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Aforigho v. Tape Products Co. TPC

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

January 3, 2020

LARRY SHEDRACK AFORIGHO, Plaintiff.
v.
TAPE PRODUCTS COMPANY TPC, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ANDREW M. EDISON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before me is Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint (“Motion to Amend”). See Dkt. 10. This case presents a unique factual scenario and intriguing legal questions that might pop up on a law school exam, testing a student's knowledge of federal civil procedure. Initially, I must weigh in on whether the Motion to Amend has been timely filed. If it has been timely filed, I must then determine whether the Texas relation-back or federal relation-back rule applies to the facts of this case. In the event I conclude that the federal rule applies, I must then decide whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c) (“Rule 15(c)”) permits a plaintiff to file amended claims that relate back to an original pleading that asserted only time-barred claims. I am confident that most law professors would find the procedural posture of this case and the legal issues at play fascinating. At the same time, I am also quite certain that most law students, even the most serious candidates, would be left scratching their heads to figure out the proper result.

         After carefully reviewing the legal briefing, analyzing the relevant case law, and hearing oral argument, the Motion to Amend is GRANTED for the reasons discussed below.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Larry Aforigho (“Aforigho”) worked as the Houston territorial sales manager for Defendant Tape Products Company (“Tape”) from October 2010 until he was terminated in October 2016. On January 27, 2017, Aforigho dual-filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and Texas Workforce Commission, claiming that he was terminated because of his race (African-American) and national origin (Nigerian). He received his right to sue letter from the EEOC on December 14, 2018.

         Aforigho filed this lawsuit on March 12, 2019-88 days after he received his right to sue letter-in the 125th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas, alleging claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and discrimination under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”). See Tex. Labor Code § 21.001 et seq. Aforigho did not assert a Title VII cause of action in state court.

         Tape removed the case to federal court in May 2019 on diversity grounds. Shortly after removing the case, Tape filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. In that motion, Tape argues that the case should be dismissed because Aforigho's state law claims are time-barred. Tape advances several independent reasons why Aforigho's state law claims are time-barred. First, Aforigho did not file and serve his TCHRA claim within 60 days of receiving his right to sue letter as required by state law. Second, Aforigho did not institute his TCHRA cause of action within two years of filing his administrative complaint as required by state law. Finally, Tape contends that Aforigho's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim fails because it was not brought within the applicable two-year statute of limitations. In response to the summary judgment motion, Aforigho did not contest the underlying merits of Tape's arguments. Instead, Aforigho simply sought to file a proposed First Amended Complaint, dropping all state law claims and adding a Title VII cause of action. By the time Aforigho requested to add a Title VII claim, more than 90 days had elapsed since he received the EEOC's right to sue letter. This is important because, under federal law, Title VII claims must be filed within 90 days from the employee's receipt of the EEOC right to sue letter. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1).

         Tape opposes Aforigho's attempt to file an amended complaint, arguing that it would be futile to allow Aforigho to amend his complaint because his Title VII claim is untimely. Tape maintains that Aforigho's Title VII claim cannot, under Rule 15(c), relate back to the originally filed state court action because the state law claims asserted in the Original Petition were time-barred when the lawsuit was filed. In response, Aforigho argues that his Title VII claim, although filed after the statutory 90-day period, is not time-barred because it relates back to the date of his Original Petition in state court under Rule 15(c). Since the Original Petition was filed within 90 days of receipt of the right to sue letter (88 days to be exact), Aforigho maintains his Title VII claim is timely-even though it relates back to the admittedly untimely state court action.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit liberal amendment of pleadings. Rule 15(a) provides that “a party may amend its pleading with . . . the court's leave” and that “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Although a district court should generally give a plaintiff at least one chance to amend under Rule 15(a), it is within the sound discretion of the district court to deny a motion to amend when amendment would be futile. See Legate v. Livingston, 822 F.3d 207, 211 (5th Cir. 2016) (While “the language of [Rule 15(a)] evinces a bias in favor of granting leave to amend, . . . a district court need not grant a futile motion to amend.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A proposed amendment is futile if the complaint, as amended, would be subject to dismissal. See Stripling v. Jordan Prod. Co., 234 F.3d 863, 872-73 (5th Cir. 2000). The Fifth Circuit has expressly held that a district court does not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend where the new claims a plaintiff seeks to assert are barred by the statute of limitations. See Winzer v. Kaufman Cty., 916 F.3d 464, 471 (5th Cir. 2019).

         Because my ruling turns on whether Texas state law or federal law applies to the relation-back issue, it is critical to describe how the relation-back doctrine differs under state and federal law.

         Rule 15(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the amendment of pleadings in federal court. It provides that “[a]n amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when . . . 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(B). This standard is met if the original and amended complaints allege the same “general conduct” and “general wrong.” Durand v. Hanover Ins. Grp., Inc., 806 F.3d. 367, 375 (6th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, by allowing a plaintiff to relate back his amended pleading to the date of the original pleading, the amended pleading becomes “timely even though it was filed outside an applicable statute of limitations [period].” Krupski v. Costa Crociere S. p. A., 560 U.S. 538, 541 (2010). “The rationale of the rule is that, once litigation involving a particular transaction has been instituted, the parties should not be protected by the statute of limitations from later asserted claims that arose out of the same conduct set forth in the original pleadings.” Flores v. Cameron Cty., 92 F.3d 258, 272- 73 (5th Cir. 1996) (quotation marks, brackets, and citation omitted). See also FDIC v. Conner, 20 F.3d 1376, 1385 (5th Cir. 1994) (“The theory that animates this rule is that once litigation involving particular conduct or a given transaction or occurrence has been instituted, the parties are not entitled to the protection of the statute of limitations against the later assertion by amendment of defenses or claims that arise out of the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence as set forth in the original pleading.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “If a plaintiff seeks to correct a technical difficulty, state a new legal theory of relief, or amplify the facts alleged in a prior complaint, then relation back is allowed.” Flores, 92 F.3d at 273 (quoting Conner, 20 F.3d at 1386) (brackets omitted). “Notice is the critical element involved in Rule 15(c) determinations.” Id. (quoting Williams v. United States, 405 F.2d 234, 236 (5th Cir. 1968)). See also Norfolk Cty. Ret. Sys. v. Cmty. Health Sys., Inc., 877 F.3d. 687, 694 (6th Cir. 2017) (“[I]f the original complaint puts a defendant on notice of the plaintiff's general claim, then new allegations that merely build on that claim should come as no surprise.”).

         The wording of the Texas relation-back statute is notably different from its federal counterpart. It provides that a claim asserted in an amended petition relates back to the original petition “[i]f a filed pleading relates to a cause of action . . . that is not subject to a plea of limitation when the pleading is filed.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.068 (emphasis added). This “not subject to a plea of limitation when the pleading is filed” language ...


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