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U.S. District Court Examines The "Relation Back" Provision of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)

Branden Wallace v. Eric Houston, et al.
No. 12-820 (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, February 26, 2015)

by Richard J. Medoff, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/gms/2015/february/12-820.pdf

In Branden Wallace v. Eric Houston, et al., a case involving a motion to dismiss an amended complaint that sought to add additional defendants to an ongoing 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the amended complaint did not “relate back” to the filing date of the original complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), and thus, all of the claims against the newly added defendants were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Accordingly, Judge Gregory M. Sleet granted the motion for summary judgment.

By way of factual background, on July 22, 2010, several members of the Delaware Police's Special Operations Response Team ("SORT") arrested Branden Wallace in a hotel in Newark, Delaware. Wallace was injured during the arrest; however, the parties disputed the "extent to which Wallace resisted arrest" and whether Wallace was already handcuffed "when force was applied to secure his arrest."

Wallace filed a pro se action on June 25, 2012 (the "Original Complaint") in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, asserting constitutional and tort claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against defendants Eric Huston, Phillip Graham, Gregory Simpler (collectively, the "Original Defendants"), and John Doe(s), in connection with his arrest. The John Doe(s) were "then-unknown members of the [SORT]." After some discovery, Wallace filed an amended complaint on November 18, 2013, replacing the John Doe(s) with nine (9) specific members of the SORT, alleged to have been involved in Wallace's arrest (collectively, the "Newly Added Defendants"). The Newly Added Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), on the grounds that Wallace's claims against the Newly Added Defendants were untimely.

The court began its analysis by noting that because Wallace proceeded pro se, his pleadings were "liberally construed," and "held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The court explained, however, that a pro se plaintiff still faces "the formidable task of avoiding summary judgment by producing evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for [him],”' and that a plaintiff's pro se status "does not eliminate [his] obligation to allege specific facts, substantiated by evidence on the record." Zilich v. Lucht, 981 F.2d 694, 696 (3d Cir. 1992); Harp v. Rahme, 984 F.Supp.2d. 398, 409 (E.D. Pa. 2013).

Because each of Wallace's Section 1983 claims were "characterized as personal injury claims,” district courts must apply the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims imposed by Delaware state law. See 10 Del. C. § 8119 (imposing a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims). Accordingly, the court found that because the events surrounding Wallace's arrest occurred on July 23, 2010, Wallace was obligated to bring his claim before July 23, 2012.

The court then noted that the Original Complaint against the Original Defendants was filed within this time, on June 25, 2012; however, the Amended Complaint naming the Newly Added Defendants was filed after the two (2) year statutory deadline, on November 18, 2013. Therefore, the court explained that “in order to take advantage of the original filing date and avoid the time bar," Wallace's amended complaint would need to "satisfy the 'relation back' provision of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15." The court further specified that "because Wallace's amended complaint added new parties," Wallace was required to "satisfy two prongs of Rule 15," to avoid summary judgment. First, the amended or newly added claims must "arise out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out ... in the original pleading." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(l)(B). Second, the newly added party must, "within 120 days of service the original complaint, receive such notice of the action that it will not be prejudiced in defending on the merits, and know or should know that the action would have been brought against it, but for a mistake concerning the proper party's identity." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(l)(C).

The court began its Rule 15 analysis by noting that there was no dispute that the first prong was satisfied because the claims all arose out of Wallace's arrest on July 23, 2010. The court found, however, that Wallace failed to satisfy the second prong of the analysis, the "notice aspect of Rule 15(c)." First, the court explained that there was "no evidence supporting an inference that the Newly Added Defendants had actual notice of the lawsuit within 120 days of the original service," and in fact, "many of the Newly Added Defendants offered sworn declarations that they did not actually know of the lawsuit until they were served with the amended complaint in November 2013." Second, the court addressed the issue of constructive notice, specifically considering the Third Circuit's decision in Garvin v. City of Philadelphia, a case that the court considered "directly on point." 354 F.3d 215 (3d Cir. 2003). The court explained that under Garvin, "notice may be imputed to an unnamed party under a 'shared attorney' or 'identity of interest' theory." Id. at 223-27. The court concluded, however, that Wallace could not satisfy either theory.

The court first explained that under the "shared attorney theory," the court will impute notice if "the attorney's later relationship with the newly named defendant gives rise to the inference that the attorney, within the 120 day period, had some communication or relationship with, and thus gave notice of the action to the newly named defendant." Id. Considering this theory, the court noted that the Defendants were all represented by the Delaware Attorney General's Office; however, the court found that the "shared attorney theory" still failed because the Newly Added Defendants were "not represented at any time during the relevant 120-day period," and the court was unwilling "to pile assumption on top of assumption to reach a conclusion, counter to the facts, that the officers had some type of notice of this action within 120 days of its institution." Id at 225.

Second, the court explained that under the "identity of interest theory," a court "will impute notice if the parties are so closely related in their business operations or other activities that filing suit against one serves to provide notice to the other of the pending litigation." Id. at 227. The court found, however, that "at best" the Original Defendants and the Newly Added Defendants were "colleagues," and that they did not "share a sufficient nexus of interests" to impute knowledge to the Newly Added Defendants.

Accordingly, the court concluded that Wallace failed to satisfy the second prong of the Rule 15 analysis, and that therefore, Wallace's Amended Complaint did not "relate back" to the filing date of the Original Complaint, and all of Wallace's claims against the Newly Added Defendants were barred by the statute of limitations. Accordingly, the court granted the Newly Added Defendant's motion for summary judgment.


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