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A Mailroom Mix-Up That Could Cost A Life

Publication Date: 
August 02, 2010
The New York Times
Adam Liptak

Professor Deborah Rhode, an expert on ethics in the legal profession, is quoted in the New York Times on the doctrine of imputing responsibility to the client for a lawyer’s mistake. Adam Liptak filed this story:

Sullivan & Cromwell is a law firm with glittering offices in a dozen cities around the world, and some of its partners charge more than $1,000 an hour. The firm’s paying clients, at least, demand impeccable work.

Cory R. Maples, a death row inmate in Alabama, must have been grateful when lawyers from the firm agreed to represent him without charge. But the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal.

When an Alabama court sent two copies of a ruling in Mr. Maples’s case to the firm in New York, its mailroom sent them back unopened.

One envelope had “Return to Sender — Left Firm” written across the front along with a stamp that said “Return to Sender — Attempted Not Known.” The other was stamped with slightly different language: “Return to Sender — Attempted Unknown.”

Two associates handling Mr. Maples’s case had indeed left the firm, but it seems that no one bothered to tell the court or the mailroom that new lawyers there had stepped in. By the time Mr. Maples’s mother called, her son’s time to appeal had run out.


Mr. Maples’s case “is a textbook illustration of why the doctrine of imputing responsibility to the client for a lawyer’s mistake is so out of touch with reality,” said Deborah L. Rhode, an authority on indigent defense and legal ethics at Stanford.