Thursday, November 14, 2019

Silbaugh v. Chao (9th Cir. - Nov. 14, 2019)

Now here's a neat little case.  Especially if you're (like me) a professor who teaches civil procedure.

It's a relation back case under Rule 15; in particular, against the United States.  You get relation back (for statute of limitations purposes) against the government under Rule 15(c) under if you've made a mistake in naming the correct party -- e.g., here, you named your supervisor as the defendant instead of the formal head of the relevant executive agency (here, the Secretary of Transportation) -- but then later correct that mistake and the U.S. knew within 90 days that you made that mistake because you delivered "process" on the Attorney General or relevant U.S. agency.

The question in this case is:  What does the Rule mean by "process?"

Truthfully, it's got a totally straightforward meaning.  By "process" we mean the summons and complaint.  The documents that you use to commence a lawsuit.

Which is precisely what the plaintiff here did.  She served a copy of the summons and complaint on both the U.S. Attorney as well as on the Attorney General.  End of story, right?

Not quite.

Because the copy of the summons here was not signed by the court clerk.  Which it normally has to be in order to constitute proper service; e.g., to require the defendant to respond to the complaint under penalty of default.

So does an unsigned copy of the summons (plus the complaint) count as "process?"

Under the normal service of process rules, the answer would clearly be "no."  It doesn't count as "process" -- or, more accurately, it doesn't count as valid process.  It wouldn't be sufficient to permit the court to exercise jurisdiction or to award a default judgment.

Which is why, intuitively, you might think that "process" is defined in the rule as a summons that's signed by the clerk plus a complete copy of the complaint.  And, if the rule was defined that way, the U.S. would be right, and there'd be no relation back here.

But you'll look at the FRCP in vain for such a definition.  It just uses the word process.  Repeatedly, to be sure.  But it doesn't define it.

Which leaves it open for Judge Watford to hold as he does here.  The U.S. was indeed served with "process," he says, because it definitely received a summons and the complaint.  Which means that the purpose of Rule 15 was satisfied; it knew full well that it had been served, albeit that a mistake had been made in the formal naming of the defendant.  Hence there's relation back.  Since Rule 15(c) does not say there has to be service of "valid" process to get relation back, the point of relation back is to ensure notice (which there was), and we strongly prefer adjudications on the merits rather than hypertechnical procedural dismissals.  So held.

All of which seems right to me.

I'll add one other point in this regard that Judge Watford's opinion doesn't mention.  Not only do I not see a formal definition of process as including a signed summons, but there are other provisions in the FRCP that suggest that the rules are fully capable of requiring process to be "valid" when they so require.  For example, in Rule B (governing attachment), paragraph (2)(a) says that a court may not order garnishment or attachment unless "the complaint, summons, and process of attachment or garnishment have been served on the defendant in a manner authorized by Rule 4."  So if process wasn't served in this manner (e.g., the summons wasn't signed), it'd be invalid, because the rule says so.  Yet Rule 15(c) doesn't do the same thing.

In any event, I think that Judge Watford rightly interprets the rule here to be consistent with its obvious (and salutary) purpose.  We give relation back when there was notice.  Here, there was notice.  Yes, we're a bit nit-picky when the United States is concerned, and, yes, the United States has promulgated rules that are very much in favor of . . . surprise, surprise . . . the United States.  But the rule here just says process, and that means and summons and complaint, and that's indeed what the U.S. got.  That it wasn't signed isn't part of the rule.  Even though that's what you might ordinarily think "process" means as applied to other rules with slightly different purposes.

Fair enough.