Can substitution of a new plaintiff who has proper standing cause “surprise or prejudice” to a defendant after the statute of limitations would have expired, such that leave to file an amended complaint should be denied? Not if the two plaintiffs are the same person switching from their individual to representative capacity, held the Second Department on August 15, 2018 in D’Angelo v Kujawski.
Plaintiff, “as proposed Administrator [sic]” of her deceased son’s estate, retained Defendants, comprising a law firm, to commence an action against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) based on medical malpractice that allegedly resulted in her son’s wrongful death. According to Plaintiff’s complaint, in 2011 Defendants filed a Notice of Claim with the VA’s Office of Regional Counsel, but the Notice of Claim negligently failed to reference the VA’s administration of contraindicated medications. After Defendants withdrew from the representation on December 20, 2013, Plaintiff commenced an action with new counsel that was ultimately dismissed by the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York for failure to timely exhaust administrative remedies. Specifically, the court found that Plaintiff had possessed “vital information bearing on the existence of her claim” that was wrongfully excluded from the Notice of Claim.
On December 15, 2016, five days before the statute of limitations would have expired, Plaintiff commenced an action for legal malpractice against Defendants. However, Plaintiff mistakenly named herself individually as the plaintiff, instead of as Administratrix of the Estate. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of an attorney-client relationship with the individual Plaintiff. In response, Plaintiff cross-moved for leave to file an amended complaint, thus setting the stage for the court to determine the applicability of CPLR §§ 305 and 3025 to a request to substitute plaintiffs, as well as whether Plaintiff’s delay in seeking leave past expiration of the statute of limitations would “prejudice or surprise” Defendants.
Relying on Caffaro v Trayna, a 1974 Court of Appeals decision purportedly allowing substitution of plaintiffs and subsequent interposition of time-barred claims in an amended pleading, Commercial Division Justice James Hudson held that Defendants would suffer no prejudice because the original complaint adequately put Defendants on notice of the nature of the claims and allowed the amendment. However, Justice Hudson did not analyze or discuss whether CPLR §§ 305 and 3025 authorized a party without standing to substitute an otherwise time-barred party. Nor did Caffaro, which substituted the estate’s Executrix for the decedent in the decedent’s pending medical malpractice action.
The Second Department affirmed:
“[A]n amendment which would shift a claim from a party without standing to another party who could have asserted that claim in the first instance is proper since such an amendment, by its nature, does not result in surprise or prejudice to the defendants who had prior knowledge of the claim and an opportunity to prepare a proper defense” (JCD Farms v Juul-Nielsen, 300 AD2d 446, 446 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see United Fairness, Inc. v Town of Woodbury, 113 AD3d 754, 755; Matter of Highland Hall Apts., LLC v New York State Div. of Hous. & Community Renewal, 66 AD3d 678, 682; Plotkin v New York City Tr. Auth., 220 AD2d 653, 654).
The Second Department appeared primarily concerned with protecting Defendants from new allegations or claims, rather than whether the “relation back” doctrine codified in CPLR § 203(f) applied in actions commenced by a party without standing. The Second Department did not address authority from the Court of Appeals and other Departments of the Appellate Division that appeared to hold otherwise, such as Nomura Asset Acceptance Corp. v Nomura Credit and Capital, Inc., 139 AD3d 519 (1st Dept 2016). There, the First Department held that an untimely claim could not relate back to a defective summons issued by a plaintiff without standing, “because no valid action was commenced by the filing of that summons.” The Fourth Department held the same in Truty v Fed. Bakers Supply Corp., 217 AD 2d 951 (4th Dept 1995). Both decisions cited Goldberg v Camp Mikan-Recro, 42 NY2d 1029 , in which the Court of Appeals distinguished Caffaro based on the original plaintiff having standing to commence the action.
Practitioners are thus cautioned that between the First and Fourth Departments, on the one hand, and the Second Department, on the other, there appears to be a split as to whether an untimely amended pleading may “relate back” to an earlier action brought by a plaintiff who lacks standing.