Appealed from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Aug. 18, 2008)
Oral argument: March 1, 2010
HABEAS CORPUS, GROSS NEGLIGENCE, EQUITABLE TOLLING, DEATH PENALTY, AEDPA
Albert Holland, a death row inmate, twice wrote letters to his attorney to inquire as to the status of his federal habeas petition. His attorney failed to reply to either letter. Holland eventually filed a pro se federal habeas petition in federal district court. However, with the delay in filing, the district court denied the habeas petition as untimely. After gaining new counsel, Holland argued that his attorney’s “egregious conduct” constituted “extraordinary circumstances” so as to trigger equitable tolling of the petition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that, even though representation of Holland was “grossly negligent,” only an attorney’s “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment, or so forth” could be considered “extraordinary circumstances. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether “gross negligence” by an attorney constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” under the equitable tolling doctrine. The decision in this case will implicate the courts’ ability to timely resolve criminal cases and criminal defendants’ ability to file habeas petitions.
In determining that Petitioner was not entitled to equitable tolling to excuse the late filing of his habeas petition, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the reason for the late filing was the “gross negligence” on part of Petitioner’s state-appointed collateral attorney’s failure to file the petition in a timely fashion despite repeated instructions from the Petitioner to do so. However, under the new test announced by the Eleventh Circuit in Petitioner’s case, no allegation of attorney negligence or failure to meet a lawyer’s standard of care, in the absence of bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment, could ever qualify as an exceptional circumstance warranting equitable tolling.
This Court should grant certiorari to the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether “gross negligence” by collateral counsel, which directly results in the late filing of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, can qualify as an exceptional circumstance warranting equitable tolling, or whether, in conflict with other circuits, the Eleventh Circuit was proper in determining that factors beyond “gross negligence” must be established before an extraordinary circumstance can be found that would warrant equitable tolling.
1. Does equitable tolling apply to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s one-year statute of limitations for federal habeas petitioners?
2. If so, does “gross negligence” of the habeas petitioner’s counsel fall under the “extraordinary circumstances” prerequisite to equitable tolling?
In 1996, a Florida state court convicted Albert Holland of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, attempted sexual battery, and armed robbery, and subsequently sentenced Holland to death. See Holland v. Florida, 539 F.3d 1334, 1336–37 (11th Cir. 2008). On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed Holland’s conviction and death sentence. See id. at 1337. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Holland’s case in October of 2001. See id. In 2002, Holland filed a motion for post-conviction relief in a Florida state trial court. See id. After the state trial court denied the motion, Holland appealed the motion to the Florida Supreme Court. See id. At the same time, Holland petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. See id.
While Holland awaited the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, he sent two letters to his then-attorney, Bradley Collins. See Holland, 539 F.3d at 1337. In the letter dated March 3, 2005, Holland expressly asked Collins to “file [his federal] writ of habeas corpus petition before my deadline to file it runs out.” Brief for Petitioner, Albert Holland at 13. After failing to receive a response to this letter, Holland sent another letter to Collins, dated June 15, 2005, which inquired about whether Collins had received the previous letter and whether Collins had begun preparing the petition for habeas corpus. See id. at 14. After failing to receive a response, he subsequently asked the Florida Supreme Court how he could “secure the assistance of outside supporters to keep him updated about the appeal.” See Holland, 539 F.3d at 1337.
On November 10, 2005, the Florida Supreme Court denied Holland’s request for post-conviction relief and his habeas petition. See Holland, 539 F.3d at 1337. Unaware that the Florida Supreme Court had made its decision, Holland sent another letter to Collins, dated January 9, 2006, to inquire about his federal habeas petition. See id. Collins had not replied to Holland by January 18, 2006, when Holland learned for the first time of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in the prison writ room. See id.; Brief for Petitioner at 16. The next day, Holland filed a pro se habeas petition in federal district court. See Holland, 539 F.3d at 1337. Holland also discharged Collins as his counsel, and the district court appointed a different attorney. See id.
The federal district court ultimately denied Holland’s habeas petition because the deadline had passed. See Holland, 539 F.3d at 1337–38. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Holland’s habeas petition; the appeals court held that Holland was not entitled to equitable tolling (a doctrine that stays the time limitation on filing habeas petitions under “extraordinary circumstances”). See id. at 1338. The Eleventh Circuit reasoned that, even though Collins’s representation of Holland was “grossly negligent,” only a lawyer’s “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment, or so forth” constituted “extraordinary circumstances” under the doctrine of equitable tolling. See id. at 1339. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether an attorney’s “gross negligence” can be considered “extraordinary circumstances” under the equitable tolling doctrine.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the one-year time limit for the filing of federal habeas petitions, as established by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), is subject to the doctrine of equitable tolling. See 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1)(A). If the Court finds that equitable tolling does apply, then the Court will also decide whether “gross negligence” by Albert Holland’s lawyer constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” under the equitable tolling doctrine. The Court’s decision will affect state interests in resolving criminal cases in a timely manner and criminal defendants’ ability to present otherwise valid cases.
