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In re Eight Thousand

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 13, 2018

IN RE EIGHT THOUSAND, FIVE HUNDRED EIGHT DOLLARS AND SIXTY-THREE CENTS $8, 508.63 FROM PNC BANK ACCOUNT x1775 et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          GENE E.K. PRATTER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Is a claim is “filed” with an agency when it arrives at the agency's mailroom, or when it lands in a particular official's hands? The resolution of that question determines the outcome of this dispute.

         After seizing funds from Peter Goodchild, the FBI's mailroom received a claim from Mr. Goodchild on May 4, but the specific agent did not physically possess the claim until May 5. The Government requested an extension to submit its responsive complaint 90 days after May 5, on the last day of what it perceived was its statutory time limit. Mr. Goodchild argues that the Government's clock actually started on May 4, and that the Government's request for an extension was one day late. Such “how do you count?” issues have bedeviled lawyers for years.

         Bound by the statute and confined by reasonable regulatory text, the Court concludes that a claim is “filed” when it arrives at the agency. Therefore, Mr. Goodchild's claim was filed on May 4, and the Government's responsive complaint, filed one day too tardy, is time-barred. Further, given the notable number of federal courts to indulge the Government by granting equitable tolling under similar circumstances, the Court declines to extend the indulgences yet again to find equitable tolling here. Time and time again, courts have granted equitable tolling after coming to the same “counting-the-days” conclusion as this Court, so the Government cannot continue to plead ignorance and disregard, to its own advantage, the plain meaning of the regulation.

         Background

         On February 8, 2017, the FBI seized funds from Mr. Goodchild's bank accounts. On May 2, 2017, Mr. Goodchild mailed a claim to retrieve the seized funds. The claim arrived at the FBI's mailroom on May 4, and arrived in the forfeiture unit on May 5. This one-day lag is crucial to this case-the timeliness of the Government's request for an extension (and thus its ability to file a complaint) turns on whether the claim was “filed” on May 4 or May 5.

         “Not later than 90 days after a claim has been filed, the Government [must] file a complaint for forfeiture.” 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A). The Government filed its request for an extension on August 3, 2017. This was 90 days after May 5, but 91 days after May 4. Mr. Goodchild requested reconsideration of the grant of the extension, and moved to dismiss the complaint for violating the 90-day window. The Government maintains that its request, and by extension its complaint, was timely.

         Discussion

         I. Statutory Interpretation

         Before delving into the competing views advanced by the parties, the Court must first turn to the statutory text and the related regulation. The Court begins by discussing the background of the statutory scheme before turning to Chevron. Under the Chevron rubric, the Court finds that the statute can be reasonably interpreted in two ways. Because of this ambiguity, the Court will turn to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which reasonably adopts one of the two permissible interpretations.

         A. Statutory Scheme

         The statutory scheme governing federal asset forfeiture is the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA), 18 U.S.C. § 983 et seq. (2012). CAFRA is a comprehensive scheme that supplemented the patchwork system of laws that previously governed forfeitures, providing more due process to individuals affected by property seizures. Stefan D. Cassella, The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000: Expanded Government Forfeiture Authority and Strict Deadlines Imposed on All Parties, 27 J. Legis. 97, 122-25 (2001). CAFRA was enacted as “a reaction to the perception that there was some inequity in imposing strict deadlines and sanctions on property owners contesting civil forfeiture actions, while not imposing similar deadlines and sanctions on the Government. The logic was that if property owners were required to file claims within a fixed period of time and were made to suffer consequences for failing to do so, the Government should face deadlines and suffer consequences as well.” United States v. $229, 850.00 in U.S. Currency, 50 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1176 (D. Ariz. 2014) (quoting Cassella, supra).

         When the Government seizes property under CAFRA, a series of deadlines are set. First, the Government must send personal written notice to “interested parties” within 60 days. 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(1)(A)(i). Second, upon receipt of the notice, a party “may file a claim with the appropriate official after the seizure” to reclaim that property within 35 days. 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(2)(A). (Neither of these two deadlines are at issue here.) Third, once a claim is filed, the Government has 90 days to file a complaint for forfeiture. 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A). Once the 90-day deadline has elapsed, the Government's ability to seize the funds is forever barred.

         CAFRA does not define the term “filed.” Administrative guidance, however, defines it as “received by the appropriate official.” 28 C.F.R. § 8.2. The phrase “appropriate official” is defined in the regulation as the “office or official identified in the . . . personal written notice.” Id. The regulatory scheme thus defines “filed” as “received by the office or official identified in the personal written notice.” Here, the written notice required claims to be mailed to “the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Attn: Forfeiture Paralegal Specialist.” It further notes that (consistent with the regulatory definition) a “claim is deemed filed on the date received by the agency at the address listed above.”

         B. Chevron Interpretation

         In interpreting statutes, “the judiciary [must] afford an agency discretion to interpret ambiguous provisions of the agency's organic or enabling statute.” Swallows Holding v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue, 515 F.3d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 2008). The seminal case, Chevron, set forth a two-step analysis. See Chevron U.S.A. v. Nat'l Res. Def. Council, 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984). First, at Chevron step I, the Court must determine if the statute is unambiguous. Second, at Chevron step II, the Court must determine if the agency's interpretation is reasonable.

         1. Chevron Step I

         At Chevron step I, the Court finds the word “filed” to be ambiguous. “Filed” can have many meanings, from postmarked, to received in the mailroom, to being entered into a physical filing cabinet.[1] Sensing this, neither party argues that the word “filed” is unambiguous, and the Court declines to find it unambiguous.

         In the context of CAFRA, courts have diverged on how to interpret the word. Most courts have held that claims are “filed” when received by the mailroom of the relevant agency. See, e.g., United States v. $229, 850.00 in U.S. Currency, 50 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1176 (D. Ariz. 2014). In dismissing the Government's argument that a claim is not filed until actually in the agent's hands (the same argument the Government advances here) courts point to the inequity in requiring the claimant to rely on mailroom procedures outside of his or her control. See id.; United States v. Funds from Fifth Third Bank Account, No. 13-cv-11728, 2013 WL 5914101, at *7 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 4, 2013) (concluding that a claim is filed when received by the seizing agency's mailroom because it preserves equitable limitations on t.he government); United States v. Funds in the Amount of $314, 900.00, No. 05-cv-3012, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49835 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 21, 2005) (same); United States v. 2014 Mercedes-Benz GL350BLT, VIN: 4JGDF2EE1EA411100, 162 F.Supp.3d 1205, 1213 (M.D. Ala. 2016) (same).

         Other courts have found that the word filed means physically received by a specific person. See United States v. One GMC Yukon Denali, No. 03-cv-6890, 2003 WL 27177023, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 4, 2003) (claim is filed when it reaches a proper official within the forfeiture division, not the remote mailroom delivery site that merely screens all incoming packages for contamination); United States v. $7, 696.00 in U.S. Currency, No. 12-cv-116, 2013 WL 1827668, at *4 (N.D. Iowa Apr. 30, 2013) (a claim was ...


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