The statute of limitations is a powerful threshold defense for defendants in civil litigation.  Article 2 of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”) and other New York statutory provisions set forth deadlines by which parties must “interpose” their claims, lest they be barred from pursuing them.

The CPLR is clear that limitations periods are not to be trifled with—not even courts can extend them: “An action . . . must be commenced within the time specified in this article unless a different time is prescribed by law or a shorter time is prescribed by written agreement. No court shall extend the time limited by law for the commencement of an action.”  CPLR § 201.  Limitations periods are measured “from the time the cause of action accrued to the time the claim is interposed.” CPLR § 203(a). 

For typical civil lawsuits in New York’s Supreme Court, where actions are commenced by filing (CPLR § 304(a)), “a claim asserted in the complaint is interposed against the defendant or a co-defendant united in interest with such defendant when the action is commenced.”  CPLR § 203(c). 

What happens when a plaintiff files a complaint before the limitations period expires, but it omits a key defendant?  May the plaintiff assert claims against the missing defendant in an amended complaint filed after the limitations deadline?  Courts rely on the “relation back” doctrine” and CPLR § 203(c) to make this determination.  New York’s Court of Appeals recently issued a decision clarifying the application of the relation back doctrine and overruling some prior decisions that had made it harder for plaintiffs to add defendants in amended pleadings. 

In the Matter of Nemeth v. K-Tooling, the Court of Appeals held that if a plaintiff timely files a complaint and then files an amended complaint after the statutory limitations period has run with a claim against a new defendant, that claim against the new defendant will be deemed timely-filed – that is, it “relates back” to the claims in the original complaint – when:

  1. the claims arise out of the same conduct, transaction or occurrence;
  2. the new party is “united in interest” with an original defendant and thus can be charged with notice of the commencement of the action such that a court concludes that the party will not be prejudiced in defending against the action; and
  3. the new party knew or should have known that, but for a mistaken omission, they would have been named in the initial pleading.

Nemeth v. K-Tooling, 40 N.Y.3d 405, 407-08, N.Y. Slip Op. 05349, 2023 WL 69764452023 (2023).

Nemeth involved a decade-long property dispute among landowners in the Village of Hancock in New York’s Delaware County.  The petitioners in the underlying Article 78 proceeding owned property next to a residential property owned by Rosa Kuehn.  Allegedly, Rosa’s son (Perry) operates two manufacturing businesses (Kuehn Manufacturing Co. and K-Tooling) on Rosa’s property.  Id at 408.  The businesses are owned by Rosa and Perry. Id.

In 2016, after the Kuehns received a variance from the local zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”), petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding against the ZBA, Kuehn Manufacturing and K-Tooling—but not Rosa or Perry—seeking to overturn the variance. Id. at 409.  The respondents moved to dismiss the proceeding for failure to name a necessary party (Rosa, the landowner), and the court granted their motion.  Petitioners appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed and directed the lower court to order Rosa to be joined as a necessary party.  Id.  Petitioners then filed an amended petition to add Rosa as a respondent.  Id.  Rosa moved to dismiss, arguing that the petition filed against her was time-barred because the amended petition was filed too late and the relation back doctrine did not apply.  Id.  The court granted her motion, finding the petition untimely.  Id.

The Appellate Division affirmed dismissal, with one justice dissenting.  205 A.D.3d 1093 (3d Dep’t 2022).  Under the operative precedent at that time in Third Department (and from the Court of Appeals in Buran v. Coupal, 87 N.Y.2d 173, 178 (1995)), the third prong of the relation back test had an additional requirement:  “(3) that the later-added respondent knew or should have known that, but for a mistake by petitioners as to the later-added respondent’s identity, the proceeding would have also been brought against him or her[.]” 205 A.D.3d at 1094 (emphasis added).  Because there was no mistake by petitioners as to the identity of the property owner – they had been litigating against Rosa since at least 2012 – the petitioners could not benefit from the relation back doctrine, and their petition was untimely.  The dissent, while acknowledging the majority’s faithful application of precedent, would have overruled the older cases and removed the mistake of “identity” requirement from the relation back test and brought New York’s relation back rule closer to its federal counterpart.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the dissenting justice’s opinion below, holding that: “the relation back doctrine is not limited to cases where the amending party’s omission results from doubts regarding the omitted party’s identity or status.  40 N.Y.3d at 410.  The Court clarified that the relation back “doctrine applies when the party knew or should have known that, but for the mistake—be it a simple oversight or a mistake of law (i.e., that the amending party failed to recognize the other party as a legally necessary party)—the non-amending party would have been named initially.”  Id. at 412.  That certainly was the situation in Nemeth, where the parties had been litigating against Rosa, her son, and their businesses for over a decade.

In line with precedent, the Court of Appeals noted that the “relation back” doctrine does not apply in all instances.  Relation back will not apply when a plaintiff “intentionally decides not to assert a claim against a party known to be potentially liable” or when the new party was omitted “to obtain a tactical advantage in the litigation.”  Id. at 408 (quoting Buran, 87 N.Y.2d at 181).  The Court did not go further on this point, as it was not germane to the resolution of the issue in Nemeth, but it does leave unanswered questions.  If a plaintiff knew about a potential party at the time of the initial filing, but did not include that party as a defendant in the complaint, how does the court determine if the plaintiff “intentionally decided not to assert a claim” or made a mistake in omitting the party?  The answer to that question is left for another day.  Until that issue is resolved, litigants should remain vigilant as to the limitations periods for their claims and all possible defendants that may need to be brought into their case before the statutory deadlines pass.

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