239 F.3d 1209 (11th Cir. 2001), 98-01719, Saxton v ACF Industries

Docket Nº:D. C. Docket No. 98-01719-CV-N-S
Citation:239 F.3d 1209
Party Name:MAJOR SAXTON, JR., MARY SAXTON, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. ACF INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendant-Appellee. No. 00-11047
Case Date:January 24, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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239 F.3d 1209 (11th Cir. 2001)

MAJOR SAXTON, JR., MARY SAXTON, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

ACF INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 00-11047

D. C. Docket No. 98-01719-CV-N-S

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 24, 2001

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama

Before DUBINA and HULL, Circuit Judges, and HODGES[*]., District Judge.

HULL, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Major and Mary Saxton appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment to Defendant ACF Industries, Inc. ("ACF") on all of their claims based on the statute of limitations. After review, we affirm.

I. Background

On February 17, 1997, Major Saxton was employed by Drummond Company, Inc. as an exhaust operator and was injured during the course of his employment while unloading sulfuric acid from a railroad tank car. On June 5, 1998, he alone filed suit in Alabama state court against Defendants Boliden Intertrade, Inc., CSX Transportation, Inc., Union Tank Car Company, and Marsh Instrument Company. Saxton's complaint contained only various state law claims. The defendants removed the case to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction.

Saxton's complaint described both Union Tank Car Company and Boliden Intertrade, Inc. as "manufacturers and sellers of railroad cars" who "sold the subject railroad car." Saxton's suit also included numerous fictitious defendants, described as those defendants which "owned," "maintained," "designed, manufactured, [or] distributed the tank car which is the subject of this lawsuit." ACF, whom Saxton now alleges to be the actual seller of the tank car, was not specifically included as a defendant.

Major Saxton twice amended his complaint, both times with permission of the district court. In his first amended complaint, filed on October 16, 1998, Saxton added his wife as a party plaintiff and added General American Transportation Corporation and Trinity Chemical Industries, Inc. as defendants. This amended complaint described both new defendants as having sold the subject railroad car. On November 25, 1998, the complaint was amended a second time to identify correctly the defendant previously included as "Trinity Chemical Industries, Inc." as Trinity Industries, Inc. ACF was not added as a defendant by either amendment.

On January 11, 1999, in its "Initial Order Governing Proceedings in This Action," the district court dismissed the suit as to all fictional parties without prejudice as to any party's rights under Rule 15(c), as follows:

There being no fictitious party practice in the courts of the United States, it is hereby ORDERED that the action be DISMISSED as to all fictitious parties. Dismissal is without prejudice to the right of any party to take advantage of the provisions of Rule 15(c), Fed. R. Civ. P.

On February 17, 1999, the Saxtons moved the court for an order to "hold open (indefinitely, until further Order of the Court on the subject) the time for serving defendants." They argued that the requested extension would prevent foreclosure of the operation of Alabama's fictitious party practice and relation back principles. On March 3, 1999, the district court granted this motion.

Shortly after the statute of limitations period expired, the Saxtons filed a third amended complaint on March 26, 1999, again with permission of the district court. In this complaint, the Saxtons added ACF

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as a defendant for the first time and brought certain of the state law tort claims against it which were already made against the previous defendants. This third amended complaint noted that "the subject railroad car has now been specifically identified as ACFX-94705" and included an allegation that ACF was a "manufacturer and seller of railroad cars" and had "sold the subject railroad car." The Saxtons allege that it was not until approximately February 17, 1999, shortly before the Saxtons filed their third amended complaint, that they first learned that ACF was the actual seller of the railroad tank car at issue.

ACF filed a summary judgment motion as to all of the Saxtons' claims, arguing that they were time-barred. The district court granted ACF's motion and entered final judgment for ACF.1. The Saxtons timely appealed.2.

