United States District Court for the District of Columbia
August 2, 2004.
CHRISTIAN NWACHUKWU, Plaintiff,
JOHN F. KARL, JR., Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICARDO URBINA, District Judge
DENYING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND JUDGMENT
This matter comes before the court on the plaintiff's motion to
alter or amend judgment.*fn1 On May 27, 2004, the defendant
filed a motion to amend his answer. Although the plaintiff filed
his memorandum in opposition to the defendant's motion on June 9,
2004, it was not docketed until June 16, 2004. On June 14, 2004,
after the plaintiff filed his opposition but before it was
docketed, the court entered its order granting the defendant's
motion to amend his answer. The plaintiff then promptly moved to
alter or amend the judgment, asking the court to reevaluate the
defendant's motion in light of the plaintiff's timely opposition.
Upon reconsideration, the court denies the plaintiff's motion to
alter or amend judgment of the order granting the defendant's motion to amend his answer.
The litigation underlying the present action involved injuries
the plaintiff sustained in a car accident on October 1, 1994. Am.
Compl. ¶ 1. The plaintiff retained the legal services of the
defendant in December 1997, to aid him in the litigation stemming
from those injuries. Id. ¶ 9. Eventually a dispute arose
between the plaintiff and the defendant over the ownership of the
plaintiff's insurance proceeds, causing the parties' relationship
to deteriorate. See generally Nwachukwu v. Karl, 223 F. Supp.2d 60,
63-64 (D.D.C. 2002); Nwachukwu v. Karl, 2003 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 10504, at *1-3 (D.D.C. June 18, 2003); see generally Am.
Compl. The plaintiff then lodged complaints against the defendant
with the District of Columbia Bar ("the Bar"). Am. Compl. ¶ 37.
Although the Bar determined that the defendant did not commit any
ethical violations, it encouraged the defendant to file an
interpleader action to determine whether John Hancock, the
plaintiff's insurer, or the plaintiff was the rightful owner of
the disputed funds. Id. ¶¶ 37-42, 49. On October 18, 2001, the
defendant filed an interpleader complaint in the Superior Court
for the District of Columbia ("Superior Court"), id. ¶ 49, and
on January 17, 2002, the defendant deposited the disputed funds
with the clerk of the court, thereby discharging the defendant
from further participation in the case. Id. ¶ 51.
While the foregoing case was still pending, the plaintiff filed
a second suit, the instant action, with the Superior Court on
February 12, 2002, alleging abdication of fiduciary
responsibility, negligence, misrepresentation, misappropriation
of funds, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Am.
Compl. at 11-17. On March 13, 2002, the defendant removed this second action to this court on the basis of
diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Notice of
Removal ¶¶ 6-9.
On March 13, 2003, the Superior Court granted summary judgment
in the first suit, in favor of John Hancock. That court held that
the plaintiff did not own or have rights to the funds at issue in
that case, which are the same funds implicated in the present
action. Def.'s Notice of Filing (Karl v. Nwachukwu, et al.,
C.A. No. 01-007791, Cal. 8).
On May 27, 2004, the defendant filed a motion to amend his
answer. Def.'s Mot. to Amend Answer ("Def.'s Mot."). The
plaintiff filed his memorandum in opposition to the defendant's
motion on June 9, 2004, however, it was not docketed until June
16, 2004. On June 14, 2004, after the plaintiff filed his
opposition but before it was docketed, the court entered its
order granting the defendant's motion to amend his answer. Pl.'s
Mot. to Alter or Amend J. On June 18, 2004, the plaintiff filed a
motion for reconsideration due to the docketing oversight. Since
the plaintiff filed his motion, the District of Columbia Court of
Appeals ("Court of Appeals") has affirmed the decision of the
Superior Court in the first suit.*fn2 Def.'s Notice of
Recent Decision (Nwachukwu v. John Hancock Mgmt., Co., 2004
D.C. App. LEXIS 351 (D.C. June 16, 2004)). The court now
addresses the plaintiff's motion to alter or amend judgment of
the order granting the defendant's motion to amend his answer. III. ANALYSIS
A. Legal Standard for Rule 59(e) Motion
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) provides that a motion to
alter or amend a judgment must be filed within ten days of the
entry of the judgment at issue. FED. R. CIV. P. 59(e); see also
Mashpee Wamponoag Tribal Council, Inc. v. Norton, 336 F.3d 1094,
1098 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (stating that a Rule 59(e) motion "must be
filed within 10 days of the challenged order, not including
weekends, certain specified national holidays (including
Christmas Day and New Year's Day), or any other day appointed as
a holiday by the President"). While the court has considerable
discretion in ruling on a Rule 59(e) motion, the reconsideration
and amendment of a previous order is an unusual measure.
Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996)
(per curiam); McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 (9th
Cir. 1999). Rule 59(e) motions "need not be granted unless the
district court finds that there is an `intervening change of
controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to
correct a clear legal error or prevent manifest injustice.'"
Firestone, 76 F.3d at 1208. Moreover, "[a] Rule 59(e) motion to
reconsider is not simply an opportunity to reargue facts and
theories upon which a court has already ruled," New York v.
United States, 880 F. Supp. 37, 38 (D.D.C. 1995), or a vehicle
for presenting theories or arguments that could have been
advanced earlier. Kattan v. District of Columbia, 995 F.2d 274,
276 (D.C. Cir. 1993); W.C. & A.N. Miller Cos. v. United States,
173 F.R.D. 1, 3 (D.D.C. 1997).
B. Legal Standard for Amendment of Pleadings
Rule 15(a) governs the amendment of pleadings, stating
generously that "leave [to amend] shall be freely given when
justice so requires," FED. R. CIV. P. 15(a), and "instructs the [d]istrict [c]ourt to determine the propriety of amendment on a
case by case basis." Harris v. Sec'y, United States Dep't of
Veterans Affairs, 126 F.3d 339, 343 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Whether to
grant or deny leave to amend rests in the district court's sound
discretion. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). Such
discretion is not unlimited, however, for it is an "abuse of
discretion" when a district court denies leave to amend without a
"justifying" or sufficient reason. Id.; Firestone, 76 F.3d at
1208. Reasons that justify a denial of leave to amend include
undue delay, bad faith, repeated failure to cure a pleading's
deficiencies, undue prejudice to the opposing party, and futility
of amendment. Foman, 371 U.S. at 182; Richardson v. United
States, 193 F.3d 545, 548-49 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Caribbean Broad
Sys., Ltd. v. Cable & Wireless P.L.C., 148 F.3d 1080, 1084 (D.C.
Courts require a sufficient basis for denial of leave to amend
because the purpose of pleadings under the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure is "to facilitate a proper decision on the merits," not
to set the stage for "a game or skill in which one misstep by
counsel may be decisive to the outcome." Foman, 371 U.S. at
181-82 (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 48 (1957)). To
further the goal of deciding cases on their merits and avoiding
adjudication by technicality, Rule 15 allows for amendment
"whereby a party who harmlessly failed to plead an affirmative
defense may find satisfaction" rather than allowing the party to
lose because of a minor technical mistake made in its original
pleadings. Harris, 126 F.3d at 343. Under Rule 15(a), the
nonmovant generally carries the burden in persuading the court to
deny leave to amend. Cf. Dussouy v. Gulf Coast Inv. Corp.,
660 F.2d 594, 598 n. 2 (5th Cir. 1981) (endorsing exceptions to the
general rule that the burden of persuasion rests with the
non-movant in the Rule 15(a) context); see also Gudavich v.
District of Columbia, 22 Fed. Appx. 17, 18 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 27,
2001) (noting that the non-movant "failed to show prejudice from the
district court's actions in allowing the [movant's] motion to
amend") (unpublished decision).
C. The Court Denies the Plaintiff's Motion to Alter or Amend
In the District of Columbia, a court cannot deny leave to amend
based solely on the time elapsed between the filing of the
pleading and the request for leave to amend. Atchinson v.
District of Columbia, 73 F.3d 418, 426 (D.C. Cir. 1996). "Where
an amendment would do no more than clarify legal theories or make
technical corrections, [the D.C. Circuit] has consistently held
that delay, without a showing of prejudice, is not sufficient
ground for denying the motion." Harrison v. Rubin,
174 F.3d 249
, 252-53 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (holding that the district court was
wrong in denying leave to amend even though two years had passed
since the filing of the complaint, the case was nearing trial,
and the parties had almost concluded their pre-trial discovery).
The plaintiff argues that "more ink will be expended on [the
adjudication of the] defendant's abusive invocation of the
Estoppel Judicata [sic] doctrine" and other proposed defenses
than if the case were to proceed without the proposed amendments.
Pl.'s Opp'n at 1-2. The affirmative defense of res judicata,
however, "prevents repetitious litigation involving the same
causes of action or the same issue," I.A.M. Nat'l Pension Fund
v. Indus. Gear Mfg. Co., 723 F.2d 944, 946 (D.C. Cir. 1983), and
helps to "conserve judicial resources, avoid inconsistent
results, engender respect for judgment of predictable and certain
effect, and  prevent serial forum-shopping and piecemeal
litigation." Hardison v. Alexander, 655 F.2d 1281, 1288 (D.C.
Cir. 1981); see also Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980).
