Posted by on May 19, 2010

Four Score and Seven Years Ago…

Is there such a thing as “meta-fame”?  Sometimes, comments about a thing can become so widely known that they approach the celebrity of the thing itself.  While it is by no means as famous as the celebrated Address, I can remember an old example of a “misplaced modifier” that uses humor to show how a simple syntax error can yield undesired results:

“Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address
while riding to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.”

If you don’t get it, don’t sweat it.

The point I’m leading to is that scribbles on an envelope can be very important.  Sometimes, they could be enough to save a case.  In Contract Law, we have “the Mailbox Rule,” which states that an offer is considered accepted when the offeree drops his acceptance in the mailbox, not when it arrives to the offeror.  The offeror cannot withdraw the offer after that point; the deal is sealed (assuming other requirements are met).  In those cases, the postmark on the envelope, proving when the acceptance was mailed, is critical.

In many cases, a statute starts running the time to appeal (for example, notice of denial of unemployment benefits) at the date of the letter notifying you.  This is, presumably, regardless of how long it takes to get to you.  Here, a postmark much later than the date on the letter (I’ve seen as much as a four-day delay in the date on an official letter and the postmark on the envelope) could buy you additional time to appeal.

In other cases, the clock starts running when you receive the message.  Thus, it is a good practice to keep the envelope with any official correspondence you receive until you have determined that the envelope does not contain important information.  It’s also a good practice to note on the envelope, immediately upon receipt, the date when you received it (and anything unusual, such as an unsealed envelope or an envelope badly mangled by sorting equipment, which could indicate some contents may have been lost).  This latter rule applies to notification from the EEOC that you have a right to sue for discrimination (and that the right to sue lapses on the 91st date after you receive notice).  The EEOC and the courts will generally assume, if you can’t show otherwise, that you received the notice within three days of mailing.

It is true that First Class Mail is generally delivered to destinations within the U.S. within three days.  Generally.  NOT Always.

On April 8 of this year, I received a returned mail piece, which I had sent to a client.  It contained a court order changing his name.  He had been waiting for this so that he could notify the Social Security Administration, among others.  When he stopped asking about it, I assumed he had received it.  The piece returned to me was marked “undeliverable as addressed,” so I called the client to find out what his correct address was.  It was, in fact, the address on the envelope, and he regularly receives mail there.  So, it was odd that the piece would be returned as undeliverable.  But that wasn’t what bothered me.

I mailed the documents on December 21 of last year!

Needless to say, I notified the postmaster for his area so it could be investigated, especially when his Christmas card was returned to me the following day.  (It had been sent a week earlier than the Orders.)

While this is not typical, and I certainly acknowledge that it’s amazing the volume of mail the Post Office handles each day that gets delivered without incident, it does serve to illustrate that sometimes things can go horribly wrong.  Those are the times you may need to show evidence that the notification process broke down.

So, when you receive important mail:  1) note the date of receipt on the envelope, 2) note any irregularities in the envelope or contents, and 3) save the envelope with the contents until you’re assured that you will not need information off the envelope.

If you miss the SOL, you’re SOL.


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