Amendments to pleadings

From LegalLanding

Amending the pleadings is treated in FRCP Rule 15.


Because the pleadings are the foundation for an action and have great impact on the final disposition of an action, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure take a very liberal attitude toward amending the pleadings. Rule 15 allows amendments before trial, during trial, and even after trial. A party may always amend its pleading once as a matter of course before being served with a responsive pleading. After that, whether to allow an amendment is at the trial judge’s discretion, but Rule 15(a)(2) directs her to do so “freely when justice so requires.” The ability to amend is important, because once a statement is put in a pleading it is a judicial admission and cannot be denied in front of a jury unless the pleading party receives leave to amend, unlike an evidentiary admission, which is not binding and can be denied at trial.

David v. Crompton & Knowles Corp. (1973) emphasized this liberalness, holding that a judge should allow amendment except under a small number of circumstances. The Crompton court recognized two exceptions where amendments should not be allowed. First, the court should look to whether an amendment would prejudice the parties. In Crompton, the defendant discovered that it was the wrong party to be sued, but did not find this out until after the statute of limitations had expired for the plaintiff to sue the correct party. The court noted that if the amendment were allowed, the plaintiff would be highly prejudiced in that he would not be able to pursue the action. The defendant would also have been prejudiced by not allowing the amendment, since it was not actually liable to the plaintiff, but the court decided that the defendant would be less prejudiced under those circumstances.

Second, the Crompton court noted that an amendment should not be allowed if there was undue delay before the motion. It reasoned that a party stalled the proceedings should not benefit from such an action.

There are four tests for amendments, but two were not considered in the Crompton decision. The third is to look for fault. When an amendment is contentious and could alter the nature of an action, the court tries to determine whose responsibility it is that the case is in such a situation. Like prejudice, courts will look at comparative fault.

Finally, the fourth test is futility. Simply, would an amendment make any difference? For example, a plaintiff might seek to amend her complaint to add more defendants, but if the statute of limitations has already expired then those new defendants could immediately bring a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. This would be a waste of the court’s resources, and a futile amendment.

Liberalness with amendments goes back to the basic premise of notice pleading, that we want cases tried on the merits. (See Pleadings, Generally). As such, pleadings can be amended at almost any time, subject to the four tests. As mentioned earlier, pleadings can even be amended after judgment.

The standard of review on a judge’s decision in this context is abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is difficult to define, and essentially means that the trial judge has a great amount of discretion, and that her decision is unlikely to be reversed by an appellate court. It would not be efficient for the appellate courts to second-guess the managerial decisions of the trial judges, lest appellate caseloads mushroom. The parties’ job, then, is to persuade the judge toward their points of view.

Relation Back of Amendments

Rule 15(c) allows an amendment to a pleading to relate back to the date of original pleading in only one scenario, where a plaintiff seeks to amend the complaint to add a new claim or party, but the statute of limitations has expired. For example, in Swartz v. Gold Dust Casino (1981), the plaintiff was injured after falling down a casino staircase. She sued the casino, but about two years later discovered the identity of the property management company. She then attempted to amend the complaint to add it as a defendant. Without relation back there would be great hardship on the plaintiff, because the statute of limitations had already expired against the property management company. Relation back is the outer limit of the liberal attitude toward pleading to prevent injustice.

When relation back is allowed, the court treats the date the original complaint was filed as the date of the amendment when certain conditions are met. First, the law providing the original statute of limitations must allow relation back. A party must look at the state law to see if it is allowed, but most states do.

Second, the claim or defense must arise out of same conduct, transaction, or occurrence. Three tests are used to determine this: (1) Are the same issues of fact and law implicated? (2) Will the same evidence be used? (3) Is there a logical relationship between the claims? This last test is used commonly with relation back questions. The idea of the doctrine is to save a claim, and it is the easiest test to satisfy.

If the amendment only adds a new claim, then these are the only two conditions that have to be met. If it changes the party, or the naming of the party, against whom the claim is asserted, then after the first two conditions are met, more must be done. First, within 120 days the party to be brought in must receive notice such that it will not be prejudiced in defending on the merits. Notice need not be formal. There is a growing trend that sufficient notice may be deemed to have occurred where a party who has some reason to expect his potential involvement as a defendant hears of the commencement of the litigation through some informal means. Notice may also be imputed if there is an identity of interests between the original and prospective defendants. Whether the additional defendant would be prejudiced in defending is decided by looking at the same factors that justify a statute of limitations in the first place. For example, he might have left the country or died, or records might have been destroyed.

Second, it must be shown that the prospective defendant knew or should have known that the action would be brought against it if not for a mistake about the party’s proper identity. Some courts construe this requirement narrowly, allowing relation back for the addition of a party only where the wrong party was named in the complaint. Other courts, such as the Swartz court, have held that confusion over a party’s identity at the time of complaint will be suffice.

The defendant in a relation back scenario will argue that the amendment constitutes a new cause of action. However, it is allowed if the conditions are met and, as mentioned, is an extreme example of the liberalness of the federal rules.