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Panel issues 3 opinions on interplay between T.R. 15(C) and 17(F)

February 11, 2015

While the three judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals panel agreed summary judgment was proper for an Indianapolis attorney being sued for defamation and other claims because the statute of limitations had expired, each judge interpreted the interplay between Trial Rules 15(C) and 17(F) differently.

Jeffrey and Cynthia Miller appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Ice Miller LLP partner Kristine C. Danz, who practices under the name Kristine M. Camron, in Jeffrey M. Miller and Cynthia S. Miller v. Kristine C. Danz, 49A05-1401-PL-45. Jeffrey Miller, the former president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana and president of a separate foundation that supports JACI, sued Danz and many others after the city of Indianapolis decided not to offer him a job in the mayor’s office. Danz, whose husband served as a board chairman for JACI, told her that JACI was going to be audited because of concerns that money designated for a culinary school at JACI was not properly managed. Miller was still with JACI and the foundation when the school was announced, but funding was later stopped over those concerns.

In January or February 2010, Danz told colleague Sarah Cotterill about her husband’s comments because she knew that Miller was up for a position in the mayor’s office and the city may want to inquire further into the matter before hiring him. Cotterill is married to Chris Cotterill, who at the time was Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s chief of staff. Sarah Cotterill passed along Danz’s comments to her husband, who eventually informed Miller that the city would not be offering him the job.

The Millers filed their complaint on March 31, 2010. They filed several amended complaints, including one filed within the two-year statute of limitations naming “John Doe #8,” a partner at Ice Miller, as a defendant. A year later, in February 2013, the Millers filed a fifth amended complaint naming Danz after deposing Sarah Cotterill.

Danz argued that the statute of limitations had expired regarding the claims filed by the Millers against her, and the trial court agreed. The case required the Court of Appeals to look at how T.R. 17(F) and 15(C) interact.

“The purpose of the doctrine of relation back under current T.R. 15(C) is to strike the proper balance between the basic goal of the Trial Rules to promote decisions on the merits and the policies underlying statutes of limitation, the most significant of which are to provide fairness and finality to defendants. Thus, while T.R. 17(F) liberally allows amendments to pleadings in cases where a previously unknown party was named, T.R.15(C) seeks to ensure that the now-named defendants ‘receive notice of claims within a reasonable time, and thus are not impaired in their defense by evidence that is lost or diminished in its clarity because of the undue passage of time.’ It is T.R. 15(C) that serves to achieve the goals of finality and fairness to defendants,” Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote in the lead opinion.  

Judge Melissa May concurred in a separate opinion, writing that T.R. 15(C) doesn’t apply in this case, and that the judgment may be affirmed by the proper application of T.R. 17(F) alone.

“[A]dding a party because there has been a mistake about who should be the proper defendant, is governed by T.R. 15(C). That is not the same situation as giving a name to a previously-unidentified party who is already a ‘John Doe’ defendant. T.R. 17(F) applies when ‘the name or existence of a party is unknown,’ and provides ‘his name may be inserted by amendment at any time.’ Correcting a mistake is not the same as learning an unknown party’s name,” May wrote.

In her concurring opinion, Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote that the lower court should be affirmed because the evidence shows the Millers knew Danz was John Doe #8 as early as March 2010, before they filed their first complaint.

“Our trial rules aim to strike a balance between promoting decisions on the merits and providing closure, finality, and fairness to defendants. I believe that both interests are served by reading a due-diligence requirement into Rule 17(F), recognizing that Rule 15(C) operates as check on Rule 17(F), and acknowledging that lack of knowledge as to a defendant’s identity may constitute a mistake for purposes of Rule 15(C),” Vaidik wrote.

 

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