PUBLISHED:May 01, 2013

Appellate Litigation Clinic students prevail in Fourth Circuit

On May 1, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Marcus McNeill in an appeal briefed and argued by a team of third-year students in Duke's Appellate Litigation Clinic. McNeill filed his appeal pro se, after the federal district court in Raleigh summarily dismissed his habeas motion on the ground it had been filed outside the statute of limitations.  Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Roger Gregory held that a pro se prisoner can benefit from the prison mailbox rule even when he erroneously sends his habeas motion to the wrong federal court and that court does not receive it.

“Under the prison mailbox rule, a pro se prisoner's legal papers are deemed ‘filed’ the moment that the prisoner deposits them with prison authorities,” explained Andrew Barr ’13 who argued the case in the Fourth Circuit on March 19.  “The Supreme Court adopted this rule because of the inherent difficulties incarcerated prisoners face when filing their legal papers.  It is especially important here, in the habeas context, because this is Mr. McNeill's one and only chance to have a federal court review his conviction.”

The Fourth Circuit adopted the clinic's argument that the federal transfer statute, 28 USC § 1631, coupled with the prison mailbox rule, establishes the timeliness of a pro se prisoner's legal papers as long as he sends them to a federal court before his statute of limitations runs. This was a case of first impression for the court and had not yet been considered in any other federal forum. While equitable in nature, the court's holding interpreted a legal standard and is a broader ruling than the clinic expected. Although the opinion is unpublished, it will help other similarly situated inmates because, in the Fourth Circuit, unpublished opinions can be cited and are precedential. 

Team members spoke with McNeill after receiving the opinion and report that he was very excited to hear that his habeas motion was not going to be dismissed. He thanked the clinic for helping him throughout this process and was already anticipating the next step in his pursuit of habeas relief.  Barr worked with 3Ls Evan Coren, Emily Spencer Munson, and Seth Reich on McNeil’s appeal with supervision from James Coleman Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of Law and clinic co-director.

A second Appellate Litigation Clinic team briefed and argued as amicus curiae on behalf of the appellant in Lesesne v. Doe in the District of Columbia Circuit on March 19 under the supervision of Senior Lecturing Fellow and Clinic Co-director Sean Andrussier.  That team also received a favorable ruling from the court.