he notarized the documents on that date and delivered them to the mail room on the same day. Cobb, therefore, submitted reasonable, legitimate, and verifiable documentation supporting his claim that his documents were timely submitted to prison officials for mailing,” the panel concluded.

The case was thus remanded for further proceedings, accompanied by a suggestion that the district court consider whether certain requirements by the Clerk of the Madison Circuit Court for filing a new lawsuit “unconstitutionally restricts access to the courts, particularly if the rule is applied differently to prisoners than the rest of the litigants.”

Cobb alleged in his filings that the Madison County Clerk turned away his parents when they tried to file his complaint in person, well before the limitations period expired. A letter from the clerk stated that if Cobb wanted to file a new lawsuit while in the Department of Corrections, he would either need someone to file on his behalf who had power of attorney over him or send in the paperwork himself. If the appropriate paperwork showing power of attorney was not with them, then the filing would not be accepted.

“There are, after all, myriad people who perform the ministerial task of dropping off paperwork at clerks’ offices including secretaries, messengers, law firm runners, courier services, and the like,” the panel wrote. “We would hope that this rule is not being used to discourage prisoners from filing cases in the Madison County Courts.”

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