Third Circuit’s Fair Notice Requirement Protects Defendants from Amended Claims Asserted After Expiration of Statute of Limitations

Affirming the statute-of-limitations-based dismissal of plaintiff Mary Glover’s claims against defendants Mark Udren and Udren Law Offices, the Third Circuit in Glover v. FDIC spoke clearly on the limits of the notice requirement under the relation-back doctrine, holding that Glover’s original pleading failed to provide fair notice of a subsequent claim in an amended complaint.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(B), an amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading where “the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out—or attempted to be set out—in the original pleading.” The significance of relation back, of course, is that a plaintiff can “sidestep an otherwise-applicable statute of limitations.”

In June 2008, Glover filed a putative class action stemming from a dispute about her mortgage payments with the Udren defendants and other parties. Glover’s lawsuit alleged, among other claims, a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). After twice amending her complaint, Glover’s FDCPA claim was dismissed by the Western District of Pennsylvania, which found that her first amended complaint (in which she first presented the claim at issue) was not filed within the FDCPA’s one-year statute of limitations and that the claim did not relate back to the timely filed original complaint.

On appeal, the Third Circuit explained that application of the relation-back doctrine requires a “search for a common core of operative facts in the two pleadings,” although neither “identity of transaction” nor “factual overlap alone” is the correct test. The Third Circuit further explained that the “touchstone for relation back is fair notice” because “a party who has been notified of litigation concerning a particular occurrence has been given all the notice that statutes of limitations were intended to provide.” Thus, relation back is appropriate where the amendment merely describes the original claim with more particularity or broadens the relevant factual allegations. Relation back is not appropriate, however, where the original complaint has not “adequately notified the defendants of the basis for liability the plaintiffs would later advance in the amended complaint.”

With respect to Glover, the Third Circuit noted that her amended FDCPA claim alleged that the Udren defendants improperly failed to withdraw a foreclosure complaint against Glover after she had signed a loan modification agreement, thereby rendering the foreclosure complaint a continuing representation that she had not yet paid her mortgage debt. The Third Circuit found that her original complaint, however, alleged no such conduct. While the original complaint alleged that the Udren defendants made a debt-collection phone call and filed a foreclosure complaint, the Court found that both of those acts would constitute FDCPA violations that differed in “time and type” from the amended claim.

Furthermore, although one paragraph of the original complaint alleged “almost as an afterthought” that two of the Udren defendants’ co-defendants had not withdrawn the foreclosure complaint, the Third Circuit found that those facts were “entirely peripheral” to the complaint’s central allegations. Thus, the Court refused to “place the onus on the defendant to piece together the disparate fragments of a disjointed complaint to distill the essence of a claim.”

While notice for purposes of the relation-back doctrine always will be a fact-dependent, case-by-case inquiry, the Glover decision gives some shape to the outer limits of the notice requirement, providing defendants with an additional layer of protection against amended complaints.

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