Maples v. Thomas
565 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
Petitioner was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama state court. Petitioner sought postconviction relief in state court under Alabama Rule 32, alleging, among other things, that his trial attorneys failed to afford him the effective assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. At issue was whether the extraordinary facts of petitioner's case were "cause" to excuse petitioner's procedural default in state court, i.e., petitioner's failure to timely appeal the Alabama trial court's order denying him postconviction relief. The court held that petitioner had shown the requisite "cause" to excuse his procedural default where he was abandoned by counsel and left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MAPLES v. THOMAS, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 10–63. Argued October 4, 2011      —Decided January 18, 2012

Petitioner Cory R. Maples was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama state court. In 2001, Maples sought postconviction relief in state court under Alabama Rule 32. Maples alleged, among other things, that his underpaid and inexperienced trial attorneys failed to afford him the effective assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. His petition was written by two pro bono attorneys, Jaasai Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, both associated with the New York offices of the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm. As required by Alabama law, the two attorneys engaged an Alabama lawyer, John Butler, to move their admission pro hac vice. Butler made clear, however, that he would undertake no substantive involvement in the case.

          In 2002, while Maples’ state postconviction petition was pending, Munanka and Ingen-Housz left Sullivan & Cromwell. Their new employment disabled them from representing Maples. They did not inform Maples of their departure and consequent inability to serve as his counsel. In disregard of Alabama law, neither sought the trial court’s leave to withdraw. No other Sullivan & Cromwell attorney entered an appearance, moved to substitute counsel, or otherwise notified the court of a change in Maples’ representation. Thus, Munanka, Ingen-Housz, and Butler remained Maples’ listed, and only, attorneys of record.

          The trial court denied Maples’ petition in May 2003. Notices of the order were posted to Munanka and Ingen-Housz at Sullivan & Cromwell’s address. When those postings were returned, unopened, the trial court clerk attempted no further mailing. Butler also received a copy of the order, but did not act on it. With no attorney of record in fact acting on Maples’ behalf, the 42-day period Maples had to file a notice of appeal ran out.

          About a month later, an Alabama Assistant Attorney General sent a letter directly to Maples. The letter informed Maples of the missed deadline and notified him that he had four weeks remaining to file a federal habeas petition. Maples immediately contacted his mother, who called Sullivan & Cromwell. Three Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys, through Butler, moved the trial court to reissue its order, thereby restarting the 42-day appeal period. The court denied the motion. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals then denied a writ of mandamus that would have granted Maples leave to file an out-of-time appeal, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.

          Thereafter, Maples sought federal habeas relief. Both the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit denied his request, pointing to the procedural default in state court, i.e., Maples’ failure timely to appeal the state trial court’s order denying his Rule 32 petition for postconviction relief.

     Held: Maples has shown the requisite “cause” to excuse his procedural default. Pp. 11–22.

     (a) As a rule, a federal court may not entertain a state prisoner’s habeas claims “when (1) ‘a state court [has] declined to address [those] claims because the prisoner had failed to meet a state procedural requirement,’ and (2) ‘the state judgment rests on independent and adequate state procedural grounds.’ ” Walker v. Martin, 562 U. S. ___, ___. The bar to federal review may be lifted, however, if “the prisoner can demonstrate cause for the [procedural] default [in state court] and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law.” Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 .

     Cause for a procedural default exists where “something external to the petitioner, something that cannot fairly be attributed to him[,] . . . ‘impeded [his] efforts to comply with the State’s procedural rule.’ ” Id., at 753. A prisoner’s postconviction attorney’s negligence does not qualify as “cause,” ibid., because the attorney is the prisoner’s agent, and under “well-settled” agency law, the principal bears the risk of his agent’s negligent conduct, id., at 753–754. Thus, a petitioner is bound by his attorney’s failure to meet a filing deadline and cannot rely on that failure to establish cause. Ibid.

