Case of the Week, Ending August 8, 2014

Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 15019 (3rd Cir. August 5, 2014)

This week’s Case of the Week, Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., explores the continued vitality of the “mailbox rule”. This archaic common law presumption has been around for generations and comes up surprisingly frequently in both employment and unemployment cases. Here, the Third Circuit made it clear that the Mailbox rule creates, at best, a weak presumption that is easily neutralized.

At issue in this case was whether the employer had properly notified the employee of her rights under the FMLA. Lisa Lupyan was an instructor for Corinthian Colleges for over three years when it became necessary for her to take leave due to a mental health condition, depression. The employer claims that it sent Ms. Lupyan a letter advising her that her leave was granted under the FMLA and advising her of her rights and responsibilities, including a date when she would be required to return to work. Ms. Lupyan claimed that she never received the letter and had no idea that her leave was governed by the FMLA nor that she had a mandated return to work date. When she tried to return 18 weeks later, she was told that she had been fired pursuant to the letter they had mailed her.

Ms. Lupyan sued for violation of FMLA. Her receipt of the letter became a central issue. An employee of the defendant submitted an Affidavit that, although there was no written record of the letter being mailed to Ms. Lupyan, she remembered mailing the letter. This was enough for the motion judge, who eventually granted summary judgment in large part based upon the presumption of the mailbox rule.

The Third Circuit reversed. Under the mailbox rule, if a letter properly directed is proved to have been either put into the mailbox or delivered to the postman, it is presumed that it reached its destination at the regular time and was received by the person to whom it was addressed. However, this is not a conclusive presumption of law. Rather, it is a rebuttable inference of fact founded on the probability that the officers of the government will do their duty and conform to the usual course of business.

The Court reasoned that while there may be a strong presumption of delivery where there is certified mail and a signed receipt, when a letter is sent by regular mail, the presumption is “very weak” and can be overcome simply with testimony that the letter was not received. The Court explained:

However, the mailbox rule has never been an “immutable legal command.” Rather, it is simply an evidentiary presumption, based on the historic efficiency of the United States Postal Service, that letters will be timely delivered to the addressee when properly mailed. However, there has never been a claim that the postal service has obtained perfection or that it is infallible. Indeed, this case highlights an inherent flaw in this long‑standing presumption: that the risk of non‑delivery falls squarely on the shoulders of the intended recipient. Where, as here, receipt of a letter is a contested issue, the individual recipient is forced to prove a negative. The law has long recognized that such an evidentiary feat is next to impossible.

(Lupyan at *17 (citations omitted))

After holding that the trial Court had improperly applied the mailbox rule, the Court also found that the error prejudiced the Plaintiff and that a reasonable jury could discredit the reasons given by the defendant for Ms. Lupyan’s termination. Summary judgment was denied.

Although this is a Federal case from Pennsylvania, it is a precedential Third Circuit case, which is binding in New Jersey Federal Court, and will be persuasive in cases in New Jersey Courts where the receipt of an alleged mailed letter is a contested and relevant issue.

Plaintiff’s Counsel: Adam R. Gorzelsky, Susan N. Williams, Williams Law Offices.

Defendant’s Counsel: Jeffrey B. Balicki, Feldstein Grinberg Lang & McKee, P.C..

Third Circuit Judges: Mckee, Fuentes, Schiller, Opinion by McKee.

Trial Judge: David Stewart Cercone, U.S.D.J.