Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The 2006 Discovery Amendments

For those looking for a summary of the 2006 amendments to the discovery rules, an excellent review appears at the ABA's Law Practice Today website: The 2006 Discovery Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

As you can see, these changes are extensive and will drive some important changes in the way discovery will be done in the federal courts.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lack of knowledge of proper party not the same as mistaken identity

In Locklear v. Bergman and Beving AB, No. 04-2506 (4th Cir., August 7, 2006) (PDF), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit as time-barred where the amended complaint, which attempted to substitute two new defendants for a mistakenly-named defendant, did not relate back to the original complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(3), even though service was effectuated within a court-granted extension as set forth by Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m).

In Locklear, the Plaintiff, who was injured by a piece of equipment at work, filed a timely suit that incorrectly named the defendant manufacturer. Luna AB and Bergman & Beving AB were the correct manufacturers of the machine, but the Plaintiff sued "Hassleholms," which was was merely the city where the manufacturer was located. The Plaintiff admitted that he did not know the name of the proper defendant until eight months after the suit was filed. The Plaintiff served the new defendants within the extended deadline for service, but the district court granted the Defendants' motion to dismiss based on the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal and upheld the rule announced in Western Contracting Corp. v. Bechtel Corp, 885 F.2d 1196, 1201 (4th Cir. 1989):

Rule 15(c)(2) [now (c)(3)] permits an amendment to relate back where that party is chargeable with knowledge of the mistake, but it does not permit relation back where, as here, there is a lack of knowledge of the proper party.

Applying the rule in Becthel Corp., the Court found that the amended complaint did not relate back for three reasons:

(1) The attempt to replace Hassleholms with Luna and Bergman was not a misnomer or a "mere slip of the pen." Instead, the Plaintiff "lacked the requisite knowledge of the machine’s manufacturer until eight months after filing the original complaint and six months after the statute of limitations expired";

(2) To rule otherwise would expand Rule 15(c)(3) beyond its intended purpose, which is to prevent a defendant from defeating an action on the basis of a formality that is neither a surprise or prejudicial to the misnamed party; and

(3) Relation back would "produce a paradoxical result wherein a plaintiff with no knowledge of the proper defendant could file a timely complaint naming any entity as a defendant and then amend the complaint to add the proper defendant after the statute of limitations had run."

The court added that "In effect, this would circumvent the weight of federal case law holding that the substitution of named parties for 'John Doe' defendants does not constitute a mistake pursuant to Rule 15(c)(3)." (citations omitted)

This ruling makes sense. Plaintiffs generally have two or three years to figure out the identities of the defendants before they are required to file their suits. Plaintiffs should not expect a suit filed against a John Doe or some other incorrect defendant to satisfy the statute of limitations. Defendants have rights, too.