Thursday, July 19, 2007

Interesting Defense Issues Under the Maryland Anti-Spam Act - MCEMA - the Impropriety of Suing "John Doe" Defendants

Another issue that is being litigated in cases under Maryland’s Anti-Spam Act, MCEMA, is whether a plaintiff in such cases can sue “John Doe” defendants, or other place-holder defendants. Plaintiffs in these cases often claim that they do not know the true identity of the party responsible for the email and sue unknown defendants as “John Doe” or “Bulk E-mailers 1-600.”

Attempts to sue unknown defendants under the name “John Doe” is not permitted under Maryland law. The Court of Special Appeals in Nam v. Montgomery County, 127 Md. App. 172 (1999), held that:

Pleadings against fictitious persons are often called “John Doe” pleadings. There is generally no authority to proceed against a fictitious party in the absence of statute or rule. 59 Am.Jur.2d Parties § 16 (1987, 1998 Cumm. Supp.) While some states by statute or rule authorize John Doe pleadings and then the subsequent substitution of the person's true name when discovered, Maryland is not one of them. Although Maryland does not recognize “John Doe” pleadings directly, we do permit liberal amendment of pleadings to add a party or correct the misnomer of a party.
Because it is impermissible to bring actions against fictitious persons in Maryland, doing so does not preserve the statute of limitations (the deadline to commence a lawsuit) against any unknown defendants. Moreover, the doctrine of “relation back” does not act to preserve claims against unknown defendants. In Locklear v. Bergman & Beving AB, 457 F.3d 363 (4th Cir. 2006), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of an amended complaint on limitations grounds. The Fourth Circuit held:

Although Rule 15(c)(3)(B) speaks broadly of a “mistake concerning the identity of the proper party,” we have, in analyzing the scope of this rule, distinguished between mistake due to a lack of knowledge and mistake due to a misnomer. In so doing, we have not viewed lack of knowledge of the proper party to be sued as a “mistake” as that term is used in Rule 15(c)(3)(B). In the principal case on point, Western Contracting Corp. v. Bechtel Corp,we adopted the Seventh Circuit's holding that Rule 15(c)(2) permits an amendment to relate back where that party is chargeable with knowledge of the mistake, but it does not permit relation back where, as here, there is a lack of knowledge of the proper party. 885 F.2d 1196, 1201 (4th Cir.1989)(quoting Wood v. Worachek,618 F.2d 1225, 1230 (7th Cir.1980)) (internal citations omitted).

We have also noted that “Rule 15 has its limits, and courts properly exercise caution when reviewing an application of the rule which would increase a defendant's exposure to liability.” Intown Properties Management, Inc. v. Wheaton Van Lines, Inc., 271 F.3d 164, 170 (4th Cir.2001); see also Rennie v. Omniflight Helicopters, Inc., No. 97-1524, 1998 WL 743678 4th Cir. Oct.23, 1998). Rule 15, moreover, must be applied especially cautiously when an amendment that “drags a new defendant into a case” is proposed. Intown Properties, 271 F.3d at 170.
Under the reasoning in Locklear, the fact that a plaintiff in an MCEMA case or any other case previously sued “John Doe” in its original Complaint does not toll the statute of limitations against previously unknown defendants. As a result, anytime you are faced with defending a case where “John Doe” is sued, it would be appropriate to move to dismiss claims against all such fictitious defendants.

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