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Haas v. Pettinaro Management LLC

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware, New Castle

October 13, 2017

MICHAEL HAAS, Plaintiff,
v.
PETTINARO MANAGEMENT LLC, PETTINARO ENTERPRISES LLC, and PETTINARO ENTERPRISES HOLDINGS LLC, Defendants.

          Submitted: September 1, 2017

          Tabatha L. Castro, Esq. The Castro Firm, Inc.1719 Delaware Ave.Attorney for Plaintiff

          Eric S. Thompson, Esq. Franklin & Prokopik 300 Delaware Ave., Ste. 1210 Wilmington, DE 19806 Wilmington, DE 19801 Attorney for Defendants

          DECISION ON MOTION TO DISMISS (AMENDED CASE NO.)

          Alex J. Smalls Chief Judge

         This is a Motion to Dismiss (the "Motion") a Complaint filed by Plaintiff Michael Haas ("Plaintiff). Defendants Pettinaro Management, LLC, Pettinaro Enterprises, LLC, and Pettinaro Enterprises Holdings, LLC ("Defendants") bring this Motion arguing Plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 12(b)(6). On September 1, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion, and reserved its decision. This is the Court's decision on the Motion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case involves a slip-and-fall negligence action that Plaintiff alleges he suffered on January 12, 2015 while leaving his place of employment, Navient. On December 21, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc. ("Original Complaint"), alleging per se negligence when Plaintiff slipped and fell on black ice in the parking lot between the parking garage and Navient.[1] On February 3, 2017, Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc. was properly served, and on April 5, 2017 a stipulation of dismissal was filed. Both parties signed the stipulation and voluntarily dismissed the matter with prejudice against Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc. Plaintiff stated that it signed the stipulation because it discovered that Defendants were the rightful owners of the property, not Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc.

         On May 5, 2017, Plaintiff attempted to amend the Original Complaint, substituting Defendants for Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc. ("Amended Complaint"). However, the Court of Common Pleas' Clerk's Office (the "Clerk's Office") did not accept the Amended Complaint because the stipulation of dismissal had been filed under the Haas v. Buccini Pollin Group docket. Hence, on May 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in the present action ("Present Complaint") against Defendants. The Present Complaint is identical to the Amended Complaint. On July 11, 2017, Defendants were properly served. On July 18, 2017, they filed the present Motion. Defendants allege that Plaintiffs case is barred by the statute of limitations.[2] Defendants argue that because the statute of limitations has passed and Plaintiff has not presented an argument for equitable tolling, his Present Complaint is barred. Alternatively, Defendants note that the relation back doctrine under Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 15 is inapplicable to an original complaint.[3]

         On July 26, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss ("Response"). Plaintiff argues that his "original intent" was to identify the correct owner of the property where the injury occurred and "protect his interests."[4] In his Response, Plaintiff asserts that he "did his due diligence" when attempting to locate the correct owner of the property.[5]Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that his attempt to file an amended complaint was curtailed by the Clerk's Office.[6] Plaintiff alleges that the reviewing clerk in the File&Serve system rejected his Amended Complaint because the parties had signed the stipulation of dismissal.[7] In light of his intent and the reviewing clerk's rejection of his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff requests that the Court deem the Present Complaint to be the Amended Complaint.[8] In addition, Plaintiff requests that once the Present Complaint is deemed an amended pleading filed on May 5, 2017, the Court should relate it back to the original filing date of December 21, 2016.[9]Plaintiff argues that the requirements of the relation back doctrine are satisfied because the claim is identical, Defendants were not prejudiced as they received notice of the action, and Defendants knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against them.[10]

         On September 1, 2017, the parties appeared before the Court for the motion hearing. Naturally, the parties' arguments mirrored their written arguments. Although, defense counsel deviated slightly by introducing two cases for the Court's consideration that were not cited in the Motion: Lovett v. Pietlock and Walker v. Handler. On September 11, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendants' Case Law Submitted at the Motion Hearing on September 1, 2017, addressing the aforementioned case law.[11]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         On a motion to dismiss, the Court '"must determine whether it appears with reasonable certainty that, under any set of facts which could be proven to support the claim, the plaintiffs would be entitled to relief.'"[12] In making this determination, the Court is limited to consider only facts contained within the four corners of the complaint, and must accept all well-pled allegations as true.[13] In applying this standard, the Court will draw every reasonable factual inference in favor of the non-moving party.[14] While the Court "is required to accept only those 'reasonable inferences that logically flow from the face of the complaint, ' [it] 'is not required to accept every strained interpretation of the allegations proposed by plaintiff.'"[15] Ultimately, "[d]ismissal is warranted only when 'under no reasonable interpretation of the facts alleged could the complaint state a claim for which relief might be granted.'"[16]

         DISCUSSION

         The procedural posture of this case is unique and, thus, requires a bifurcated analysis. First, the Court will address whether the Present Complaint, as an original action, will be deemed the Amended Complaint, which Plaintiff attempted to file with the Clerk's Office. Second, if the Present Complaint is deemed to be the Amended Complaint, then the Court will decide whether the May 5, 2017 filing properly relates back to the Original Complaint that was filed within the statute of limitations period. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that Plaintiff satisfies the first prong, but fails to meet the requirements of the second prong.

