Tuesday, July 19, 2011

State ex rel. Holzum v. Schneider[1]

Opinion handed down July 19, 2011
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The case stemmed from a medical malpractice claim filed on the final day of the statutory limitation period for such suits. Following discovery the plaintiff dismissed several of the original defendants, initially unknown and identified as John and Jane Doe, and named multiple new defendants in an amended complaint. The new defendants argued that the claim against them should be dismissed, as it was barred by the running of the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court of Missouri, examining the applicable rules regarding the “relation back” of amendments, held the amendment did not fall within the statutory period and dismissed the claims against the new defendants,. In doing so, the Court clarified and strengthened the pleading standards necessary for “Doe” defendants to toll the statute of limitations. 

I. Facts and Holding

Eric Katz, son of Alverna Katz, initiated the lawsuit on October 2, 2008, three years after his mother died from head injuries sustained in a fall.[2] The initial petition named two specific hospitals as defendants, as well as both John and Jane Doe defendants, claiming negligent treatment.[3] An amended petition, filed more than two years after the initial petition, removed one of the hospitals and the Doe defendants and added now-identified doctors – Holzum, Landry, and Poggemeier – as new defendants.[4] The newly-named defendants moved to dismiss the claim against them, arguing that it was initiated outside the statutory period.[5]

After losing at the circuit court level, the new defendants separately filed petitions for writs of prohibition to prevent the lower court from moving forward on a time-barred action.[6] The Supreme Court of Missouri initially issued preliminary writs of prohibition, consolidating the separately filed petitions.[7] The court later made those preliminary writs permanent.[8]

The issue presented to the court was whether the running of the statute of limitations barred the addition of the new defendants.[9] The claim fell under Revised Statutes of Missouri § 537.100, which limited wrongful death claims to a three-year statutory period.[10] At question was what it meant for an action to be “commenced” within the allowed period. The defendants argued that the original suit, filed against John and Jane Doe, did not meet either the requirements of Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure 55.33(c)[11] or the common law “misnomer” principle.[12]

The unanimous opinion, written by Judge Michael A. Wolff, found that the initial petition did not describe the new parties with sufficient particularity so as to put them on notice that they would be sued.[13] Judge Wolff wrote that because the initial pleadings failed to adequately describe the “Doe” defendants, “the actual defendants could not have been ‘promptly’ served after the initial suit was filed, even if they somehow had received the initial petition.”[14] To meet that standard, the petition must describe the defendants in such a way as to identify the defendants so as to put the defendants on notice.[15] Judge Wolff mentioned as potential identifiers descriptions of the defendants or the hospital setting in which the defendants treated the deceased woman.[16] Absent such particularized descriptions, the amended petition could not be said to “relate back” to the initial petition, and the statute of limitations thus barred the action against the new defendants.[17]

II. Legal Background

The common law notion of misnomer refers to situations where the correct party is simply misnamed, but it is nonetheless clear to whom the action actually refers.[18] This applies to those situations where there is a simple misunderstanding as to the actual name of the named party. So long as there is no question that the correct party would be timely notified by service despite any mistake in naming, any subsequent correction is considered to relate back to the filing date of the original petition.[19]

Rule 55.33(c), on the other hand, does allow actual party changes but requires the correct party receive notice within the allotted time for service. Under both Rule 55.33(c) and common law, “the correct party must have been notified of the lawsuit within the time provided for service after the filing commences the action.”[20] The court in Watson v. E.W. Bliss acknowledged that both doctrines continue to be in effect.[21]

Rule 55.33(c) states, in pertinent part, that an amendment changing a named party is allowed when, “within the period provided by law for commencing the action against the party and service notice of the action, the party to be brought in by the amendment…has received such notice of the institution of the action.”[22] Before the adoption of Rule 55.33(c), a post-limitations name change would not be fatal so long as the initial petition identified a party with “sufficient particularity” so as to provide notice.[23]

Rule 55.33(c) reflects prior law regarding the use of Doe designations. In Maddux v. Gardner,[24] a pre-Rule 55.33(c) decision, a plaintiff filed a petition using “John Doe” and “Richard Roe” designations to describe defendants.[25] The petition identified Doe as a Missouri resident and the train engineer on a particular train on a particular date, and Roe as a Missouri resident and the train fireman on the same train at the same time.[26] A later amendment naming the actual defendants was found to relate back to the earlier petition “because the petition identified the engineer and fireman of the particular train operating on the relevant date with sufficient particularity.”[27]

