Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

A Change to Relation Back

Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

A Change to Relation Back

Article excerpt


In civil rights actions involving excessive force, abuses stemming from official government policies, and other police brutality, plaintiffs often do not know the names of the accused police officers at the time they file their actions. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 allows civil rights plaintiffs to relate back their claims by substituting the caption and naming the proper parties. However, a three-way circuit split exists regarding the timing of relating back the complaint in civil rights cases. Further, plaintiffs are often unsophisticated in civil rights actions. Consequently, the authors argue that if potential defendants receive proper notice, are not prejudiced, and the complaint meets the federal plausibility pleading standard, plaintiffs should be allowed to relate back their claim until the end of discovery. Moreover, Rule 15 should be amended to allow the plaintiff to substitute the caption until the end of discovery in civil rights cases alleging excessive force, Monell cases, and other police brutality cases. In conclusion, the proposed amendment to Rule 15 would offer a just resolution to the current three-way circuit split of the relation back doctrine.

I. Introduction 182

II. What is Relation Back? Rule 15 Explained 183

III. Mistake Defined 186

A. The Majority 187

1. Wood v. Woracheck 188

2. Advisory Committee's 1991 Amendment Comments 189

3. Woods v. Indiana University-Purdue University 190

B. The Minority 192

IV. Is Mistake Disingenuous? 194

V. An Exception to the Rule 196

I. Introduction

Although police power pervades our society, our citizens have recourse. Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, as codified under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, allows citizens to bring suit against police officers who offend the Constitution.1 State police departments, however, frequently allow officers to hide their identities behind badges by refusing to release the names of officers to the citizens they are serving. Without a name, a § 1983 action will fail. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide the only remedy to this problem.

Under the current system, when the identity of the offender is unknown, the plaintiff has very limited time to learn his name and amend the complaint or substitute the caption (or both) before the federal system will dismiss the claim. The federal circuits are split on how to handle an action once the identity of the offending officer is discovered. Seemingly, if the elements of a § 1983 claim and all other elements of a well-pleaded complaint are satisfied, the plaintiff should get 120 days after the statute of limitations runs to amend the name of the defendant. This would be sensible, yet some circuits have sided entirely with state and local governments in arguing otherwise.

From Philadelphia, a city hardened by police brutality, the authors write to suggest an exception to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 ("Rule 15") in excessive force cases only. If a complaint meets federal pleading standards2 and alleges excessive force, the identity of the alleged bad actor is arguably not relevant. The same lawyer will defend the action regardless of which officer is the actual defendant. Because of indemnification, the same payer will pay damages regardless of which officer is found to have violated the plaintiffs civil rights. Assessing liability to a specific person has no connection to the alleged tort, because the suggestion that the actual individual holds potential liability is erroneous. Therefore, the authors suggest that, when both pleading standards are met and excessive force is properly pleaded, asserting a claim against "John Doe" is sufficient-the caption does not need to be substituted until the close of discovery, thereby eliminating the need to go through the process of relating back under Rule 15(c).


Rule 15 permits parties to amend their pleadings before and during a trial3 in order to assert new claims or defenses,4 correct technical errors,5 or change the name of the party against whom a claim is made. …

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