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Pelzer v. Mahally

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 9, 2019

CAINE PELZER Petitioner,
v.
SUPT. MAHALLY, et al. Respondents.

          Brann Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARTIN C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         This case rests at the intersection of several competing principles governing federal habeas corpus practice. When considering habeas corpus petitions filed by state prisoners, we are enjoined to defer to well-supported state court findings and are instructed to apply a statute of limitations that called for timely action by petitioners. Yet, we are also admonished that this limitations period is subject to equitable tolling in those instances where strict adherence to the statute of limitations results in an injustice. Such equitable tolling may be proper if a petitioner is misled by counsel regarding the status of state court post-conviction litigation.

         The instant case calls upon us to balance these principles in a setting where a diligent prisoner received inconsistent and inaccurately misleading information concerning the status of his state post-conviction litigation from counsel. Pending before the court is a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by the petitioner, Caine Pelzer. (Doc. 1). Pelzer, a state inmate who is currently confined at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette in Labelle, Pennsylvania, is serving a sentence of 22-44 years imprisonment following his conviction in 2002 for multiple offenses, including several counts of robbery, theft, unlawful restraint, and reckless endangerment. Pelzer's petition seeks reinstatement of his state appellate rights, and thirteen additional claims for relief, some of which arise from his trial and appellate counsel's alleged ineffective assistance.

         The respondents' response to the petition seeks dismissal of the petition as time-barred by the statute of limitations. They argue that Pelzer's petition is untimely, as his state appeals were improperly filed and thus did not toll the one-year statute of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2244. However, it is our view that, while this is an extremely close case, the principle of equitable tolling should be applied to Pelzer's petition, as his attorney's errors and inactions created an exceptional circumstance that prevented him from timely filing this habeas petition. Thus, out of an abundance of caution, we will recommend that Pelzer be afforded limited habeas corpus relief in the form of an order directing the Pelzer's release within 90 days unless the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reinstates his appeal and post-conviction relief rights. Ross v. Varano, 712 F.3d 784, 804 (3d Cir. 2013).

         II. Statement and Facts of the Case

         The pertinent background of this case can be simply stated:[1] Caine Pelzer was convicted in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County in 2002 for multiple charges of robbery, theft, unlawful restraint, and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to a term of 22-44 years imprisonment in April 2002. On appeal, Pelzer retained counsel, and counsel filed a direct appeal that raised a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. While Pelzer's appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Commonwealth v. Grant, 813 A.2d 726 (Pa. 2002), which held that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel must be brought in a petition for post-conviction collateral review under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9541 et seq., rather than on direct appeal. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Superior Court dismissed Pelzer's direct appeal on May 7, 2003 without prejudice to his bringing the ineffective assistance claim in a PCRA petition. Pelzer did not file a petition for allowance of appeal, and thus his conviction and sentence became final on June 6, 2003.

         Prior to the dismissal of his direct appeal, Pelzer was informed by his counsel that counsel needed certain information to put in Pelzer's PCRA petition, which included telephone information and records for an alibi witness. What then ensued was a years-long back-and-forth correspondence between Pelzer and his counsel from 2004 to 2007. Thus, in April 2004, counsel informed Pelzer that his time for filing a PCRA petition was about to expire, and that counsel needed the telephone information to subpoena phone records for the alibi witness. This correspondence makes it clear that counsel recognized an urgent need to act in a timely fashion to protect Pelzer's rights.

         What is far less clear is whether Pelzer ever received this correspondence. For his part, Pelzer contends that he never received this correspondence, and Pelzer's subsequent conduct seems to confirm that he was unaware that his state post-conviction petition was time-barred. Moreover, prison officials could not confirm Pelzer's receipt of this letter, as there was no prison record of the delivery of this correspondence. In any event, even though counsel was plainly aware of this limitations period, counsel never filed a PCRA petition on Pelzer's behalf, and the statute of limitations expired on June 6, 2004.

         Pelzer was apparently unaware of counsel's default because he continued for years to diligently inquire about his PCRA petition following the expiration of this June 2004 deadline. While counsel often ignored Pelzer's entreaties, two years later in June 2006, counsel responded to an inquiry from Pelzer and his sister, which sought information about the status of Pelzer's PCRA petition. Rather than informing Pelzer that his time for filing a PCRA petition had long expired, counsel informed Pelzer that he had never received the phone records, but that he “would be more than happy to [s]ubpoena the necessary records” if he received the information. (Doc. 25, at 42). Counsel informed Pelzer that until he received the records, “your claim remains on hold, ” suggesting that that Pelzer's PCRA petition remained viable. (Id.) It appears that counsel received this information in July of 2006, but did not reach out to Pelzer until April 2007, when he wrote Pelzer and stated: “I look forward to finally being in a position to move this matter forward.” (Id., at 50).

