“The Sniffing Accountant” – The Mailbox Rule

After Jerry and Kramer notice that Barry Prophet, their accountant, was sniffing uncontrollably, they begin to suspect that he is a drug addict. Believing that he is “hip to the whole scene,” they decide to end their relationship with him and entrust postal employee Newman to deliver the termination letter to the USPS sidewalk postal box. But Newman drops the letter on the way and never delivers the mail. Does the termination letter take effect? Did Jerry, Kramer, and Newman successfully terminate their arrangement with the accountant?

In contract law, the “mailbox rule” creates a rebuttable presumption that a contract is accepted and goes into effect – effective immediately! – once the acceptor signs the contract and puts it in the mail. For example, if Kramer sent Morty Seinfeld a letter in the mail offering to resell old raincoats, and Morty sends a letter back responding he’d like to go into business together, the contract is created once Morty puts the letter in the mail. Or, if you put a dollar in the vending machine, it is assumed that candy bar would come out.

"I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark bar didn't come out!"

(Editors’ technical legal note: a rebuttable presumption shifts the burden of proof to the other party. So if Jerry, Kramer, and Newman can show that they mailed the letter then it is presumed that the accountant received the letter. Barry Prophet would then need to rebut that presumption by showing he never received the letter.)

The situation here is a little different, since Jerry, Kramer, and Newman are trying to terminate an agreement instead of creating one. But courts have found that the mailbox rule is applicable to aspects of contract law beyond simply creating a contract. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that a court would find the mailbox rule applicable here as well.

Under these circumstances, Jerry, Kramer, and Newman would need to provide evidence that they placed the letter in the mail. The best way to show this would be through a receipt from USPS (or other certified mail carrier) showing that the letter was sent, and that it should be returned to the sender if delivery was not available. Unfortunately for them, they have no such evidence.

Oh, no, the letter.

So since the letter was never mailed, how else could Jerry, Kramer, and Newman claim that the termination letter should be accepted? Well, they could argue that Newman is a postal worker and by giving him the letter they had effectively given it to the postal service. This argument might be plausible, as the “mailbox rule” does not require that the mailer literally place the document in the mailbox. Instead, it only requires that the mailer place the document in the hands of a postal service or private other certified delivery services (like FedEx or UPS).

But this argument is almost certainly going to fail for a number of reasons. For one, Newman was “off-duty” at the time, i.e. he was not acting in the role of postal employee Newman when he went to deliver the mail. He was just regular ol’ Newman with no official authority as a United States Postal worker. Second, it is clear that Newman failed to deliver the mail.

Is everything all right here, postal employee Newman?

If Jerry, Kramer, and Newman really wanted to use the mailbox rule for these kinds of transactions they had best go to the post-office and pay for a delivery service that requires a receipt for the post-office. This way, they can be sure to have proof that the documents went directly into the mail.

...if a certain imbecile had been able to get to a mailbox and mail a letter.

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