October 02, 2013

Shifting Gears: Rules on Relating Back

Even the most careful pleader will sometimes learn new facts or change views of a case after filing an initial pleading. This new information or perspective may very well develop after the running of the statute of limitations. Fortunately federal and state law provides some recourse to attorneys in this potentially troubling situation.

To accommodate for changes in strategy or new revelations, the relation back doctrine gives attorneys the opportunity to amend their complaints well after the limitations deadline has passed. But courts will not always approve of late-breaking amendments. For attorneys who find themselves shifting gears in the middle of a case, knowing the relevant rules can be crucial.

In federal court, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 (c) is the key text allowing amendments to pleadings to “relate back” in time to the filing of the original pleading. The point of the rule is to prevent parties from hiding behind the statute of limitations to fend off new but legitimate claims or defenses arising out of the same conduct, transaction or occurrence set forth in the original pleading. State laws will vary. In Maryland, for example, there is no specific relation back provision but the doctrine is sometimes recognized as a result of common law court decisions.

To illustrate how relation back works, let’s consider the troubles of Mr. Smith, who has been fired from his job as head concierge at The Bloomfield Hotel. According to the manager, Mr. Wells, Smith was fired because he had stolen a television. Smith denied the allegations. Even so, two weeks later Wells circulated an internal newsletter explaining Smith’s firing in an attempt to curb future theft. Smith consulted a lawyer and filed a complaint against the hotel alleging wrongful termination and libel. A week after the complaint’s filing the hotel’s counsel filed a motion to dismiss the libel count for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Smith’s counsel decided to amend the complaint to clarify the libel count, but he filed the amendment after the running of the one-year statute of limitations.

Question: Will Smith’s amendment to the complaint to clarify or change the libel claim relate back?

Most likely yes. In both Maryland and federal court, relation back will be permitted to modify claims for clarity as long as the operative factual scenario in the amendment remains essentially the same as the scenario articulated in the original complaint. However, if Smith discovered that his claim actually ought to be for slander (against an employee who told others about the alleged theft), the answer becomes more opaque.

In federal court and in Maryland, an amendment is generally permitted to relate back if it shifts from one legal theory to another -- for example from libel to slander -- as long as the alteration relates to the same facts as originally alleged. But if the shift is so drastic that the defendant arguably had not been given adequate notice of the conduct that gave rise to the original claim, the amendment might not relate back.

In other words, relation back works only if the desired modifications focus on the same basic dispute. You can change weapons mid-battle, but you can’t move the battlefield altogether.

In our hypothetical, an amendment that changes the claim from libel to slander would relate back because the new legal theory is based upon the same facts as the initial claim (the allegations of theft, the firing, and the newsletter).

Suppose, however, that two weeks later, Smith discovers that Bill, the hotel’s head of housekeeping, was the person who had told manager Wells that Smith had stolen the television. Smith believed that Bill was lying and Smith’s lawyer added him as a new defendant.

Will the amendment adding Bill to the case relate back?

In federal court, Bill could be added, and the amendment would relate back. When an amendment seeks to substitute a defendant, correct a mistake made in the naming of the defendant, or even add another defendant, the amended pleading will still relate back to the original pleading. Again, this rule is subject to the “same conduct, transaction or occurrence” standard. In Maryland however, relation back is often not permitted when a new defendant is added, but is permitted to correct a mistake made in naming the defendant.

Interestingly, in Maryland, the addition of a plaintiff will relate back as long as the defendant was on notice of the claim against him. In federal court, adding a plaintiff requires analysis of multiple factors, e.g., whether or not the defendant is prejudiced by the amendment and whether the defendant had adequate notice of the claim against him. Overall, however, the federal rule remains slightly more liberal than the Maryland policy.

Given the complications of the relation back doctrine, litigants should do all they can to settle on a core theory, strategy, and factual foundation well before the statute of limitations becomes an obstacle. This isn’t always possible, of course, and when it isn’t, a good first step is to brush up on Federal Rule 15(c) and Maryland cases on the “relation back” doctrine.