United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
IN RE EIGHT THOUSAND, FIVE HUNDRED EIGHT DOLLARS AND SIXTY-THREE CENTS $8, 508.63 FROM PNC BANK ACCOUNT x1775 et al.
E.K. PRATTER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
Chevron Step I
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. Sensing this, neither party argues that
the word “filed” is unambiguous, and the Court
declines to find it unambiguous.
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.
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 ...