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Cobb v. Aramark Correctional Services, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 29, 2019

Malcolm Cobb, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Aramark Correctional Services, LLC Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted March 5, 2019 [1]

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 17-cv-00703 - Sarah Evans Barker, Judge.

          Before Kanne, Rovner, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Rovner, Circuit Judge.

         Malcolm Cobb, Jr., an Indiana prisoner, brought a state-court negligence action against Aramark Correctional Services, LLC ("Aramark") for failing to clean up a spill in the kitchen at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, causing him to slip and fracture his ankle. Aramark removed the case to federal court, then asserted that Cobb had filed too late; the district court agreed. Cobb appeals, maintaining that his complaint should be deemed "filed" under the prison mailbox rule on the date he handed it to his counselor for mailing. Because the district court misinterpreted Indiana's prison mailbox rule, we reverse and remand for further pro-ceedings.[2]

         Cobb initially filed this action in state court. He claimed that Aramark's failure to train its employees in safety rules, such as posting signs signaling a wet floor, caused his injury on December 15, 2014. The parties do not dispute that Cobb's personal-injury claim accrued on that date.

         Aramark, a limited liability company whose sole member is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Pennsylvania, removed this action to the Southern District of Indiana on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441. Aramark then moved for summary judgment, arguing that Cobb's complaint was not timely under Indiana law, which provides that a personal-injury action must be brought no more than two years after the cause of action accrues. Ind. Code § 34-11-2-4.

         Cobb responded that on December 9, 2016-six days before the statute of limitations expired on December 15, 2016- he handed his notarized complaint to a prison counselor, who delivered this complaint to the mail room on the same day. The counselor confirmed in an affidavit that he notarized Cobb's complaint on December 9, 2016, walked it to the prison mail room, and dropped it off in the outgoing mailbox. Prison records show that Cobb's complaint was mailed on December 19, 2016-ten days after being deposited in the outgoing mailbox.[3] Cobb did not mail his complaint by registered, certified, or express mail, because, he stated, he lacked the necessary funds to do so (and the prison does not advance costs for certified mail).

         The district court granted Aramark's motion for summary judgment. It concluded that the state statute of limitations controlled, and Cobb's action was too late unless his delivery of the complaint to the counselor on December 9, 2016 constituted filing. The district court concluded that Indiana law controlled, and that under Indiana's law, a pleading must have been sent to the state court clerk by registered, certified, or express mail with a return receipt requested in order to be considered filed when submitted for mailing. R. 47 at 5 (citing Dowell v. State, 922 N.E.2d 605. 609 (Ind. 2010)). Otherwise, the district court concluded, the pleading is considered filed upon receipt by the state court clerk. Id. Because the record shows that Cobb's complaint was sent by regular first-class mail and received on January 31, 2017, the district court held that Cobb's action was barred by the statute of limitations. Cobb appeals, arguing that the court should have applied the federal prison mailbox rule, which requires only prepaid first-class postage and deems prisoners' legal papers filed on the date delivered to prison authorities for mailing to the court clerk. See Fed. R. App. P. 4(c); Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 275-76 (1988); Taylor v. Brown, 787 F.3d 851, 858-59 (7th Cir. 2015) (federal mailbox rule applies to district court filings as well as appeals). He also appears to be arguing that his filing was timely under the more demanding Indiana prisoner mailbox rule, which requires prisoners to provide reasonable, legitimate, and verifiable documentation supporting a claim that a document was timely submitted to prison officials for mailing. Dowell, 922 N.E.2d at 607.

         We review de novo a district court's grant of summary judgment based on a statute of limitations. Stepney v. Naperville Sch. Dist. 203, 392 F.3d 236, 239 (7th Cir. 2004). Here, the parties' dispute boils down to whether we apply Indiana's prison mailbox rule or the federal prison mailbox rule. If the federal rule applies, then Cobb's action would not have been barred, because his complaint would have been timely filed at the moment he handed it to the prison counselor. Indiana's prison mailbox requires a bit more-it requires "reasonable, legitimate, and verifiable documentation supporting a claim that a document was timely submitted to prison officials for mailing." Dowell v. State, 922 N.E.2d at 607.

         We agree with the district court that Indiana's prison mailbox rule applies. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 81(c) provides that the federal rules apply to a civil action after it is removed from state court. And we have instructed courts to distinguish between actions that occur before and after removal to federal court when applying federal procedure to removed cases. Romo v. Gulf Stream Coach, Inc., 250 F.3d 1119, 1122 (7th Cir. 2001). "The Federal Rules make clear that they do not apply to filings in state court, even if the case is later removed to federal court." Id. Therefore, the federal prison mailbox rule does not apply. Indiana's does.

         We therefore must analyze when Cobb's complaint was filed under Indiana's prison mailbox rule. In 2010, the Indiana Supreme Court expressly adopted its prison mailbox rule (recognizing that Indiana courts had been using this approach without expressly adopting it). It did so by first analyzing the Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 5 that defines what constitutes a filing and when filings are deemed to have occurred:

(F) Filing With the Court Defined. The filing of pleadings, motions, and other papers with the court as required by these rules shall be ...

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