7th Circuit reverses Indiana prison mailbox untimeliness ruling

A federal prisoner who struggled to file an administrative complaint through the prison mail system and was denied his complaint due to untimeliness has won a reversal from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 7th Circuit concluded that the complaint was filed the moment it was placed in the prison’s mail and not upon its receipt.

Thomas Censke, a federal inmate in Terre Haute, alleged abuse and inadequate care from his prison guards. He placed an administrative complaint under the Federal Tort Claims Act in the prison mail nine days before the end of the two-year limitations period. Censke was eventually denied his claim on the merits by the Bureau of Prisons, prompting him to sue in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

There, the government alleged Censke’s claim was too late because the Bureau did not receive it in its regional office until two months after the deadline had passed. The Southern District Court concluded, among other things, that the prison-mailbox rules did not apply to render Censke’s claim timely and thus entered summary judgment for the government.

In resolving what it called as a “substantive and unresolved legal issue” of whether the prison-mailbox rule applies to administrative filings under the FTCA, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the rule does apply. It therefore reversed in Censke’s favor, finding that the administrative complaint was timely filed the moment it was placed in the prison’s outgoing mail.

“Because administrative claims filed under the FTCA fall within (Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988))’s framework and do not implicate the concerns underpinning the Court’s reasoning in (Fex v. Michigan, 507 U.S. 43 (1993)), we hold that the prison-mailbox rule applies here. This result is on all fours with the rationale that guided the Court in Houston,” Circuit Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the panel.

The 7th Circuit further noted that it would have reached the same result if it were to apply Fex’s balance-of-harms approach, finding that in Censke’s case, the prisoner could be barred from bringing suit no matter how meritorious his claim if the complaint was never received.

“On the other hand, the potential harm to the federal government is not so great as to tilt the scales in its favor,” the 7th Circuit wrote. “… To be sure, the application of the prison-mailbox rule could take away some of the agency’s time to investigate before the complainant is allowed to file suit. But that result is less stark than the total preclusion of a state’s ability to prosecute a defendant — the scenario the Supreme Court confronted in Fex.

“Significantly, too, unlike in the context of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers present in Fex, this case involves no potential infringement by the federal government upon state interests,” the panel wrote.

It thus concluded that Censke’s administrative claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act was timely filed. Thomas Censke v. USA, 18-2695, was remanded for further proceedings.

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