Twenty-two states argue that equitable tolling should not apply. Brief of Amici Curiae States of Texas, Alabama, et al. (“States”) in Support of Respondent at 2. These states contend that equitable tolling would interfere with three goals of the AEDPA: 1) “to limit delays;” 2) to “expedite the finality of state court judgments;” and 3) to “conserve limited state criminal-justice resources.” See id. at 12.
According to the states, equitable tolling cases may be quite lengthy because they are often “fact-intensive” and “case specific,” further adding to delays. See Brief of States at 12. Moreover, these states insist that “[f]inality is essential to . . . the functions of criminal law,” and thus they claim that equitable tolling adds uncertainty to state court judgments and increases the likelihood that a state court conviction may be overturned based on evidence, such as witness memory, that becomes less reliable over time. See id. at 13. Finally, these States assert that approximately twenty percent of all federal habeas petitions are untimely filed, and they argue that granting equitable tolling to all these petitioners would therefore come “at great expense to the States.” See id.
If the Court finds that equitable tolling does apply to the AEDPA, the Court will also consider what standard to use to determine when equitable tolling should apply. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has held that a lawyer’s conduct does not fall under the “extraordinary circumstances” requirement unless the lawyer exhibits “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment or so forth.” Holland, 539 F.3d 1339. The Eleventh Circuit justifies this holding by stating that “‘[e]very exception not watched, tends to take the place of the rule’ . . . We are attempting to keep the exception for extraordinary circumstances from being the rule.” See id.
However, the State of Florida argues that the Eleventh Circuit should adopt an alternative standard, one which would find the “extraordinary circumstances” requirement fulfilled only when the failure to timely file a habeas petition is based upon circumstances not within the control of either the habeas petitioner or the petitioner’s attorney. See Brief for Respondent, State of Florida at 40, 46. According to Florida, the Eleventh Circuit’s standard allows equitable tolling based upon circumstances within the power of the petitioner’s counsel, creating the incentive for attorneys to intentionally trigger equitable tolling. See id. at 46. For example, Florida cites a case in which an attorney “engaged in a pattern of egregious conduct,” including missing a deadline and lying to her client, in an attempt to trigger equitable tolling for her client’s habeas petition. See id. at 49. Thus, even though Florida argues that the Court should uphold the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to deny equitable tolling to Holland, Florida also maintains that the Eleventh Circuit’s standard is ultimately “unworkable.” See id. at 46.
In contrast, amici supporting Holland argue extreme circumstances that would trigger equitable tolling are rare. See Brief of Amici Curiae Legal Ethics Professors and Practitioners and The Stein Center For Law And Ethics in Support of Petitioner at 36. Moreover, they argue that the gross violations of professional responsibility in this case should trigger equitable tolling to protect the client. See id. Holland echoes similar concerns, pointing out that a prisoner was repeatedly forced to act through Collins, repeatedly asked Collins to act, and then punished with a time bar due to Collin’s inaction See Brief for Petitioner, Albert Holland at 59–62. As such, this case implicates the extent to which clients can be held responsible for rogue actions of their attorneys.
Equitable Tolling and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
A criminal defendant subject to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) has one year after his or her state court conviction becomes final to file a habeas corpus petition in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). Once this one-year period has run out, a later petition will be dismissed as untimely. See Holland v. Florida, 539 F.3d 1334, 1340 (11th Cir. 2008). However, in certain cases and under extraordinary circumstances, a diligent petitioner may benefit from equitable tolling. See id. at 1338. Equitable tolling would permit a court to consider an untimely petition. See id. In order to benefit from equitable tolling, a petitioner must show that he has diligently pursued his rights and that extraordinary circumstances prevented timely filing of the petition. See Lawrence v. Florida, 549 U.S. 327, 336 (2007). In this case the Court will decide if equitable tolling is available for convictions under the AEDPA and if so, which circumstances are sufficient to qualify as extraordinary.
Does equitable tolling apply under the AEDPA?
Petitioner Albert Holland claims that equitable tolling is a legitimate and essentially undisputed method to toll the AEDPA statute of limitations. See Brief for Petitioner, Albert Holland at 36–39. Moreover, Holland argues that equitable tolling is a flexible tool that courts should not apply using rigid rules, but by looking at the specific facts of a case to determine if equitable tolling serves justice. See id. at 40–45. While Holland acknowledges the importance of applying equitable tolling sparingly, he argues that the heart of equity is to adjust otherwise rigid rules to the exigencies of the circumstances. See id. Holland claims that the court below ignored this principle of equity when it decided that no allegation of a lawyer’s negligence could support equitable tolling. See id. at 45–46. According to Holland, by doing so, the court below did not even attempt to look at the circumstances of his case and do equity. See id. at 46.
