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Media Alerts - Butler v. National Community Renaissance of California - Ninth Circuit
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November 1, 2014
  Butler v. National Community Renaissance of California - Ninth Circuit
Headline: Ninth Circuit panel affirms the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss for the running of the statute of limitations on a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for an alleged warrantless search of a tenant's apartment holding that the amended complaints did not relate back under Cal. Civ. P. Code § 474 because plaintiff was not ignorant of the appellees' names or identities at the time the original complaint was filed, that the amended complaints did not relate back under Fed. R. Civ. P.15(c)(1)(C) because plaintiff did not establish that any of the appellees knew or should have known that her lawsuit would have been brought against them but for her mistake, and that the district court did not err in rejecting, at the pleading stage, plaintiff's claim of equitable tolling under California law.
Area of Law: Civil Procedure

Issue(s) Presented: Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1) and California Code of Civil Procedure section 473(a)(1), does a plaintiff's amended complaint containing names of defendants relate back to the original complaint when the original complaint did not contain the names of the defendants, the location of the alleged violation, or any fictitious names?

Whether equitable tolling under California law relieves a plaintiff from the statute of limitations when the plaintiff's tort claims were pending against some of the defendants for ten days?

Brief Summary: The only defendant listed in the caption of Butler's original complaint was National Community Renaissance Corporation ("NCORE"). The complaint alleged:

On April 18th 2007 apartment manager in absence of a search warrant gave Section 8 investigator and City employee and Sheriff deputies the keys to my apartment who then entered without search warrant or consent And began searching my apartment. Sheriff deputies removed me from My home and issued me a citation and then released me at that point. And in that situation they violated my 4th amendment right.

Subsequently, Butler filed four amendments to her complaint. Following the fourth amended complaint, all defendants except for NCORE filed motions to dismiss alleging Butler's claims in the amended complaint were barred by the statute of limitations and did not relate back to the original complaint. The trial court granted the motions with prejudice.

Interpreting Rule 15(c) as amended, the appellate court reviewed Butler's amendments under both Rule 15(c) and California law to apply the more permissive relation back standard.

The appellate court recognized that California Code of Civil Procedure section 473(a)(1) does not contain an express provision for relation back of amendments. Case law recognizes an exception to the general rule of no relation back where a plaintiff who is genuinely ignorant of a defendant's identity at the time of the original complaint, commits an excusable mistake attributable to dual entities with strikingly similar business names or the use of fictitious names.

The appellate court held that the record supported the trial court's finding that Butler was not genuinely ignorant of the identities of the defendants at the time of the original complaint because Butler contacted and complained about each of the defendants before the original complaint was filed.

Under Rule 15(c), the appellate court held that Butler failed to establish any of the defendants knew or should have known they would have been named as defendants, but for Butler's mistake because the original complaint did not contain any names of the individuals or organizations involved in the search of Butler's apartment. Further, Butler failed to identify the location of her apartment and only listed "City employee" and "Section 8 investigator" as the persons involved. Because the city employee and section 8 investigator could be in any county where the named defendant, NCORE maintains an apartment, there was no way for the defendants to have ascertained they would be the subject of a lawsuit. Therefore, the amended complaints did not relate back under Rule 15(c).

The trial court properly tolled Butler's claims against Palmdale and Barraza for 10 days. Nevertheless, even with the additional 10 days, Butler's claims were untimely. Lastly, the trial court properly found that equitable tolling did not apply against HACoLA and D'Errico.

Extended Summary: The 9th Circuit panel reviewed both the application of the statute of limitations and the relation back doctrine de novo.

The original complaint only named NCORE as a defendant. The complaint was one page, requested to proceed in forma pauperis and requested an attorney. The complaint alleged:

On April 18th 2007 apartment manager in absence of a search warrant gave Section 8 investigator and City employee and Sheriff deputies the keys to my apartment who then entered without search warrant or consent And began searching my apartment. Sheriff deputies removed me from My home and issued me a citation and then released me at that point. And in that situation they violated my 4th amendment right.

Butler filed a First Amended Complaint on April 22, 2009 adding the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles ("HACoLA"). The trial court, sua sponte dismissed the first amended complaint and through a series of amendments and sua sponte dismissals, Butler filed a third amended complaint on August 12, 2009. The third amended complaint named NCORE, HACoLA, the City of Palmdale ("Palmdale"), Oscar Barraza, in his individual capacity, and "Mr. D'Errico", in his individual capacity.

Oscar Barraza was alleged in the third amended complaint to be a manager and employee of NCORE and Mr. D'Errico was alleged to be the Section 8 investigator.

Proofs of service were filed and on September 8, 2009, Palmdale and Barraza filed a motion to dismiss the third amended complaint. On September 10, 2009 NCORE also filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court granted Palmdale and Barraza's motion with leave to amend concluding Butler's claims against Palmdale and Barraza were untimely and did not relate back to any of Butler's prior pleadings.

