The statute of limitations has a haunting presence in legal malpractice. It both generates and limits legal malpractice cases. It is a source of many cases, i.e. where the underlying case was not started on time. The Statute also plays a limiting role in legal malpractice when clients do not understand or learn of the effects of a mistake made by attorneys, or wait too long to sue. They are then unable to seek remedy from attorneys who fell below the proper standard of practice.
One interesting twist in the analysis of the statute of limitations is the “relation-back” principle. It is well discussed in O’Halloran v Metropolitan Transp. Auth. 2017 NY Slip Op 06237
Decided on August 22, 2017 Appellate Division, First Department Acosta, P.J.
“The relation-back doctrine, now codified in CPLR 203(f), provides that “[a] claim asserted in an amended pleading is deemed to have been interposed at the time the claims in the original pleading were interposed, unless the original pleading does not give notice of the transactions [or] occurrences . . . to be proved pursuant to the amended pleading” (CPLR 203[f]; see also Giambrone v Kings Harbor Multicare Ctr., 104 AD3d 546, 548 [1st Dept 2013] [making clear that the “salient inquiry” in deciding whether an otherwise untimely claim in an amended pleading relates back to a timely commenced action “is not whether defendant had notice of the claim, but whether, as the statute provides, the original pleading gives notice of the transactions [or] occurrences . . . to be proved pursuant to the amended pleading'”] [emphasis added]). The doctrine is “[a]imed at liberalizing the strict, formalistic pleading requirements of the [nineteenth] century, while at the same time respecting the important policies inherent in statutory repose,” and “enables a plaintiff to correct a pleading error—by adding either a new claim or a new party—after the statutory limitations period has expired” (Buran v Coupal, 87 NY2d 173, 177  [citations omitted]). It is within courts’ “sound judicial discretion to identify cases that justify relaxation of limitations strictures . . . to facilitate decisions on the merits if the correction will not cause undue prejudice to the plaintiff’s adversary” (id. at 178 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).
The Court of Appeals has recognized that a more relaxed standard applies where a plaintiff seeks to use the relation-back doctrine by adding a new claim against a defendant who is already a party to litigation as opposed to adding a new defendant (Buran, 87 NY2d at 178 [“allowing the relation back of amendments adding new defendants implicates more seriously the() policy concerns (underlying statutes of limitation) than simply the relation back of new causes of action since, in the latter situation, the defendant is already before the court”]; see also Duffy v Horton Mem. Hosp., 66 NY2d 473, 477  [“[A]n amendment which merely adds a new theory of recovery or defense arising out of a transaction or occurrence already in litigation clearly does not conflict with the() policies” underlying statutes of limitation – i.e., repose and the conservation of judicial resources – because “(a) party is likely to have collected and preserved available evidence relating to the entire transaction or occurrence and the defendant’s sense of security has already been disturbed by the pending action”]). Thus, although the Court of Appeals has adopted a three-part test for determining whether to apply relation back to an amended pleading that adds a new defendant, no such test applies where a plaintiff simply seeks the relation back of a new claim (see Buran, 87 NY2d at 178). In other words, where, as here, a proposed amended complaint contains an untimely claim against a defendant who is already a party to the litigation, the relevant considerations are simply (1) whether the original complaint gave the defendant notice of the transactions or occurrences at issue and (2) whether there would be undue prejudice to the defendant if the amendment and relation back are permitted (see CPLR 203[f]; CPLR 3025[b]; see Buran, 87 NY2d at 178; Caffaro v Trayna, 35 NY2d 245, 251 ).
In accordance with these principles, we hold that the motion court providently exercised its discretion when it permitted plaintiff to amend her complaint to add her otherwise untimely claims of sexual orientation discrimination. All of plaintiff’s claims are based on the same occurrences — namely the underlying employment actions taken against her – and the original complaint put defendants on notice of those occurrences. To be sure, plaintiff’s original [*3]complaint did not allege the specific facts that she is a lesbian, that defendants were aware of her sexual orientation, that defendants discriminated against her on that basis, or that another lesbian colleague was demoted for supporting her internal dispute with Menduina. Nevertheless, the motion court correctly determined that the new claims are based on “the same subject matter alleged in the original complaint.” Defendants need not have been put on notice of every factual allegation on which the subsequent claims depend, because the original complaint put them on notice of the occurrences that underlie those claims (see Schneidman v Tollman, 279 AD2d 276, 276 [1st Dept 2001] [motion court “properly found that plaintiffs’ amended pleadings were not time-barred, since they relate back to the original complaint, merely adding additional factual detail”] [internal quotation marks omitted]).
Viewing “transactions [or] occurrences” through this broad lens for the purposes of relation back under CPLR 203(f) is especially important in the context of anti-discrimination actions – particularly those actions brought under the City HRL – in which it is frequently difficult for plaintiffs to articulate their employers’ motivations for treating them less well than other employees (see Bennett v Health Mgt. Sys., Inc., 92 AD3d 29, 37 [1st Dept 2011] [“discrimination rarely announces itself,” and “the defendant, by definition, is in a materially better position to provide evidence as to its actual motivation than the plaintiff”], lv denied 18 NY3d 811 ). Of course, it is preferable that a plaintiff set forth every factual allegation on which her claims are based, but in these circumstances plaintiff should not be faulted for not previously raising her sexual orientation as a basis for defendants’ unfavorable treatment of her [FN3]. In this case, the occurrences underlying the new claim are defendants’ general treatment of plaintiff (e.g., denying her an opportunity to interview for advancement, giving her tighter deadlines than other employees, instituting disciplinary proceedings against her, and demoting her), all of which occurred on the same dates and in the same instances as alleged in the original complaint. That plaintiff now seeks to include another reason for those occurrences and another theory of liability cannot be fairly characterized as a failure to give notice of the occurrences she seeks to prove in her amended complaint.
Moreover, defendants will not be unduly prejudiced or surprised by allowing plaintiff to amend the complaint to add her new claims, because they have not been “hindered in the preparation of [their] case or . . . prevented from taking some measure in support of [their] position” (Jacobson v McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharms., 68 AD3d 652, 654-655 [1st Dept 2009] [internal quotation marks omitted]; see also Buran, 87 NY2d at 178). “Prejudice does not occur simply because a defendant is exposed to greater liability or because a defendant has to [*4]expend additional time preparing its case” (Jacobson, 68 AD3d at 654 [citation omitted]). When defendants were first confronted with plaintiff’s original claims, it is likely that they conducted some kind of internal investigation into the entire series of alleged actions taken against plaintiff, to determine whether and on what grounds she was discriminated against (see Duffy, 66 NY2d at 477 [defendants are “likely to have collected and preserved available evidence relating to the entire transaction or occurrence” at the outset of the litigation]). Thus, they ought to know the discriminatory reasons for which plaintiff was treated unfavorably, if any such reasons exist. In any event, to the extent any prejudice against defendants exists, it is negligible and can be cured by further discovery (Jacobson, 68 AD3d at 654 [“(T)he need for additional discovery does not constitute prejudice sufficient to justify denial of an amendment”]).[FN4]“