On the other hand, Respondent State of Florida claims that courts have incorrectly assumed that equitable tolling is available under the AEDPA. See Brief for Respondent, State of Florida at 22–23. In this regard, Florida first claims that the purpose of the AEDPA would be defeated if courts permitted equitable tolling. See id. at 23. According to Florida, Congress sought to override the presumption that equitable tolling was available in capital cases to reduce delays between sentencing and executions. See id. at 23. Florida claims that one way of reducing these delays was to prevent abuse of habeas petitions and that, for this reason, Congress provided an exhaustive list of reasons for tolling in the AEDPA. See id. at 23–26. As such, Florida argues that courts should shy away from overriding Congress’ intent by tolling the statute of limitations for reasons not listed in the AEDPA. See id. at 25–31.
Were the circumstances in Holland’s case extraordinary enough to qualify for equitable tolling?
Holland suggests that the Supreme Court should use the standard it set forth in Pace v. DiGuglielmo and Lawrence v. Florida to guide its decision in applying equitable tolling. See Brief for Petitioner at 46–47. Both cases set forth the standard and require a person to pursue their rights diligently, and that an extraordinary circumstance caused that person to untimely file the petition. See Pace v. DiGuglielmo, 544 U.S. 408, 418 (2005); Lawrence, 549 U.S. at 336. Holland claims that he has been extremely diligent and that the circumstances that led to his untimely filing of the petition as a whole are so extraordinary that they warrant equitable tolling under the Court’s standard. See Brief for Petitioner at 49–53. First, Holland points out that the Second, Fifth, and Eight Circuits have held that, when a prisoner had no notice that a state court had decided his case, the state post-conviction counsel was negligent, or the state court contributed to the lateness of the petitioner’s filing, equitable tolling of the AEDPA statute of limitations was appropriate. See id. at 53–55. Holland claims that in his case all three events occurred; if only one of these is extraordinary enough to warrant equitable tolling, the combination of all three must pass muster. See id. at 55. Secondly, Holland argues that courts of appeals have so far defined diligence as a reasonable effort of a petitioner in light of the fact that he is in jail. See id. at 60. Holland claims that, even if the standard were stricter, he would qualify for equitable tolling as he did everything he could do to preserve his federal rights. See id. at 60–62.
Florida claims that, even if equitable tolling is available under the AEDPA, it does not apply to Holland’s case because negligence claims against counsel do not qualify for equitable tolling. See Brief for Respondent at 31. Florida bases this claim on language in a provision of federal law dealing with habeas petitions which states that “ineffectiveness or incompetency of counsel during Federal or State collateral post-conviction shall not be a ground for relief . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(i); see Brief for Respondent at 31–32.
While the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) claims that “relief” in this context only applies to the ultimate habeas relief, Florida rejects this position and claims that the statute applies to any form of relief, including equitable tolling. See Brief for Respondent at 31–33; see also Brief of Amicus Curiae American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) in Support of Petitioner at 21–22. Florida further argues that, because no constitutional right to post-conviction counsel exists, ineffective and negligent post-conviction counsel cannot be a basis for relief. See Brief for Respondent at 33. In any event, Florida argues that the facts in Holland’s case are not extraordinary enough and that attorney neglect is often found insufficient to warrant equitable tolling. See id. at 36–38. In this sense, Florida argues that the attorney acted as agent for Holland and therefore is not an extraordinary circumstance beyond Holland’s control. See id. at 38–40. Furthermore, Florida asserts Holland’s claim is a simple professional negligence claim, even if it involves gross negligence, and that Holland lacked diligence in taking necessary steps to make sure that he filed his petition on time. See id. at 40–46. Finally, Florida also argues that the standards proposed by the court below as to when equitable tolling should apply are too subjective. See id. at 46–50. As such, Florida fears that litigants could be tempted to accuse lawyers of dishonesty and bad faith simply to have a valid claim for equitable tolling. See id. at 46–50.
The Supreme Court faces two issues in this case. First, it will have to decide whether equitable tolling applies to the AEDPA statute of limitations. If so, it will also have to decide if the negligence of a convict’s counsel is an extraordinary enough reason to warrant applying equitable tolling for habeas corpus petitions. Petitioner Albert Holland argues that equitable tolling must apply to the AEDPA statute of limitations and that equitable tolling should apply in his case where his counsel negligently failed to file his habeas corpus petition. Respondent State of Florida argues that equitable tolling is unavailable under the AEDPA. Moreover, Florida argues that, even if available, the negligence of Holland’s lawyer was under Holland’s control and that it is therefore not an extraordinary circumstance warranting equitable tolling. If the Supreme Court decides to allow equitable tolling under the AEDPA for an attorney’s negligence, then more habeas petitioners may be able to bring claims after the statute of limitations has run, for possibly pretext reasons. If the Court denies equitable tolling under the AEDPA, then petitioners may be barred from bringing otherwise legitimate habeas petitions for reasons outside their direct control.
Edited by: James McConnell
· Congressional Research Services: Federal Habeas Corpus: A Brief Legal Overview
· Federation of American Scientists: Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996: A Summary
· Commission on Capital Cases: Inmate Details for Albert Holland