On March 15, 2010 Butler filed a fourth amended complaint naming the same defendants as the third amended complaint and setting forth in greater detail the relationships between the defendants, Butler's rental history with HACoLA, and an allegation that Butler filed a claim with Palmdale on June 11, 2007 that was denied on June 28, 2007.

Palmdale, Barraza, HACoLA, and D'Errico filed motions to dismiss asserting Butler's claims were barred by the statute of limitations.

The trial court granted the motions with prejudice, finding that the original complaint did not sufficiently identify HACoLA, D'Errico, Palmdale, or Barraza as defendants. The court found that because Butler knew of defendants' existence, status, and roles at the time, Butler did not make a mistake concerning the identity and therefore claims did not relate back under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1). Additionally the court found that Butler did not name any fictitious defendants in her original complaint and therefore her claims did not relate back under California Law.

The trial court also found that Butler's claim with Palmdale tolled the statute of limitations for only ten days while it was pending but did not toll the statute as to Palmdale, Barraza, or D'Errico because they were not named until the second and third amended complaints. Additionally, because HACoLA was never named as a defendant in a tort claim, there was no tolling against it.

The trial court also rejected Butler's argument that the policy of deciding civil rights cases on the merits outweighed the policy underlying the statute of limitations, finding that both policies were of equal merit.

The court concluded that Butler's case would proceed against NCORE as the sole defendant.

On appeal, Butler contended that she sufficiently identified all the defendants in her original complaint. The 9th Circuit panel rejected Butler's contention because the body of the original complaint did not contain any names of any individuals or organizations involved in the search of her apartment.

Next, the appellate court determined the governing law on the relation back of claims, holding that both Rule 15(c) and California law had to be considered because the 1991 amendment to Rule 15(c) superseded Cabreles and Merrit to the extent they held that state law exclusively governs the relation back of amendments in § 1983 cases.

Interpreting Rule 15(c) as amended, the appellate court reviewed Butler's amendments under both Rule 15(c) and California law to apply the more permissive relation back standard.

The appellate court recognized that California Code of Civil Procedure section 473(a)(1) does not contain an express provision for relation back of amendments. Case law recognizes an exception to the general rule of no relation back where a plaintiff, who is genuinely ignorant of a defendant's identity at the time of the original complaint, commits an excusable mistake attributable to dual entities with strikingly similar business names or the use of fictitious names.

The appellate court held that the record supported the trial court's finding that Butler was not genuinely ignorant of the identities of the defendants at the time of the original complaint because Butler contacted and complained about each of the defendants before the original complaint was filed.

Under Rule 15(c), an amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading when 1) the basic claim arises out of the conduct set forth in the original pleading; 2) the party to be brought in received such notice that it will not be prejudiced in maintaining its defense; 3) the party knew or should have known that, but for mistake concerning identity, the action would have been brought against it. The second and third requirements must be fulfilled within 120 days for the filing of the original complaint.

The only dispute in the instant case was whether the defendants knew or should have known they would have been named as defendants but for an error.

The appellate court held that Butler failed to establish any of the defendants knew or should have known they would have been named as defendants, but for Butler's mistake, because the original complaint did not contain any names of the individuals or organizations involved in the search of Butler's apartment. Further, Butler failed to identify the location of her apartment and only listed "City employee" and "Section 8 investigator" as the persons involved. Because the city employee and section 8 investigator could be in any county where the named defendant NCORE maintains an apartment, there was no way for the defendants to have ascertained they would be the subject of a lawsuit. Therefore, the amended complaints did not relate back under Rule 15(c).

The appellate court also held that a trial court is free to address equitable tolling at the pleading stage and that the trial court properly tolled Butler's claims against Palmdale and Barraza for 10 days. Nevertheless, even with the additional 10 days, Butler's claims were untimely. Lastly, the trial court properly found that equitable tolling did not apply against HACoLA and D'Errico.

For the full opinion: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/da...14/09/12/11-55806.pdf

Panel: Stephen S. Trott, Consuelo M. Callahan, Circuit Judges and Mark W. Bennet, District Judge.

Date of Issued Opinion: September 12, 2014

Docket Number: 11-55806

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Brandon Powell

Counsel: Jeremy B. Rosen (argued), Horvitz & Levy, L.L.P., Encino, California; Andrew Wilhelm and Ashley Cook, certified law students, Ninth Circuit Appellate Advocacy Clinic, Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant Zina Butler. Toussaint S. Bailey (argued), Steven R. Orr, and Aaron C. O'Dell, Richards, Watson & Gershon, P.C., Los Angeles, California, for Defendants-Appellees City of Palmdale and Oscar Barraza. Nicole A. Davis Tinkham and Christian E. Foy Nagy, Collins Collins Muir & Stewart, L.L.P., South Pasadena, California, for Defendants-Appellees Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles and Lee D'Errico.

Author of Opinion: Bennett, District Judge.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Glenn Koppel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 11/01/2014 04:41 PM     9th Circuit  

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