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Lawrence v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

December 3, 2019

CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert W. Gettleman, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Christopher Lawrence has an amputated leg. When he was in the custody of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, a federal prison, he slipped and fell in the shower. To reach that shower, plaintiff allegedly had to hop over a tiled curb with his amputated leg and move around a corner-all without grab bars or a shower chair. Because of his fall, plaintiff allegedly suffers ongoing back pain, shoulder pain, and migraine headaches.

         Plaintiff sues the United States for negligence. The United States moves to dismiss. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), the United States is liable for the negligent acts of its employees as though it were a private employer. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). But plaintiff may maintain his suit against the United States only if: (1) he presented his claim to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”); (2) the BOP denied his claim; and (3) he sued within six months of the denial. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a); 28 U.S.C. § 2401. Plaintiff met the first two requirements: he presented his claim to the BOP and the BOP denied it. Plaintiff did not, however, sue within six months of the BOP's denial. The United States thus argues that plaintiff's suit is “forever barred.” 28 U.S.C. § 2401.

         Plaintiff filed his original complaint in March 2018. That was premature; the BOP had yet to deny his claim. See McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 110-11 (1993). Once the BOP did so on July 11, 2018, the six-month clock started to run: plaintiff had to sue by January 11, 2019. But he filed his first amended complaint on January 18, 2019. That was a week late. And months later, in July 2019, he filed a second amended complaint. That, of course, was also late.

         Both of plaintiff's amended complaints were thus tardy. But that might not bar his suit. The FTCA's deadlines are non-jurisdictional and are thus subject to equitable tolling. United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 135 S.Ct. 1625, 1638 (2015). Tolling is a common law doctrine that allows courts to stop the running of a limitations period. To toll a limitations period is, effectively, to extend it. That is what plaintiff seeks-an extension to make his suit timely.

         The question is thus whether equity requires tolling the FTCA's six-month limitations period. Answering that question involves two steps. First, the court determines the amount of tolling needed to make plaintiff's suit timely. Second, the court considers whether plaintiff is entitled to that amount of equitable tolling. For the following reasons, the court holds that: (1) plaintiff needs seven days of tolling to make his suit timely; and (2) plaintiff is entitled to those seven days of tolling based on his diligence, his pending motions, and this court's November 2018 order directing counsel to file an amended complaint after the limitations period expired. The motion to dismiss filed by the United States is thus denied.

         1 How much tolling does plaintiff need to make his suit timely?

         Once the BOP denied plaintiff's claim on July 11, 2018, the six-month clock started to run-plaintiff had to sue by January 11, 2019. Both of plaintiff's amended complaints missed that deadline. His first amended complaint was filed on January 18, 2019; his second amended complaint, on July 22, 2019.

         The amount of tolling plaintiff needs to make his suit timely depends on whether to calculate his tardiness based on his first amended complaint or his second amended complaint. Because amended pleadings supersede previous pleadings, Wellness Community-National v. Wellness House, 70 F.3d 46, 49 (7th Cir. 1995), the operative complaint is the second amended complaint filed in July 2019. The United States thus argues that plaintiff missed the January 2019 deadline by six months. Plaintiff responds that under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), his second amended complaint “relates back” to his first amended complaint filed on January 18, 2019-just seven days after January 11, 2019.

         The court finds that plaintiff's second amended complaint relates back to his first amended complaint. Under Rule 15(c), an amended pleading “relates back to the date of the original pleading” when three requirements are satisfied. The first two are that: (1) the law allows relation back; and (2) the amendment asserts a claim arising from the conduct set out in the original pleading. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(A-B). The United States concedes that plaintiff's second amended complaint satisfies those two requirements.

         The United States argues, however, that plaintiff fails the third requirement. Plaintiff's second amended complaint added the United States as a defendant. When a pleading adds a defendant, the plaintiff must serve that defendant with the summons and complaint “within the period provided by Rule 4(m).” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(C). The new defendant must “not be prejudiced in defending on the merits.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(C)(i). And the new defendant must (or should) have known that it would have been sued “but for a mistake” concerning its identity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(C)(ii).

         But when it comes to adding the United States as a defendant, Rule 15(c) is more plaintiff-friendly: the plaintiff need only mail or deliver process to the United States attorney or to the Attorney General of the United States “during the stated period.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(2). The plaintiff need not show that the United States was not prejudiced or that the United States should have known that it ought to have been sued. See 6A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1502 & n.11 (3d ed. 2010) (“[Rule 15(c)(2)] establishes an irrebuttable presumption that if proper service has been made on the United States attorney, or the United States attorney's designee, or the Attorney General . . . then the requirements set forth in Rule 15(c)(1)(C)(i) and (ii) for the relation back of an amendment changing a party are to be deemed satisfied.”), citing Jackson v. Kotter, 541 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2008), and Paulk v. Department of Air Force, Chanute Air Force Base, 830 F.2d 79 (7th Cir. 1987).

         Recognizing that plaintiff need not show lack of prejudice or that the United States had constructive notice, the United States focuses on timeliness-whether plaintiff delivered process “during the stated period.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(2). The parties agree that the United States attorney and the Attorney General of the United States received the summons and a copy of the first amended complaint on January 30, 2019. That, the United States argues, was too late: plaintiff had to deliver process within six months of the BOP's denial-by January 11, 2019.

         The United States misreads Rule 15(c). The “stated period” under Rule 15(c)(2) is not the limitations period. It is “the period provided by Rule 4(m) for serving the summons and complaint.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(C). Rule 15(c) was amended in 1991 to avoid the exact reading urged here by the United States. So long as the amended pleading satisfies Rule 15(c)(1)(A) and (c)(1)(B), “An intended defendant who is notified of an action within the period allowed by Rule 4(m) for service of a summons and complaint may not under the revised rule defeat the action on account of a defect in the pleading with respect to the defendant's name . . . .” Advisory Committee's Notes on 1991 Amendment to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c); accordDelgado-Brunet v. Clark, 93 F.3d 339, 344 (7th Cir. 1996) (“The effect of the [1991] amendment [to Rule 15(c)] ...


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