It’s beyond dispute that prisoners have a constitutional right to access courts. But in Dayson v. Meinberg, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the notion that this right of access doesn’t exempt prisoners from statutes of limitations—even when a prisoner’s complaint would be timely under the “prison mailbox” rule.
Dayson, a prisoner in the Michigan Department of Corrections, had been represented by the defendant during a criminal appeal of his convictions for home invasion, assault and battery, and several other charges. The attorney-client relationship ended on September 21, 2010, when Dayson’s appeal in the criminal case was denied.
Dayson initiated an action against his former attorney, alleging legal malpractice, wanton misconduct, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He submitted the complaint to the prison mail system on September 14, 2012, seven days before the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations. But the complaint wasn’t filed with the trial court until September 26, 2012—five days after the statute of limitations expired. Dayson mailed the complaint to the defendant via regular mail on January 2, 2013. The defendant-attorney successfully moved for summary disposition.
On appeal, the Court opined that, based on the time of filing alone, plaintiff’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations. And because Dayson was a civil case, the Court held that the “prison mailbox rule”—normally applicable to the appeal of a criminal conviction—didn’t save the late filing. The mailbox rule (which is found in the Michigan Court Rules at MCR 7.205(A)(3)), states that an unrepresented inmate’s application for leave to appeal in a criminal case is “presented for filing” on the day it is deposited in outgoing mail at the prison. Although prisoners have a constitutional right to access courts in their criminal cases, habeas corpus actions, and civil rights actions, this right doesn’t include just any type of legal claim.
For the time being, Michigan prisoners will get no special consideration when it comes to the statute of limitations for legal malpractice claims. No matter how long a complaint takes to get from the “prison mailbox” to the clerk’s office, the only date that matters is the day it is actually filed at the court. Attorneys defending malpractice actions filed by inmates can continue to focus on the date of filing when determining whether a complaint was filed on time.