The court recognizes that the defendant's year-and-a-half delay
in asserting, inter alia, res judicata is not a matter the
court takes lightly. E.g., Dove v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth.,
2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8394, at *6 (D.D.C. Mar. 30, 2004) (noting
that a ten-week delay is "no small matter"). This delay, however,
is inconsequential when compared to the time and judicial
resources the court will save if indeed it disposes of the case
on the basis of the proposed defenses, as opposed to engaging in
lengthy proceedings that give the plaintiff a second bite of the
juridical apple. In light of the recent rulings of both the
Superior Court and the Court of Appeals regarding the ownership
of the money controverted in both that case as well as here, the
court is even further implored to allow the defendant's
amendments. Although the court prefers pleaders to anticipate all
potential defenses in their first pleading, Rule 15(a) exists to
facilitate the judicial goal of deciding cases on their merits,
as opposed to procedural mishaps dictating the outcome. Harris,
126 F.3d at 343; Foman, 371 U.S. at 182. The court notes that
the defendant's proposed amendments to his answer did not in fact
become applicable to the present action until well after its
commencement. Consequently, the defendant's delay in moving to
amend his answer does not seem undue, but rather justified in
light of the Superior Court's decision and the Court of Appeals'
recent affirmance thereof.
Moreover, the plaintiff has neither demonstrated, nor has the
court discovered, any prejudice in this case. See generally
Pl.'s Opp'n; Def.'s Mot. As noted, delay without the requisite
showing of prejudice is ordinarily insufficient to justify denial
of leave to amend. See Caribbean Broad Sys., 148 F.3d at 1084
(laying out the proposition that "[i]n most cases delay alone is
not a sufficient reason for denying leave") (quoting Wright &
Miller, FED. PRAC. & PROC.2d § 1488). "Undue prejudice is not
mere harm to the non-movant but a denial of the opportunity to
present facts or evidence which  would have [been] offered had
the amendment been timely."*fn3 Dove, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8394, at *8
(alteration in original) (citing Foremost-McKesson, Inc. v.
Islamic Republic of Iran, 1988 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18522, at *16
(D.D.C. Nov. 8, 1988) aff'd, 905 F.2d 438 (D.C. Cir. 1990)).
Examples of such prejudice include situations where the proposed
amendment will alter either the choice of counsel or the nature
of the opposing party's strategy. See Atchinson, 73 F.3d at 427
(indicating that "the district court's concerns regarding [the
non-movant's] choice of counsel and litigation strategy seem
well-founded"). While the plaintiff offers no facts indicating
that he would be prejudiced by the defendant's proposed
amendments, see Pl.'s Opp'n at 19, the defendant presents
convincing evidence that the plaintiff would not be prejudiced.
Def.'s Mot. at 9-10. The plaintiff has undoubtedly been aware of
the Superior Court and Court of Appeals cases, as he was a named
and participating party in both instances. See generally Def.'s
Mot.; Pl.'s Opp'n; Am. Compl. Accordingly, the plaintiff has not
been denied the opportunity to present evidence which would have
been offered had the amendment been timely and thus cannot be
seen to suffer undue prejudice by the defendant's amendments.
Further, even if the court did not permit the defendant to
amend his answer to add, inter alia, res judicata, that defense
could still be used against the plaintiff. Because "res judicata
belongs to courts as well as to litigants," a court may invoke
res judicata sua sponte. Stanton v. D.C. Ct. of Appeals,
127 F.3d 72, 77 (D.C. Cir. 1997); see also Tinsley v. Equifax Credit
Info. Servs., Inc., 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 15837, at *3 (D.C. Cir. June
2, 1999) (per curiam) (noting that a district court may apply res
judicata upon taking judicial notice of the parties' previous
case). Because the doctrine of res judicata could apply
notwithstanding the defendant's motion, it simply makes sense for
the court to grant the defendant's motion when presented with the
issue by the parties, rather than simply postponing delay should
the court later raise the doctrine sua sponte.
Allowing the defendant to amend his answer therefore "serve[s]
the ends of justice by adhering to the guiding principles of
judicial economy, finality of judgments, judicial consistency,
and protection against vexatious and expensive litigation."
Dove, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8394, at *7 (citations omitted). In
order to facilitate a decision on the merits in this two-year
affair and to prevent the plaintiff from taking a second bite of
the apple, the court denies the plaintiff's motion to amend or
alter judgment of the court's order granting the defendant's
motion to amend his answer.
For the foregoing reasons, the court denies the plaintiff's
motion to alter or amend judgment of the court's order granting
the defendant's motion to amend his answer. An order consistent
with this Memorandum Opinion is separately and contemporaneously
issued this 2nd day of August 2004.