Plaintiffs do not always know the names of all defendants when the complaint is filed. They name “John Doe,” hoping to amend when the defendants become known. In Heglund v. City of Grand Rapids, No. 16-3063 (8th Cir. Sept. 7, 2017), Jennifer Heglund and her husband sued cities and counties, state officials, and hundreds of John and Jane Does, alleging that officers had improperly accessed their private information in a driver’s license database. They amended their complaint to replace a John Doe with a former assistant chief of police. The district court granted summary judgment on the ground that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The district court had concluded that the amended complaint naming the individual did not relate back to the timely original complaint, because the Heglunds did not make a “mistake” by suing “John Doe” rather than the individual in their original complaint.
The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court and affirmed the determination that the case was filed too late against the former assistant chief of police, because the plaintiffs had not made a “mistake”: “a mistake occurs if a plaintiff knows that two or more parties exist but chooses to sue the wrong one. based on a misunderstanding about that party’s status or role.” According to the Eighth Circuit, “the Heglunds did not make a ‘mistake’ in the ordinary sense of the word when they intentionally sued ‘John Doe’ while knowing that he was not the proper defendant.”
The lesson is that plaintiffs need to be diligent in identifying all defendants and not wait until the statute of limitations is about to run before filing suits. For the opinion, click Here.