Preston v. Kindred Hospitals West (3/24/11)

We reported the Court of Appeals decision here. Read that blog first. The Supreme Court affirms the Court of Appeals’ opinion.

The Court first tells us that Preston was the Billy Preston – apparently a musician of some note some decades ago who backed The Beatles. We’d normally point out that this is completely irrelevant to anything but the opinion isn’t bad otherwise so we’ll chalk it up to the innocent expression of some personal enthusiasm of Justice Bales. Rock on.

Next, the Court tells us that “Whether Rule 17(a) requires a plaintiff to show that a failure to name the real party in interest resulted from an understandable mistake or difficulty in identifying the party is an issue of first impression in Arizona.” Well, yes, but then so are lots of other cases arguing that a statute or rule means something other than what it says. That surely isn’t enough to merit review. Perhaps the difference here is that Preston relies on a line of federal cases, which the Court thinks it worth taking the time to say that Arizona won’t follow.

Its substantive analysis of that is as follows: “Having considered the federal cases, we decline to engraft requirements onto Rule 17 beyond those reflected in the text of the rule.” Once again our Court hearkens back to an older school of opinion writing in which courts expressed their opinions by expressing their opinions, not by labored scholastic argument. But it also points out that not all federal courts follow this interpretation anyway and that even those that do wouldn’t necessarily impose the drastic sanction of dismissal when substitution is possible.

Regarding the State Bar Committee note to Rule 17 that supports the federal interpretation, the Court points that a comment cannot change the clear text of a rule. The value of the comments, apparently, is that they “may clarify a rule’s ambiguous language.” Maybe. But we’re talking about a committee that writes rules. Wouldn’t it be better to write unambiguous ones in the first place? Or has rule-writing become one of those things characterized by compromises that one side or the other tries to “win” in a committee report? If so, why does the Court accept such rules?

The Court next addresses an argument that for some reason didn’t show up in the appellate opinion: the relationship between changing defendants under Rule 15 and changing plaintiffs under Rule 17. The Court finds this “not particularly relevant,” though, apparently because Rules 17 and 15(c) each handle separately the issue of relation-back. This doesn’t give the issue as much attention as it may deserve but we’ve not seen the briefs to know how extensively it was developed.

Finally, Kindred raised the spectre of abuse if amendments were liberally allowed under Rule 17. The Court says that the trial court can deal with this in its discretion; it may refuse amendment in cases of “undue delay, dilatory action, or undue prejudice.” The opinion then takes this back by saying basically that substituting one representative plaintiff for another with the same claim wouldn’t ever prejudice anyone.

(link to opinion)