254 F.3d 959 (11th Cir. 2001), 00-11047, Saxton v ACF Industries

Docket Nº:00-11047
Citation:254 F.3d 959
Party Name:MAJOR SAXTON, JR., MARY SAXTON, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. ACF INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:June 18, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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254 F.3d 959 (11th Cir. 2001)

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


ACF INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 00-11047


June 18, 2001

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D. C. Docket No. 98-0719-CV-N-S

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HULL, Circuit Judge:

In this diversity jurisdiction case, Major and Mary Saxton bring an appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment to ACF Industries, Inc. ("ACF") on all of their claims based on Alabama's statute of limitations. The Saxtons contend that their third amended complaint was not barred by the statute of limitations, but was timely filed due to Alabama's law governing relation back of amendments. The Saxtons assert that, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1), state law relation-back rules apply when state law provides the applicable statute of limitations.

Following our binding precedent in Wilson v. Navistar Int'l Transp. Corp., 193 F.3d 1212 (11th Cir. 1999), the district court determined that it must apply federal law rules governing relation back of amendments even when state law provides the statute of limitations. The district court concluded that the Saxtons' third amended complaint against ACF was time-barred because it did not relate back to the Saxtons' original, timely-filed complaint under the relation-back rules set out in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(3). A panel of this Court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment, also finding itself bound by this Court's earlier ruling in Wilson.1 Saxton v. ACF Indus., Inc., 239 F.3d 1209 (11th Cir. 2001), vacated, 244 F.3d 830 (11th Cir. 2001)(en banc).

By vote of a majority of the judges in active service, we now rehear this appeal en banc to consider whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1) incorporates state law relation-back rules when state law provides the statute of limitations for the claims. Because we find that it does, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment to ACF on the statute of limitations grounds, and remand this case to the district court to apply Alabama law relation-back rules in determining whether the Saxton's third amended complaint against ACF is barred by the statute of limitations.

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 initial 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

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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. Each time the Saxtons amended their complaint, their amendment adopted and realleged the allegations of their complaint as originally filed. Thus, the fictitious defendants described in the Saxtons' initial complaint remained in their first and second amendments to the complaint.

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), stating 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, in effect, that their requested extension would permit them to take advantage of Alabama's fictitious party practice and relation-back rules. 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 as a defendant for the first time and brought certain of the state law tort claims against it which had already been asserted 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 filing 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. 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 diversity of citizenship, Alabama law provides the applicable statute of limitations for the Saxtons'

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claims against ACF. See Guaranty Trust Co. of N.Y. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 109 (1945). Under Alabama law, the statute of limitations period for general tort claims is two years.3 Since Major Saxton's injury occurred on February 17, 1997, the statute of limitations for 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 in this case depends in part upon whether state or federal law provides the applicable relation-back principles.4

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c) governs relation back of amendments to pleadings in federal court, and provides several ways in which an amended pleading can relate back to an original pleading. 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 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. The Notes further provide: "Generally, the applicable limitations law will be state law. If federal jurisdiction is based on the citizenship of the parties, the primary reference is the law of the state in which the district court sits. . . . 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. Thus, Rule 15(c)(1) incorporates

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the relation-back rules of the law of a state when that state's law provides the applicable statute of limitations. As a result, if an amendment relates back under the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations, that amendment relates back under Rule 15(c)(1) even if the amendment would not relate back under the federal law rules.5

Other circuits to address Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1) have held that it incorporates the relation-back rules of the law of a state when that state's law provides the statute of limitations. See Arendt v. Vetta Sports, Inc., 99 F.3d 231, 236 (7th Cir. 1996) (applying Illinois relation-back law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1)); Lundy v. Adamar of N.J., Inc., 34 F.3d 1173, 1184 (3d Cir. 1994) (applying New Jersey relation-back law); McGregor v. Louisiana State Univ. Bd. of Supervisors, 3 F.3d 850, 863 n.22 (5th Cir. 1993) (applying Louisiana relation-back law).

However, this Circuit previously has held that in a diversity jurisdiction case, federal rules of relation back, rather than Alabama rules, govern an amendment replacing a fictitious defendant with a real...

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