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Silbaugh v. Chao

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

November 14, 2019

Alisha R. Silbaugh, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Elaine L. Chao, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued and Submitted July 12, 2019 Seattle, Washington

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington D.C. No. 2:17-cv-01759-RSM Ricardo S. Martinez, Chief District Judge, Presiding.

          Timothy Patrick O'Donnell, Mercer Island, Washington; Aaron V. Rocke, Rocke Law Group PLLC, Seattle, Washington; for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Teal Luthy Miller (argued) and Sarah K. Morehead, Assistant United States Attorneys; Annette L. Hayes, United States Attorney; United States Attorney's Office, Seattle, Washington; for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: Danny J. Boggs, [*] Marsha S. Berzon, and Paul J. Watford, Circuit Judges.


         Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c) Relation Back of Amendments

         The panel reversed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's action alleging that the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") wrongfully terminated her employment.

         Plaintiff filed her action in the district court within the 30-day limitations period set by statute, see 5 U.S.C. § 7703(b)(2), but she mistakenly named the FAA and her former supervisor as the defendants. Because plaintiff's suit alleged claims of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, plaintiff was required to name as the defendant the head of the executive agency to which the FAA belongs - Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. After the 30-day statute of limitations passed, the FAA moved to dismiss on the ground that plaintiff had named the wrong defendant. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint to substitute Secretary Chao as the defendant. The district court dismissed because it found that the amended complaint did not relate back to the date of the original complaint under the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c), and plaintiff's action was barred by the statute of limitations.

         The panel held that plaintiff was entitled to relation back under Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(2). Specifically, the panel held that the application of Rule 15(c)(2) to the facts of this case was straightforward. The panel further held that the district court reached the opposite conclusion by adopting an overly technical interpretation of the term "process" as used in Rule 15(c)(2). The panel held that the notice-giving function of "process" under Rule 15(c)(2) was accomplished whether or not the summons accompanying the complaint was signed by the clerk of court.

         In addition, the panel held that the requirements for relation back were met here where both the United States Attorney and the Attorney General were sufficiently notified of plaintiff's action within the 90-day period prescribed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m). The panel noted that the record did not reveal whether plaintiff also sent a copy of the valid summons and the amended complaint to Secretary Chao. Because plaintiff properly served both the U.S. Attorney and the Attorney General, she was entitled to additional time to mail a copy of the summons and amended complaint to Secretary Chao if necessary. Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(i)(4)(A). The panel remanded for the district court to address that issue in the first instance.


          WATFORD, Circuit Judge.

         This case involves a common problem in suits against officers or agencies of the United States: The plaintiff files her action within the statute of limitations, but discovers after the limitations period has expired that she named the wrong defendant. The problem arises with some frequency because a plaintiff may sue the federal government only if the United States waives its sovereign immunity, and Congress has in some instances conditioned such a waiver on the naming of a particular person or entity as the defendant. Those directives are not always intuitive. For certain types of claims, the plaintiff may be required to name the United States itself as the defendant, while for others the plaintiff may be required to name a designated government official, even though that official played no role in the events giving rise to the lawsuit. Failure to name the correct defendant can result in dismissal of the plaintiff's case.

         Fixing a mistake of this sort is simple enough if the statute of limitations has not yet run, for the plaintiff can file a new action naming the correct defendant. But if the time for filing suit has passed, the plaintiff's claims will be time-barred unless the plaintiff can amend her complaint to add the correct defendant and have that amendment "relate back" to the original, timely filed complaint. Relation back of such amendments is the province of Rule 15(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The rule governs when an amendment that "changes the party . . . against whom a claim is asserted" will relate back to the date of the original complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(C). And it contains a specific ...

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