     A markedly different situation arises, however, when an attorney abandons his client without notice, and thereby occasions the default. In such cases, the principal-agent relationship is severed and the attorney’s acts or omissions “cannot fairly be attributed to [the client].” Id., at 753. Nor can the client be faulted for failing to act on his own behalf when he lacks reason to believe his attorneys of record, in fact, are not representing him.

     Holland v. Florida, 560 U. S. ___, is instructive. There, the Court found that the one-year deadline for filing a federal habeas petition can be tolled for equitable reasons, and that an attorney’s unprofessional conduct may sometimes be an “extraordinary circumstance” justifying equitable tolling. Id., at ___, ___–___. The Court recognized that an attorney’s negligence does not provide a basis for tolling a statutory time limit. Id., at ___. Holland’s claim that he was abandoned by his attorney, however, if true, “would suffice to establish extraordinary circumstances beyond his control,” id., at ___ (opinion of Alito, J.). Pp. 11–15.

     (b) From the time of his initial Rule 32 petition until well after time ran out for appealing the trial court’s denial of that petition, Maples’ sole attorneys of record were Munanka, Ingen-Housz, and Butler. Unknown to Maples, none of those lawyers was in fact serving as his attorney during the 42-day appeal period. Pp. 15–21.

          (1) The State contends that Sullivan & Cromwell represented Maples throughout his state postconviction proceedings, and that, as a result, Maples cannot establish abandonment by counsel during the 42-day period. But it is undisputed that Munanka and Ingen-Housz severed their agency relationship with Maples long before the default occurred. Furthermore, because the attorneys did not seek the trial court’s permission to withdraw, they allowed court records to convey that they remained the attorneys of record. As such, the attorneys, not Maples, would be the addressees of court orders Alabama law requires the clerk to furnish.

     The State asserts that, after Munanka’s and Ingen-Housz’s departure, other Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys came forward to serve as Maples’ counsel. At the time of the default, however, those attorneys had not been admitted to practice in Alabama, had not entered their appearances on Maples’ behalf, and had done nothing to inform the Alabama court that they wished to substitute for Munanka and Ingen- Housz. Thus, they lacked the legal authority to act on Maples’ behalf before his time to appeal expired. Pp. 15–19.

          (2) Maples’ only other attorney of record, local counsel Butler, did not even begin to represent Maples. Butler told Munanka and Ingen-Housz that he would serve as local counsel only for the purpose of enabling them to appear pro hac vice and would play no substantive role in the case. Other factors confirm that Butler was not Maples’ “agent in any meaningful sense of that word.” Holland, 560 U. S., at ___ (opinion of Alito, J.). Upon receiving a copy of the trial court’s order, Butler did not contact Sullivan & Cromwell to ensure that firm lawyers were taking appropriate action. Nor did the State treat Butler as Maples’ actual representative. Notably, the Alabama Assistant Attorney General wrote directly and only to Maples, notwithstanding an ethical obligation to refrain from communicating directly with an opposing party known to be represented by counsel. Pp. 19–20.

          (3) Not only was Maples left without any functioning attorney of record; the very listing of Munanka, Ingen-Housz, and Butler as his representatives meant that he had no right personally to receive notice. He in fact received none within the 42 days allowed for commencing an appeal. Given no reason to suspect that he lacked counsel able and willing to represent him, Maples surely was blocked from complying with the State’s procedural rule. Pp. 20–21.

     (c) “The cause and prejudice requirement shows due regard for States’ finality and comity interests while ensuring that ‘fundamental fairness [remains] the central concern of the writ of habeas corpus.’ ” Dretke v. Haley, 541 U. S. 386 . In the unusual circumstances of this case, agency law principles and fundamental fairness point to the same conclusion: there was indeed cause to excuse Maples’ procedural default. Through no fault of his own, he lacked the assistance of any authorized attorney during the 42-day appeal period. And he had no reason to suspect that, in reality, he had been reduced to pro se status. Pp. 21–22.

     (d) The question of prejudice, which neither the District Court nor the Eleventh Circuit reached, remains open for decision on remand. P. 22.

586 F. 3d 879, reversed and remanded.

     Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined.

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