The “mailbox rule” provides that depositing a properly addressed letter with prepaid postage with the post office raises a presumption that the letter reached its destination by due course of mail.  State and local agencies rely heavily on the United States Mail in conducting their business, including when they issue adjudications that must be appealed, if at all, within a time certain.  When the government seeks to have appeals dismissed for failure to timely file, the issue of whether the adjudication that gave rise to the allegedly late appeal was actually mailed properly sometimes comes up.  When it does, it is easy to establish through testimony or a well-documented file that the adjudication was properly mailed so that the presumption arises (and once it arises it is extremely difficult to overcome), but it is important for the sender to remember what the sender must prove, and it is equally important for the contesting recipient to understand when the sender has proffered insufficient proof.

The Commonwealth Court recently had the opportunity to give a refresher course on the evidence needed to support the common law mailbox rule presumption in Douglas v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 151 A.3d 1188 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016).  The unemployment compensation office mailed a notice denying compensation to a claimant.  The notice itself stated that it was mailed on a particular date, but there was no notation in the agency’s file indicating that the notice was in fact mailed, and no testimony was offered to prove that the agency had actually mailed the notice on the date indicated. The claimant said she never received it, and asserted that the agency had never mailed it.

As the court explained, the mailbox rule actually consists of two component presumptions, both rebuttable, when a party challenges a public official’s claim to have placed an order in the mail:

(1) the presumption of the regularity of the acts of public officials (which is used to establish that a public official placed an item into the mail); and (2) the presumption of receipt (i.e., that a properly mailed letter to the last known address of the addressee which is not returned undelivered by the postal authorities was timely received by the addressee—i.e., the mailbox rule). … the two presumptions are applied separately and that there must be some evidence to support the first presumption before the second presumption may be applied. In other words, “the presumption of receipt is ‘inapplicable’ in the absence of proof that the notice was mailed. ‘[U]ntil there is proof that a letter was mailed, there can be no presumption that it was received.’

151 A.3d at 1192.

Reversing the Board’s decision that the appeal was untimely because the mailbox rule created a rebuttable presumption that the claimant did not overcome, the court disagreed:

Here, although the Notice of Determination indicated that it was mailed on February 3, 2016, that, in and of itself, without more is insufficient to establish proof of mailing in the face of a challenge, because it is apparent that the “mailed date” was part of the information included in the notice itself at the time the notice was prepared. There is no subsequent notation in the file indicating that the notice was, in fact, mailed. Without proof of mailing or the presumption of regularity to establish that the notice was mailed, the presumption of receipt—i.e., the mailbox rule—cannot be applied.

151 A.3d at 1193.

The court noted that the claimant had raised the issue of proof of mailing before the referee and in her appeal to the Board, but “the decisions of the Referee and Board… are void of any consideration of whether a problem at the Service Center may have interfered with the mailing of the Notice of Determination, and, therefore, we are unable ‘to exercise meaningful appellate review,’ and a remand is appropriate.”  Id.

The court’s mailbox rule lesson in Douglas is valuable not only for the refresher it provides on why and how the presumption operates, but also because it reminds us that even seemingly insurmountable “rebuttable” presumptions like the mailbox rule can in fact be rebutted with the right combination of law, luck, and attention to detail.

For further discussion on this topic, see G. Ronald Darlington, Kevin J. McKeon, Daniel R. Schuckers & Kristen W. Brown, Pennsylvania Appellate Practice (2016-2017 Ed.) § 108.3.

About the Author:

Kevin McKeon, partner at Hawke, McKeon & Sniscak, LLP, represents a diverse array of clients before Pennsylvania state agencies, and state and federal appellate courts. A co-author of West’s Pennsylvania Appellate Practice and immediate past chair of the Pennsylvania Appellate Court Procedural Rules Committee, Kevin uses his comprehensive knowledge of Pennsylvania appellate procedural rules to guide clients through complex appellate proceedings.