Holland: Supreme Court Reverses Eleventh Circuit, Holding That Its Standard for Equitable Tolling of the Federal Habeas Corpus Statute’s Timeliness Provision is Too Rigid

Last Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the Eleventh Circuit‘s decision in Holland v. Florida. The Court held, as have all Courts of Appeal, that the AEDPA‘s statute of limitations in habeas corpus cases is subject to equitable tolling. The Court further held that the Eleventh Circuit’s per se rule regarding when such equitable tolling applies is “too rigid.” The Court reversed and remanded without explaining a precise standard for when equitable tolling should apply.

In determining that equitable tolling is available, the Court reasoned that the AEDPA’s statute of limitations is nonjurisdictional and such statutes of limitations are normally subject to a rebuttable presumption in favor of equitable tolling. In addition, equitable principles have traditionally governed the law regarding habeas corpus. The Court distinguished cases in which nonjurisdictional statutes of limitations were interpreted as not subject to equitable tolling.

The Court then explained that, for equitable tolling to be available, a petitioner must show diligence in pursuing his rights and some extraordinary circumstance that prevented timely filing. Emphasizing that equity requires decisions on a case-by-case basis, flexibility, and avoidance of mechanical rules, the Court pointed out that equity’s intent is relief from hardships resulting from “evils of archaic rigidity.”

The Court viewed the Eleventh Circuit’s per se rule as “difficult to reconcile with more general equitable principles.” The Eleventh Circuit had held that an attorney’s unprofessional conduct, even if grossly negligent, could not justify equitable tolling without bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment, or the like.

The Court admitted that a “garden variety claim of excusable neglect does not warrant equitable tolling,” but stated this case involved more serious instances of attorney misconduct, that may well qualify as extraordinary circumstances. The Court remanded to the Eleventh Circuit on this question. The Court also commented that Holland had been reasonably diligent in pursuing his rights, although that issue was not part of the question presented.

The opinion in Holland v. Florida is available here. Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion, in which he further analyzed the appropriate standard for when equitable tolling should be available. Justice Scalia issued a dissent. In Part I he explained that equitable tolling should not be available at all, then the rest of his dissent explained why Holland should not receive relief, even if equitable tolling did apply. Justice Thomas joined his dissent, except as to Part I. The concurring and dissenting opinions are also available at the link above.