Rule 55.33(c), however, added the requirement that the party actually have notice within the period allowed for service.[28] Rule 54.01(c) allows service beyond the time for filing required by statutes of limitation, but that service must be made “promptly” after an action is filed.[29] Due diligence is required by the plaintiff in such cases.[30]

In addition to the time requirement, for an amendment to be valid under Rule 55.33(c), two additional elements are required. First, the new party must have received notice that the action had been instituted so that the new party’s defense on the merits will not be compromised.[31] Second, the new party must either know or be in a position where the party should have known that an action would be brought against the party but for a mistake about the party’s identity.[32]

Ultimately, the use of Doe designations are not, in and of themselves, problematic.[33] However, “the identity of the actual person should be ascertainable from the contents of the petition so that when a party gets notice of the lawsuit, he knows or should know…that the action has been brought against him.”[34]

III. Comment

The court’s decision appears to fall in line with well-settled principles surrounding statutes of limitations. As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, statutes of limitations are crucial to the proper and efficient functioning of a judicial system. As the court wrote in Bd. of Regents of Univ. of State of N. Y. v. Tomanio, “there comes a point at which the delay of a plaintiff in asserting a claim is sufficiently likely either to impair the accuracy of the fact-finding process or to upset settled expectations[.]”[35]

The Supreme Court of Missouri’s opinion did not appear to set definite standards regarding the specificity of descriptors, and this may remain a point of contention in future cases. However, the Court here clearly reinforces the policy considerations underlying statutes of limitations. Allowing petitions to use vague John and Jane Doe descriptions to essentially toll the limitations until the correct defendants are found would defeat the purpose of the statutes. Plaintiffs may not know the actual names of the people to be sued. However, they should be able to, within the statutory period, identify enough of a defendant’s characteristics to at least outline the defendant’s identity. Such a notice requirement is necessary to allow the defendant to adequately prepare a defense. Further, it incentivizes plaintiffs to act efficiently in pursuing a claim, and prevents plaintiffs from getting an unjust lead on case preparation. 

- Heath Hooper

[1] State ex rel. Holzum v. Schneider, No. SC 91434, slip op. at 6 (Mo. July 19, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=47890. The West Reporter citation is State ex rel. Holzum v. Schneider, 342 S.W.3d 313 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 3
[3] Id. at 3-4.
[4] Id. at 4.
[5] Id. at 3.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id. at 4.
[10] The court referred to the statute’s pertinent language, which states that “[e]very action instituted under section 537.080 shall be commenced within three years after the cause of action shall accrue....” Id. at 2 (quoting Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.100 (2010)).
[11] The Rule, which concerns “relation back of amendments, states,
“[w]henever the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, the amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading. An amendment changing the party against whom a claim is asserted relates back if the foregoing provision is satisfied and within the period provided by law for commencing the action against the party and serving notice of the action, the party to be brought in by amendment: (1) has received such notice of the institution of the action as will not prejudice the party in maintaining the party's defense on the merits and (2) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against the party.” Mo. R. Civ. P. 55.33(c).
[12] Id. at 2-3.
[13] Id. at 8.
[14] Id. at 8-9.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 8.
[17] Id. at 9.
[18] Id. at 4.
[19] Id. at 5.
[20] Id. at 4.
[21] Id. at 5 (citing Watson v. E.W. Bliss Co., 704 S.W.2d 667, 670 (Mo. 1986) (en banc)).
[22] Mo. R. Civ. P. 55.33(c).
[23] Id. at 7 (citing Maddux v. Gardner, 192 S.W.2d 14, 17 (Mo. App. W.D. 1945)).
[24] 192 S.W.2d 14 (Mo. App. W.D. 1945).
[25] State ex rel. Holzum v. Schneider, No. SC 91434, slip op. at 6-7 (Mo. July 19, 2011) (en banc).
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 7.
[28] Id.
[29] Id. (citing Mo. R. Civ. P. 54.01(c)).
[30] Id. (citing Kennon v. Citizens Mut. Ins. Co., 666 S.W.2d 782 (Mo. App. E.D. 2001)).
[31] Id. at 6. (citing Bailey v. Innovative Mgmt. & Inv., Inc., 890 S.W. 648 (Mo. 1994) (en banc) (internal citations omitted)).
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] 446 U.S. 478, 487 (1980).