II. Discussion

Because the Saxtons' claims are all state law claims and federal jurisdiction in this case is based on the diversity of the parties, Alabama law provides the applicable statute of limitations period for the Saxtons' claims against ACF. See Guaranty Trust Co. of NY v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 109 (1945). Under Alabama law, the statute of limitations for general tort claims is two years.3. Since Major Saxton's injury occurred on February 17, 1997, the statute of limitations on the Saxtons' claims expired on February 17, 1999. The Saxtons' third amended complaint adding ACF as a defendant was filed on March 26, 1999, and thus came after the expiration of Alabama's two- year limitations period. The pivotal question becomes whether the Saxtons' third amended complaint adding ACF as a defendant relates back to the filing of the initial complaint on June 5, 1998, which was within Alabama's limitations period. The answer to this question depends on whether state or federal law provides the applicable relation back principles.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c) governs relation back of amendments to pleadings in federal court. The first subsection, Rule 15(c)(1), provides in full that "[a]n amendment of a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when relation back is permitted by the law that provides the statute of limitations applicable

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to the action." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1). This subsection was added during the 1991 amendments to Rule 15. The Advisory Committee Notes accompanying this subsection state that the provision "is intended to make it clear that the rule does not apply to preclude any relation back that may be permitted under the applicable limitations law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1) advisory committee's note. These Notes also state: "Whatever may be the controlling body of limitations law, if that law affords a more forgiving principle of relation back than the one provided in this rule, it should be available to save the claim." Id. Rule 15(c)(1) thus instructs that the applicable relation back law is the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations. As the Notes clarify, that law should be applied even if it provides a more forgiving principle of relation back than the federal rule.

Because Alabama law provides the applicable statute of limitations in this case, Rule 15(c)(1) directs us to Alabama's law governing relation back of amendments. Alabama's law addressing relation back is found in Alabama Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c).4. Alabama Rule 15(c)(4) expressly sets forth the relation back rule when fictitious parties are involved. Specifically, Rule 15(c)(4) provides that an amendment to a pleading "relates back to the date of the original pleading when . . . relation back is permitted by principles applicable to fictitious party practice pursuant to Rule 9(h)." Ala. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(4).

In turn, Alabama's fictitious party practice rule, contained in Rule 9(h), provides that when a party is ignorant of the name of an opposing party and so alleges, that party may designate the opposing party by any name and amend its pleading to substitute the opposing party's true name when the true name is discovered. Ala. R. Civ. P. 9(h).5. The Committee Comments accompanying Rule 9(h) further direct: "See Rule 15(c) for the application of the doctrine of relation back of amendments substituting real parties for fictitious parties." Ala. R. Civ. P. 9(h) advisory committee's note. The Alabama Supreme Court has expressly discussed the interplay between Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure 9(h) and 15(c), noting that they allow a plaintiff, in certain circumstances, to avoid a limitations bar by fictitiously naming a defendant and later substituting

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the actual party, as follows:6.

Rules 9(h) and 15(c), Ala. R. Civ. P., allow a plaintiff to avoid the bar of a statute of limitations by fictitiously naming defendants for which actual parties can later be substituted. Such a substitution is allowed to relate back to the date of the original complaint if the original complaint adequately described the fictitiously named defendant and stated a claim against such a defendant. In order for the substitution to relate back, the plaintiff must show that he was ignorant of the true identity of the defendant and that he used due diligence in attempting to discover it.

See Jones v. Resorcon, Inc., 604 So. 2d 370, 372-73 (Ala. 1992). See also Ex Parte Stover, 663 So. 2d 948, 951 (Ala. 1995); Columbia Eng'g Int'l, Ltd. v. Espey, 429 So. 2d 955, 959 (Ala. 1983). Thus, under Alabama law, an amendment substituting an actual defendant for a fictitious defendant relates back when:

(1) the original complaint adequately described the fictitious defendant;

(2) the original complaint stated a claim against the fictitious defendant;

(3) the plaintiff was ignorant of the true identity of the...

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