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FRCP Rule 15(a) is Not 'Chronological,' 9th Cir. Says. Go Crazy!

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

In a decision that has all the glossy fun of civil procedure nit-pitpicking, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Sergio Casillas Ramirez properly and timely filed a second amended complaint under FRCP Rule 15(a) and that the lower court ran afoul of Erie.

Let this be a reminder to all practitioners that those local court rules mean nothing once the case hits any federal court procedure speed-bumps.

Brief Background

Sergio Ramirez sued San Bernardino County and a bevy of LEOs arising out of an alleged assault and false imprisonment outside of his home in 2012. He was jailed without charge for 15 days and was transferred between facilities before being bonded out. He alleges that defendants tasered and beat him. This was his first complaint (FC).

Procedural Pain

Ramirez's complaint was removed to federal court in April 2013. The parties agreed to dismiss some defendants and allowed Ramirez to amend his complaint.

Ten days later he filed his first amended complaint (FAC) which alleged civil rights violations, emotional distress and false imprisonment. He then later attempted to file a second amended complaint (SAC).

Gotcha on the Second Amended Complaint

Defendants moved the court to dismiss the SAC. The District Court granted the motion because it bought the defendants' argument that Ramirez failed to obtain leave to amend, which it claimed was something that litigants must specifically request of the court. Ramirez claimed that the FAC was properly filed under FRCP 15(a) because he still had leave of filing under the FC. When Ramirez moved the court for Reconsideration, it fell on deaf ears.

Ninth to the Rescue

The Ninth Circuit had a totally different take from either Ramirez or the District Court. It characterized FRCP 15(a) as a rule that allowed for multiple avenues for amending complaints, and that one way did not close off options to further amend complaints as they are "not mutually exclusive." What's more, the Rule is not chronological, it said. Thus, parties may choose to amend a complaint in any matter they see fit without any concern of previous attempts to amend -- so long as amendments are timely and within the boundaries of the last properly filed complaint.

And that's what happened here. Ramirez filed his SAC within 21 days of the FAC. In the eyes of the Circuit, the FAC "ceased to exist" when the SAC was filed (which should have been accepted by the lower court), thus making the first moot. The Circuit noted that the lower court erred by letting a local court rule trump Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, an Erie Doctrine no-no.

Grand Take-Aways

It's rare that a lower court makes such a rookie mistake as to apply local court rules over applicable federal rules of civil procedure, but it does happen. This was a close one too, because had Ramirez waited any longer with his SAC, it would have potentially been outcome determinative to the case, leading to a much less mundane and much more rancorous courtroom experience for all.

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