Bursting The Mailbox Rule Presumption

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Third Circuit considers the operation of the mailbox rule presumption under FRE 301 and the circumstances in which the presumption may be rebutted; circuit distinguishes between strong and weak presumptions; summary judgment was vacated after the circuit concluded that the district court misapplied the presumption, in Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges Inc., _ F.3d _ (3d Cir. Aug. 5, 2014) (No. 13–1843)

The mailbox rule established a general presumption that a letter properly directed and mailed is presumed to reach its destination at the regular time and be received by the person to whom it sent. However, the presumption may be rebutted. The Third Circuit recently considered the operation of the presumption under the mailbox rule and the circumstances in which the presumption could be burst or rebutted.

Trial Court Proceedings: Applying The Mailbox Rule

The case was initiated a discharged instructor who claimed that her employer "interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA") by failing to give her notice that her leave fell under that Act." In an amended summary judgment motion, defendant Corinthian Colleges Inc. (CCI) attached "affidavits from" employees stating that the FMLA notice "Letter was properly mailed" to the plaintiff, claiming the presumption under FRE 301. The plaintiff denied receiving the letter. In applying the presumption, the district court concluded that plaintiff Lupyan had received the letter, and therefore summary judgment was granted to the defendant. On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the district court had misapplied the presumption and summary judgment was not warranted.

Third Circuit Review: Bursting The Presumption

The Third Circuit vacated summary judgment and remanded the case after concluding that the district court misapplied the presumption. The circuit noted that the presumption was not conclusive and could be rebutted. The circuit distinguished between strong and weak presumptions under the mailbox rule:

A “strong presumption” of receipt applies when notice is sent by certified mail, because it creates actual evidence of delivery in the form of a receipt. Santana Gonzalez v. Att’y Gen., 506 F.3d 274, 279 (3d Cir. 2007) (emphasis added). A “weaker presumption” arises where delivery is sent via regular mail, for which no receipt, or other proof of delivery, is generated. Id. In the absence of actual proof of delivery, receipt can be proven circumstantially by introducing evidence of business practices or office customs pertaining to mail. United States v. Hannigan, 27 F.3d 890, 893 (3d Cir. 1994). This evidence may be in the form of a sworn statement. Id. at 895; Custer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 503 F.3d 415, 420 (5th Cir. 2007) (“a sworn statement is credible evidence of mailing for the purposes of the mailbox rule.”). However, because the presumption is weak where proof of receipt is attempted solely by circumstantial evidence, we require the affiant to have “personal knowledge” of the procedures in place at the time of the mailing. Kyhn v. Shinseki, 716 F.3d 572, 574 (3d Cir. 2013).

Lupyan, _ F.3d at _.

On the facts, a weak presumption had been established based on the affidavits alone and without any corroboration that the letter was received. As the circuit noted, "The Letter was not sent by registered or certified mail, nor did CCI request a return receipt or use any of the now common ways of assigning a tracking number to the Letter. Therefore, there is no direct evidence of either receipt or non-receipt." Lupyan, _ F.3d at _ (citing Estate of Wood v. Commissioner, 909 F.2d 1155, 1161 (8th Cir. 1990) (noting that a postmark could present irrefutable evidence of mailing)).

However, the plaintiff's denial of receipt of the letter was sufficient to rebut or burst the presumption and establish a genuine issue of material fact for the jury, particularly when the record was considered "in the light most favorable to Lupyan, as" required. Lupyan, _ F.3d at _ (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (noting that credibility determinations are inappropriate at summary judgment)). The circuit held that "evidence sufficient to nullify the presumption of receipt under the mailbox rule may consist solely of the addressee’s positive denial of receipt, creating an issue of fact for the jury." Lupyan, _ F.3d at _. The circuit vacated summary judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the case.

The circuit noted that business could develop practices to reinforce the presumption:

In this age of computerized communications and handheld devices, it is certainly not expecting too much to require businesses that wish to avoid a material dispute about the receipt of a letter to use some form of mailing that includes verifiable receipt when mailing something as important as a legally mandated notice. The negligible cost and inconvenience of doing so is dwarfed by the practical consequences and potential unfairness of simply relying on business practices in the sender’s mailroom.

Lupyan, _ F.3d at _.

Conclusion

The Lupyan case provides a recent example of the presumption under the mailbox rule and contrast strong and weak presumptions. On summary judgment, the presumption was rebutted by the denial of receipt of the letter.

For another case addressing the operation of the mailbox rule, consider “Mailbox Rule” Established Evidentiary Presumption Which Could Be Rebutted.

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