The Name Game: When is a Mistake a Mistake? ― Parsing Rule 15 on the Relation-Back Doctrine of Amendments to Complaints

Preview of Supreme Court Cases, Vol. 7, p. 326, April 2010

U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 329

10 Pages Posted: 10 Feb 2013

Date Written: April 19, 2010


This article previews the issues and arguments in Krupski v. Costa Crociere S.p.A, before the Supreme Court in its 2009-10 Term. The Supreme Court must determine what constitutes a mistake for the purposes of invoking the “relation back” doctrine under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), which permits a plaintiff to amend their complaint to name a party after the statute of limitations has already run on a claim.

The issue in this appeal is whether the federal courts below erred when they determined that the plaintiff Krupski did not commit a “mistake” within the meaning of Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1)(C)(ii), and therefore she could not be permitted to amend her complaint ― after the running of the statute of limitations ― to name Costa Crociere S.p.A. as the appropriate defendant in her lawsuit.

The Supreme Court now has the opportunity in Krupski’s appeal to clarify a specific subsection of Rule 15(c)(1). Rule 15(c)(1) indicates that an amendment to a complaint will relate back to the date of the original pleading if certain conditions are satisfied. First, the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations must allow the relation back. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1)(A). Second, a proposed amendment must assert 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. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(1)(B).

Rule 15(c) also allows a litigant to amend a complaint to change a party or the name of a defendant. In this situation, the amendment must satisfy Rule 15(c)(1)(B) and the amended complaint must be served within 120 days as provided by Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 4(m). In addition, the party to be brought in must (1) have received notice of the action such that it will not be prejudiced in defending on the merits of the claim, and (2) knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against it, “but for a mistake concerning the proper party’s identity.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 15 (c)(1)(C)(i) & (ii).

The parties to the Krupski appeal are not fighting over the requirements of Rule 15(c)(1)(B), because they agree that the amended complaint sets forth a claim against Costa Cruise that arose out of the same conduct in Krupski’s original complaint. Instead, this appeal to the Supreme Court narrowly focuses on whether Krupski’s attorney’s actions in naming Costa Cruise constituted a “mistake” as contemplated in Rule 15(c)(1)(C)(ii).

It has been twenty-four years since the Supreme Court took up consideration of Rule 15(c). Last time out, the Court did such an unsympathetic job in Schiavone that Congress amended the rule to provide more clear relief to pleaders. Or not. In the intervening quarter-century, the jurisprudence relating to what constitutes a mistake has indeed classified naming errors as ― among many sub-categories ― mistakes of fact, mistakes of law, tactical mistakes, mistakes in judgment, mistakes in identification, and other subclasses of mistakes. The mind reels at mistake distinctions. While this parsing among types of conceivable mistakes makes for playful classroom exercises and creative hypothetical speculation, it also creates pleading dilemmas for litigants. Either the Court will provide some guiding light on the subject of mistake, or the Court will contribute to further linguistic and existential hair-splitting.

Moreover, in the past two Terms the Court famously has tightened historic liberal pleading rules and doctrines in Twombly and Iqbal. When viewed in this light, the same Court that has not manifested overwhelming sympathy for liberal pleading rules in original complaints may not be board to manifest sympathy for liberal rules relating to amendments to pleading.

Keywords: Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c), amendments to pleadings, amendments to complaints, relation-back doctrine, Krupski v. Costa Crociere, mistake of identity

Suggested Citation

Mullenix, Linda S., The Name Game: When is a Mistake a Mistake? ― Parsing Rule 15 on the Relation-Back Doctrine of Amendments to Complaints (April 19, 2010). Preview of Supreme Court Cases, Vol. 7, p. 326, April 2010, U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 329, Available at SSRN:

Linda S. Mullenix (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-232-1375 (Phone)

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