         Following this April 2007 letter, Pelzer wrote to his counsel five times before counsel responded in August. Finally, in August 2007, counsel wrote to Pelzer in response to a “petition” that Pelzer sent for his review. In this letter, counsel applauded Pelzer for his efforts, but noted that he would have to “fine tune” the petition before it would be filed. (Id., at 51). Several weeks later, counsel sent another letter to Pelzer informing him that his petition had timeliness issues and would likely not be accepted by the courts. (Id., at 52). Thereafter, Pelzer sent multiple letters to counsel (Doc. 13-2, at 39-42, 46), inquiring about the status of his PCRA petition, which he believed counsel was going to file. He also wrote to the Luzerne County Clerk of Courts and requested status updates, stating: “I received a letter from my attorney explaining my PCRA would be filed, but I have not received a copy showing that my PCRA was in fact received and docketed by your office.” (Id., at 45).

         Finally, in March 2008, Pelzer wrote to his counsel requesting a copy of his trial transcript so that he could file his own PCRA petition. After receiving these records, Pelzer filed his PCRA petition in April 2008. After several hearings held by the PCRA court, Pelzer's petition was denied as untimely. On appeal, the Superior Court vacated the decision and remanded it to the PCRA court in light of the PCRA court's orders regarding legal mail logs at SCI Fayette and SCI Greene, where Pelzer had been incarcerated. The PCRA court then held another hearing, in which it determined that Pelzer did not meet the statutory exception to excuse his untimely filing and once again denied his petition. On July 14, 2014, the Superior Court affirmed on appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Pelzer's petition for allowance of appeal on December 2, 2014.

         Pelzer then filed the instant federal habeas corpus petition on January 30, 2015. In his petition, he requests reinstatement of his appellate rights due to the abandonment of his counsel, and thirteen other various claims including ineffective assistance of counsel, violation of his speedy trial rights, sufficiency of the evidence challenges, and jurisdictional claims. (Doc. 1). On June 1, 2015, the respondents responded to the petition, alleging that Pelzer's claims were unexhausted. Thereafter, the matter was stayed pending the outcome of Pelzer's PCRA petition that was pending in state court at the time. (Doc. 20). After his appeals were exhausted, Pelzer moved to reopen the case, (Doc. 21), and the case was reopened on May 5, 2018. (Doc. 23). The respondents filed a response, and Pelzer filed a supplemental memorandum. In their response, the respondents again assert that the petition is untimely, and that equitable tolling principles should not apply. For his part, Pelzer asserts that his attorney's conduct prevented him from timely filing his petition, and thus he should be entitled to equitable tolling of the AEDPA's one-year statute of limitations.

         Here, while we regard this as an extremely close case, our review of the record indicates that the conduct of Pelzer's attorney created an exceptional circumstance that prevented him from timely filing this petition, and thus we believe that equitable tolling is warranted on the particular facts of this case. Accordingly, we will recommend that the petition not be dismissed as untimely, and that Pelzer be afforded very limited federal habeas corpus relief in the form of an order directing the Pelzer's release within 90 days unless the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reinstates his appeal and post-conviction relief rights. Ross v. Varano, 712 F.3d 784, 804 (3d Cir. 2013).

         III. Discussion

         A. State Prisoner Habeas Relief-The Legal Standard. (1) Substantive Standards

         In order to obtain federal habeas corpus relief, a state prisoner seeking to invoke the power of this Court to issue a writ of habeas corpus must satisfy the standards prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which provides in part as follows:

(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.
(b) (1) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that-
(A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State;
(2) An application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the State.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) and (b).

         As this statutory text implies, state prisoners must meet exacting substantive and procedural benchmarks in order to obtain habeas corpus relief. At the outset, a petition must satisfy exacting substantive standards to warrant relief. Federal courts may “entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). By limiting habeas relief to state conduct which violates “the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States, ” § 2254 places a high threshold on the courts. Typically, habeas relief will only be granted to state prisoners in those instances where the conduct of state proceedings led to a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice” or was completely inconsistent with rudimentary demands of fair procedure. See e.g., Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 354 (1994). Thus, claimed violations of state law, standing alone, will not entitle a petitioner to § 2254 relief, absent a showing that those violations are so great as to be of a constitutional dimension. See Priester v. Vaughan, 382 F.3d 394, 401-02 (3d Cir. 2004).

         (2) Deference ...


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