Third Circuit Scrutinizes Mailbox Rule

In a recent Opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has dramatically weakened the “mailbox rule,” which created a presumption that a letter was presumed to be received once the sender deposited it into a mailbox. It is about time that the courts examined this rule more closely, particularly in this day and age when it is possible to track the progress and delivery of every letter and every package. This decision suggests that the long standing mailbox rule may soon be facing even more scrutiny by the courts.

In Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the Court focused on whether the Plaintiff had received a letter with information about her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act, and therefore, whether she had received notice, rather than the merits of the claim. Defendants (Plaintiff’s employer) claimed the letter had been sent; the Plaintiff denied receiving it. Relying on the mailbox rule, the Defendants provided affidavits from their staff that the letter was sent, and the District Court granted Summary Judgment in their favor.

On appeal, the Third Circuit determined, however, that it was unfair to automatically presume that the Plaintiff had received the letter simply based on “self-serving” affidavits from the Defendants’ employees. The Court also commented on the relatively easy alternatives now available through the post office and other mailing companies that  would have provided the Defendants with actual proof that the letter was sent.

The Court’s focus was on the unfairness that this weak presumption under the mailbox rule created for the Plaintiff, stating that “individuals in [the Plaintiff]’s position have no way of establishing that they did not receive a disputed letter, other than to ‘prove a negative.’ Where ordinary mail is used, requiring more than a sworn statement to dispute receipt elevates the weak presumption intended by the mailbox rule to a conclusive presumption that would be equivalent to an ironclad rule.”

With today’s technology and varying postal options, anyone can easily obtain proof that a letter was mailed and received. Attorneys should use, and should advise their clients to use, a method of mailing important documents that makes it easy to prove that the items were delivered, especially now that the mailbox rule is under scrutiny.