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United States v. Mathis

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 31, 2017

JAY G. MATHIS CV No. 15-1525


          Donetta W. Ambrose, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court


         In this matter, in two separate trials due to severed Counts in original and superseding indictments, on March 29, 2012 and June 27, 2012, a jury convicted Defendant of crimes related to an armed robbery in 2009. Defendant was sentenced in March of 2013.[1] Defendant appealed unsuccessfully, and then filed a petition for certiorari, which was denied on October 14, 2014. Before the Court is Defendant's Motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, asserting ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel, and entitlement to relief based on Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015). The Government filed a Motion to Dismiss Defendant's non-Johnson claims on timeliness grounds. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be denied, and the Government's granted.



         Relief is available under Section 2255 only under exceptional circumstances, when the claimed errors of law are "a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice, " or "an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure." Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S.Ct. 468, 7 L.Ed.2d 417 (1962). A district court need not hold an evidentiary hearing on a Section 2255 motion if the motion, files, and records show conclusively that the defendant is not entitled to relief. United States v. Ritter, 93 Fed.Appx. 402 (3d Cir. 2004). Moreover, conclusory allegations in a § 2255 petition "may be disposed of without further investigation by the District Court." United States v. Thomas, 221 F.3d 430, 437 (3d Cir. 2000). A district court must "accept the truth of the movant's factual allegations unless they are clearly frivolous on the basis of the existing record." United States v. Booth, 432 F.3d 542, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). However, vague and conclusory allegations contained in a Section 2255 petition may be disposed of without a hearing. Johnson v. United States, 294 Fed.Appx. 709 (3d Cir.2008). I further note that pro se pleadings are to be construed liberally, and I have so construed those submissions of Defendant's that were filed pro se.[2] See United States v. Otero, 502 F.3d 331, 334 (3d Cir. 2007). In this case, a hearing is unnecessary, and the Motions will be disposed of on the record.


         The Government has moved to dismiss Defendant's non-sentencing claims as time-barred.[3] Section 2255 imposes a one-year limitation period, which runs, inter alia, from the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f). In turn, a conviction becomes final when the Supreme Court denies certiorari. United States v. Pelullo, 305 Fed.Appx. 823 (3d Cir. 2009). Here, certiorari was denied on October 14, 2014. Defendant then filed a Motion to extend the time to file a Section 2255 Motion. In the Motion, Defendant indicated that he intended to seek relief based on Johnson. The Motion is dated October 28, 2015, the envelope is postmarked November 2, 2015, and the Motion was placed on this Court's docket on November 5, 2015. I denied the Motion by Order dated November 6, 2015 advising Defendant that the limitations period had already passed. The Order advised Defendant that he was free to file a Section 2255 Motion and that timeliness questions could be more fully considered at that time.[4] Soon after, Defendant filed a Motion to Vacate dated November 14, 2015, on various grounds related to the ineffectiveness of trial and appellate counsel. On December 29, 2015, the Government moved to dismiss Defendant's Motion, on grounds that it was untimely. The earliest operative date is October 28, 2015, when Defendant first attempted to assert Section 2255. By that time, the one-year limitations period had expired by approximately two weeks.

         Defendant, however, argues that the limitations period should be tolled. Equitable tolling is available when a movant shows that he faced "extraordinary circumstances that stood in the way of timely filing, " and that he exercised reasonable diligence. Pabon v. Mahanoy, 654 F.3d 385, 399 (3d Cir. 2011). “Routine aspects of prison life such as lockdowns, [and] lack of access to legal resournces” do not constitute “extraordinary circumstances” for purposes of equitable tolling. Garrick v. Vaughn, No. 00-4845, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26203, at **10-11 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 5, 2003). “[L]imited access to the prison's legal research materials…does not by itself warrant equitable tolling of § 2255(f)(1)'s one-year limitation period.” Gadsen v. United States, No. 15-551, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169534, at *17 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2015). “It is not enough that a petitioner be denied access to critical legal information or materials for a discrete period of time within the statute of limitations period; a petitioner must demonstrate some extraordinary circumstances caused his inability to file a timely petition.” United States v. Bronson, No. 03-87, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53912, at *16 (W.D. Pa. June 25, 2009). Indeed, “most courts have concluded that prison lockdowns and the resulting denial of access to legal materials do not amount to extraordinary circumstances supporting equitable tolling.” Banzant v. United States, No. 13-2795, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83455, at *13 (W.D. Tenn. June 28, 2016). Likewise, “procedural ignorance” does not justify tolling; nor does lack of legal knowledge or training, or a mistake regarding applicable law. See, e.g., Rivers v. United States, 416 F.3d 1319, 1321 and 1323 (11th Cir. 2005); Gadsen, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169534, at *11; Vaughn, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26203, at *10.

         Defendant's tolling argument rests on assertions of limited access to the law library and computers. He has also evidenced an earlier, mistaken belief as to the applicable deadline. He argues that during the time since the Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari on October 14, 2014, he was restricted to his cell and denied access to the law library and computers at various times. Defendant has submitted evidence that his facility was on modified movement from July 27 - September 8, 2015; October 6 - 19, 2015; and October 22 - 27, 2015. There is no evidence or allegation that Defendant lacked access to his legal file during any of these time periods. Further, Defendant apparently believed that the applicable filing deadline was November 14, 2015. Predecessor counsel believes that Defendant was notified by mail, on October 16, 2016, that certiorari had been denied. There are, however, no documents in the record regarding this notification. Defendant does not state when he learned that certiorari had been denied.

         Even accepting as true all of Defendant's assertions, it is clear that he had sufficient time to prepare and submit a petition prior to the expiration of the one-year limitations period. A significant amount of time, for example, passed between the denial of certiorari and the first instance of modified movement. In light of Defendant's total time not on restricted movement during the pertinent year, it is unclear how modified movement impacted Defendant's ability to prepare and file a Motion within the applicable time period. Likewise, Defendant does not show that he took action in pursuit of a timely filing during the time when his facility was not on modified movement. The grounds for Defendant's challenges to his counsel's conduct arose before and during trial in 2013; there is no suggestion that Defendant was prevented from filing a “basic pro se habeas petition” within the statutory time frame. See Young v. Piazza, No. 06-1993, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98431, at *11 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 29, 2006). Counsel notes that Defendant was without access due to modified movement for almost twenty percent of the yearlong limitations period; eighty percent of the year, however, remained available to him. In addition, although Defendant argues that the separate trials created an unusually complicated situation, the issues raised in Defendant's Motion are not overly complex. Finally, because Defendant expressed the belief that his deadline was November 14, 2015, and sought an extension of that deadline after the actual deadline had passed, it is not apparent that he would have filed his Motion within the one-year limitations period, had his access to the library remained unfettered.


         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Lest Defendant feel victimized by a technicality or chronological near-miss, I have carefully scrutinized Defendant's averments alongside the entire record pertinent to his challenges. Having done so, I conclude that his claims would be denied even if they had been timely raised. Defendant argues that trial counsel was ineffective when he failed to seek Judge Lancaster's recusal, on grounds that Judge Lancaster acted as counsel for Defendant in a criminal matter in 1985 or 1986 and the two had a dispute over fee payment; failed to adequately advise Defendant regarding a guilty plea; failed to seek or object to certain jury instructions; and due to a breakdown in attorney/client relations. With ...

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