         I. Fairness dictates the substitution of the Present Complaint for the identical Amended Complaint.

         The Present Complaint will be deemed the identical Amended Complaint because the Clerk's Office improperly prevented Plaintiff from amending the Original Complaint under the Haas v. Buccini Pollin Group docket. A court clerk is not a judicial officer; the Clerk's Office does not have the authority to refuse pleadings, unless authorized by law. The foundation of such a rule is to prevent the clerk's office from becoming final arbiters of court procedure.[17] Recently, under a similar posture, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware found that a court clerk's refusal to accept a complaint-a decision which ultimately forced the litigant to file outside the statute of limitations-was improper.[18] In a well-reasoned analysis, the court deemed the clerk's actions purely "[c]lerical duties, " which prevented the clerk from rejecting pleadings "even if defective."[19] Specifically, the court stated:

[T]he clerk has no discretion in the matter and no right to make a judicial determination of whether the paper complies with the Rules or ought to be filed. If the paper has not been presented timely or if it suffers from some other deficiency, it is subject to being stricken by the court, usually upon motion of a party objecting to the paper, but so long as it is properly presented, the clerk must accept and file it.[20]

         The bankruptcy court's analysis is instructive and germane to the present case. Based on responses from the File&Serve system, law firm correspondence, and argument at the motion hearing, Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence that the reviewing clerk improperly rejected his Amended Complaint through the File&Serve system because of the docketed stipulation of dismissal.[21] This Court sees no reason to disagree with the bankruptcy court's cohesive analysis and prevent the substitution of complaints.

         Indeed, this Court has previously opined on filings based on misinformation from the Clerk's Office. After a litigant was informed that a limited liability company owned and operated by a sole proprietor would not require legal counsel, this Court held, "[w]hen the facts indicate there were efforts by a litigant to comply [with court procedure], and through no-fault of their own are misguided, fundamental fairness requires the Court to balance the relative equities to achieve the prevailing policy that disputes should be resolved on their merits."[22] In denying defendant's motion to dismiss, this Court stated, "[t]o be barred on such a technical violation is fundamentally unreasonable and unfair."[23]

         Importantly, this Court notes that this case does not involve a litigant who failed to "act[] diligendy" to ascertain a deadline.[24] In State v. Carey, this Court found that the defendant did not practice due diligence in determining the filing deadline for an appeal from the Justice of the Peace Court.[25] Unlike a litigant's failure to search for information that "is readily available in any law library, " Plaintiff was prevented in this case from filing a document; therefore, his counsel's capacity to research was not deficient.[26]

         While Delaware cases addressing clerical errors often involve pro se litigants, these cases do not involve a Clerk's Office expressly rejecting a pleading. An express refusal to act strikes the Court as problematic even for represented litigants. While the legal profession boasts many gifted persuaders, an attorney cannot be expected to force the clerk to accept a document. Comparatively, if the facts here simply involved a case of misinformation, Plaintiffs represented status would give the Court pause. The attorney would be expected to research the correct information despite the clerk's error in communication. However, when an attorney is confronted with a system and court-personnel who prevent the matter from proceeding, the attorney cannot be said to have acted unreasonably when he or she does not resort to insults or threats. The Court cannot allow such obfuscation of court procedure to negatively impact the rights of an innocent litigant. The tenets of fairness and Delaware's policy of resolving cases on the merits demand finding in Plaintiffs favor.

         II. Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the Relation Back Doctrine.

         The Relation Back doctrine of Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 15(c) applies to the filing of an amended complaint outside the statute of limitations for the claim.[27] Here, because the personal injury, which has a two-year statute of limitations, occurred on January 12, 2015 and the Amended Complaint was not filed until May 5, 2017, Rule 15(c) is applicable.[28] According to Rule 15(c):

An amendment of a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when:
(1)relation back is permitted by the law that provides the statute of limitations applicable to the action, or
(2) the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, or
(3) the amendment changes the party or the naming of the party against whom a claim is asserted if the foregoing provision (2) is satisfied and, within the period provided by statute or these Rules for service of the summons and complaint, the party to be brought in by amendment (A) has received such notice of the institution of the action that the party will not be prejudiced in maintaining a defense on the merits, and (B) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against the party.[29]

         Pursuant to the applicable subsection, Rule 15(c)(3), Plaintiff must not only prove that the pled claim "arose out of the same conduct, but he must also prove that Defendants were notified of the action, and Defendants "knew or should have known" that Plaintiff would sue them "but for a mistake concerning [Defendants'] identit[ies]."[30]

         A. Rule 15(c)'s "Arose out of-'Prong

         The first prong is not at issue in this case since the Amended Complaint concerns the same claim and conduct as the Original Complaint. In his Original Complaint, Plaintiff alleged:

3. On January 12, 2015, Plaintiff was leaving his place of employment, Navient, when he slipped and fell on black ice in the parking lot between the parking garage and the building in which he works in. As he was attempting to proceed to his vehicle, Plaintiff fell on black ice, once again.
4. The accident happened as a result of the per se negligence of the Defendant owner ...

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