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John Doe Defendants Should Be Identified Prior to Expiration of Statute of Limitations, Even Where Complaint is Timely Filed

Tags: civil procedure

Author: Sara C. Mills-Flood

The Seventh Circuit recently issue a decision that may make it easier for defendants to raise the statute of limitations as a defense when John Doe defendants are identified after the limitations period has run—even when the original complaint was timely filed. See Herrera v. Cleveland, No. 20-2076 (7th Cir. 2021). This may be especially useful in certain civil rights actions or employment actions where multiple officers or employees are often initially named as Doe defendants. 

The plaintiff in Herrera v. Cleveland filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against three correctional officers for allegedly failing to protect him from an assault and for denying him timely medical care. As is often the case in such lawsuits, the plaintiff named each of the correctional officer defendants as “John Doe” when filing the original complaint until he could determine the identity of those individuals. The original complaint was timely filed within the limitations period, but two subsequent amended complaints that identified these John Doe defendants were filed outside of the limitations period. The officers who were eventually named then filed a motion to dismiss based on the argument that their addition was untimely. The district court denied the motion and reasoned that suing a “John Doe” defendant qualifies as a “mistake” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(C)(ii). Therefore, the amended complaints “related back” to the original complaint and were timely. The officers filed an interlocutory appeal and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 

In reaching its decision, the Seventh Circuit acknowledged the somewhat incongruent holdings of Hall v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, 469 F.3d 590 (7th Cir. 2006) and Krupski v. Costa Crociere S.p.A., 560 U.S. 538 (2010). In Hall, an injured railroad worker sued his current employer, which was a company that had taken possession of the assets of the worker’s original employer after the date on which the worker was injured while working for the original employer. In analyzing whether the plaintiff’s later amendment to identify his original employer was timely, the Seventh Circuit held that Rule 15(c)’s “mistake” clause did not apply when a plaintiff “simply lacks knowledge of the proper defendant.” Hall, 469 F.3d at 596. A plaintiff’s “ignorance or misunderstanding about who is liable for his injury” does not satisfy the Rule’s mistake requirement, and therefore any amendment does not relate back to the original complaint. Subsequent cases applied this analysis in the John Doe context and held that an amended complaint identifying a John Doe defendant is untimely if it is filed after the statute of limitations has expired, because suing a John Doe is not a mistake.

However, some circuits subsequently interpreted the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Krupski as “a sea change” in how amendments in John Doe cases are handled and saw it as a rejection of the reasoning employed in cases like Hall. Although Krupski did not involve a John Doe defendant, according to some courts’ interpretations, Krupski held that inadequate knowledge of a John Doe defendant’s identity can constitute a “mistake” under certain circumstances. According to this line of interpretation of Krupski, late amendment of the complaint to identify a John Doe defendant relates back to the original complaint under Rule 15(c) and therefore is timely. Krupski involved a plaintiff who mistakenly sued a subsidiary and who later realized that she meant to sue its parent corporation. The parent corporation in that case had constructive notice that the plaintiff meant to sue it and was also aware that the plaintiff mistakenly believed that the subsidiary was the proper entity. The plaintiff in Krupski “had no idea she lacked knowledge of the proper defendant’s identity” even though the subsidiary and parent company did know she was mistaken. Under the facts of that case, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff's mistake satisfied Rule 15(c) and her amendment therefore related back to the original complaint.

In Herrera, the Seventh Circuit disagreed with this application to John Doe defendants and attempted to clarify with three reasons why Krupski does not change the result for John Does. First, naming a defendant as John Doe is not “an error, misconception, misunderstanding, or erroneous belief," nor is it a mere “slip of the pen.” Instead, it is a deliberate choice. Second, the court pointed out that the plaintiff in Krupski had no idea she had sued the wrong party or that she otherwise had insufficient knowledge about the defendant's true identity. But someone who sues a John Doe defendant is fully aware that he lacks knowledge of the defendant’s true identity. And third, the definition of “mistake” under Rule 15(c) does not equate “inadequate knowledge” with a “mistake.” Rather, “it is the ‘wrong action’ stemming from ‘inadequate knowledge’ that amounts to a mistake.” In this context, “[n]aming a John Doe defendant as a nominal placeholder is not a wrong action proceeding from inadequate knowledge; it is a proper action on account of inadequate knowledge.” (emphasis added)

The court's explanation does seem somewhat strained, but it is understandable given the need to reconcile the existing precedent and when considering all of the various contexts in which Rule 15 may be invoked. In cases involving mistakenly named corporate entities, parent companies, and subsidiaries, the determination of whether a "mistake" was made under Rule 15(c) will likely be nuanced and fact specific. But in situations where a plaintiff has named one or more individuals as John Doe defendants, the analysis should be much more straight forward. If a John Doe defendant is not identified within the statute of limitations, and assuming equitable tolling does not apply, defendants should have a viable basis for dismissal. 

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