When Should a Court Allow an Amendment to a Civil Claim in Federal Court? Whenever it Relates Back, and that Happens More Often than Not.

It is well established that once the one-year deadline is up for a movant filing to vacate their conviction in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, no new claims can be raised unless they “relate back” to the original claims in the motion.

However, this rule is liberally applied to pro se litigants, and a court usually allows amended claims unless they clearly don’t relate back.

So, when a district court rejected a prisoner’s amendment to his § 2255 motion after the one-year deadline, it impacted his original claim, and he was denied relief. If the court had considered his amended claim, he would have been granted relief.

Prisoners are used to courts putting up roadblocks to postconviction relief, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit knocked this one down and further found that relief should have been granted.

More than a decade ago, Frederick Coleman was sentenced to mandatory life in federal prison without parole after he was found guilty of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine since he had two previous drug convictions in Illinois State court.

Under 21 U.S.C. § 841, at the time of his offense, the court was required to impose a mandatory life sentence if federal prosecutors filed a notice under 21 U.S.C. § 851 listing at least two qualifying prior drug convictions. These convictions could even be for simple possession and not drug trafficking. Today, this law has been changed to 25 years, and the prior convictions must be drug trafficking crimes.

While Mr. Coleman lost all his appeals, he filed a § 2255 motion claiming his lawyer was constitutionally ineffective for failing to challenge that his prior Illinois cocaine convictions did not qualify under federal law to require a life sentence.

Mr. Coleman’s initial claim was that his lawyer failed to inform him of the government’s intent to seek a life sentence under § 851. This wasn’t enough to be successful under § 2255’s rigorous standards, so he filed an amendment to provide more details about this claim. This time he hit the nail on the head by claiming that counsel failed to properly object to the § 851 enhancement.

But Judge Sara Darrow of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois said his amendment didn’t “relate back” to his original claim. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, a pleading may be amended after a statute of limitations has expired, but only if it relates back to the original claim.

Rule 15 says an amendment relates back to a claim in a civil pleading, such as a § 2255 motion, if it “asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out—or attempted to be set out—in the original pleading.”

Sometimes this will be easy to figure out. But sometimes it’s more “in the middle,” as it was in this case, the court said. The measuring stick is whether the other party would be “surprised” by the amendment.

The Supreme Court has said that courts should “freely give leave” to amend a claim “when justice so requires.” All the courts have said this simply means they should liberally allow amendments to claims made in civil cases.

That didn’t happen here, and the Seventh Circuit found the district court “abused its discretion” by not allowing Mr. Coleman’s amendment. While the § 2255 remedy is considered an extraordinary remedy, the court said it was “of no consequence” when it came to Rule 15 amendments.

Finding that Mr. Coleman’s amendment related back to his original claim, the Seventh Circuit took a closer look at his ineffective assistance of counsel claim (IAC) regarding counsel’s failure to object to the § 851 sentencing enhancement.

While there was no case on point about whether an Illinois cocaine offense qualified for § 851, the court said that there were enough similar cases that counsel could have crafted a convincing argument that it didn’t qualify.

However, finding that defense counsel failed to do his job wasn’t enough. Mr. Coleman also had to show that he was “prejudiced” by the error. The court presumed prejudice because, without the § 851 enhancement, Mr. Coleman would not have received a mandatory life sentence.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the denial of § 2255 relief and remanded for the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing.

Coleman v. United States, No. 22-1678, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 21201 (7th Cir. Aug. 15, 2023).

Important note: While this case was a § 2255 motion, it applies just as well to any habeas petitions filed by state prisoners under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

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