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Name: Orthel v. Yates
Case #: 12-17165
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 07/28/2015

Petitioner was not entitled to equitable tolling of the one-year AEDPA statute of limitations due to mental health issues because his treatment records indicated that he remained “high functioning.” In 1995, Orthel was convicted of first degree murder in California. His conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 and the California Supreme Court denied review that same year. Eleven years later, in 2010, Orthel filed a federal habeas petition. The district court rejected Orthel’s argument that he was entitled to equitable tolling of the one-year AEDPA statute of limitations (28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)) because he was mentally incompetent during that 12-year period and granted the state’s motion to dismiss his habeas petition as untimely. Orthel appealed. Held: Affirmed. “A habeas petitioner is entitled to equitable tolling of AEDPA’s one-year statute of limitations if diligent pursuit of rights and extraordinary circumstances standing in the way of a timely filing can be shown.” A petitioner seeking equitable tolling on grounds of mental incompetence must show an inability to rationally or personally understand the need to timely file, or that his mental state rendered him unable to personally prepare a habeas petition and effectuate its filing. (Bills v. Clark (9th Cir. 2010) 628 F.3d 1092, 1099-1100.) Here, Orthel’s medical records indicated that he grappled periodically with significant mental health issues during his incarceration. However, in the year after the California Supreme Court denied review of his conviction, medical records described him as “fully alert and oriented,” “responsive, clear, coherent, and high functioning.” Furthermore, during the remaining 11 years before Orthel filed his federal habeas petition, he took college level courses. Thus, the district court’s conclusion that Orthel did not demonstrate an extraordinary circumstance was not clearly erroneous.

An evidentiary hearing is not required to evaluate a petitioner’s equitable tolling claim based on the petitioner’s medical condition when the record has already been fully developed with all the pertinent medical documents. Before the district court denied Orthel’s equitable tolling claim, it reviewed 2,000 pages of his medical records. Although Orthel did not request an evidentiary hearing to further develop the record, he argued on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by failing to conduct one sua sponte. The Ninth Circuit rejected Orthel’s argument. “Where the record is amply developed, and where it indicates that the petitioner’s mental incompetence was not so severe as to cause the untimely filing of his habeas petition, a district court is not obligated to hold evidentiary hearings to further develop the factual record . . . .” (Roberts v. Marshall (9th Cir. 2010) 627 F.3d 768, 773.) But if, for example, the record contains conflicting affidavits or is “patently inadequate to allow [the court] to evaluate the strength of [an equitable tolling] claim” then an evidentiary hearing would be required. (See Roy v. Lampert (9th Cir. 2006) 465 F.3d 964, 975; Laws v. Lamarque (9th Cir. 2003) 351 F.3d 919, 921, 924.) Here, however, the district court had an “amply developed record full of relevant evidence allowing a well-supported ruling concerning Orthel’s mental competence.” Accordingly, the court did not err in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing sua sponte.