Thursday, August 09, 2007

When does amended complaint adding new party relate back for limitations purposes

In Justus v. Buchanan County, the jail suicide case, Chief Judge Jones of the W.D. Va. concluded that the plaintiff's amended complaint adding a new defendant would relate back for purposes of the statute of limitations to the date of the original filing as to the new defendant, where the original complaint included as defendants the Buchanan County sheriff's office, and the new complaint named the Sheriff himself, citing the Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in Goodman v. Praxair, Inc.

In Goodman, there was some dispute among the judges about whether to address the relation-back issue. Judge Niemeyer wrote in a footnote:

"In her concurring opinion, Judge Williams has stated that she would not reach the relation-back issue because it is unnecessary to the resolution of the appeal and is issued solely to provide guidance.

First, our court regularly issues opinions to provide guidance on remand in the interest of judicial efficiency. See United States v. Barile, 286 F.3d 749, 759 (4th Cir. 2002) (Williams, J.) ("Whether the excluded portion of Sheridan’s testimony is admissible absent the district court’s Rule 16 sanction is an issue that may arise again should a new trial be required on remand, and we therefore address it here"); Resolution Trust Corp. v. Allen, 16 F.3d 568, 573-74 (4th Cir. 1994) (Williams, J.) ("Although remand for the district court to address these arguments would be the normal course, we believe it would be a fruitless exercise here. The parties have thoroughly briefed the [ ] issue before us . . . . Therefore, in the interest of judicial economy . . . we will proceed to address the merits"). Accord Willingham v. Crooke, 412 F.3d 553, 561 (4th Cir. 2005); United States v. Ebersole, 411 F.3d 517, 535 (4th Cir. 2005); United States v. Ruhbayan, 460 F.3d 292, 302 (4th Cir. 2005); Studio Frames, Ltd. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 369 F.3d 376, 383 (4th Cir. 2004); Rowland v. Am. Gen. Fin., Inc., 340 F.3d 187, 194 (4th Cir. 2003); Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 642 n.13 (4th Cir. 2001); United States v. Dickerson, 114 F.3d 464, 468 (4th Cir. 1997); Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc. v. Fed. Highway Admin., 51 F.3d 405, 409 (4th Cir. 1995); Klugh v. United States, 818 F.2d 294, 299 (4th Cir. 1987).

But in this case the relation-back issue is a viable dispute that has been presented to us and is much more than something to be decided as a matter of guidance. We resolve the limitations issue only as a pleading matter, holding that a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss cannot in this case dispose of the limitations issue. We do not dispose of the limitations question on the merits, as that requires further proceedings. We decide the relation-back issue because the district court’s holding on that issue is broader than the limitations issue and would, if left intact, result in an erroneous judgment if the further proceedings revealed that the amended complaint was filed outside of the limitations period. Moreover, the district court decided both issues, and both issues were appealed to us. Not deciding the relation-back issue now would leave in place an erroneous decision regardless of how the limitations issue turned out.

In addition, counsel for the parties assured the court of the viability of both issues, representing to the court at oral argument that counsel for the Praxair defendants in fact had transmitted a letter to Goodman, refusing his demand more than three years before the amended complaint was filed. Once that letter is filed with the district court, we would have to address the relation-back issue in a second appeal back-to-back with this appeal."

Judge Williams came back in her opinion with a quote from then-Judge Roberts: "[W]e should adhere to the 'cardinal principal of judicial restraint,' that 'if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more.' PDK Labs., Inc., v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 362 F.3d 786, 799 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (Roberts, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment)."

It is always amusing when the appeals court judges cite each other's opinions against each other.

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