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Federal Civil Procedure Rule 15 is Substantive, Not Chronological in Application

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on November 23, 2015 that Fed.R.Civ.P. 15 operates substantively, not chronologically, allowing a plaintiff to amend in whatever order he or she deems fit, provided there is compliance with the requirements of the rule.

Before the court was the appeal of Sergio C. Ramirez, who had sued the County of San Bernadino, its sheriff and several deputies. He alleged that San Bernadino sheriff’s deputies stopped him in his driveway and “allegedly beat, tased and detained him despite his compliance with their commands.” He spent 15 days in jail and two different immigration detention centers before being released.

The merits of his claims, however, were not at issue in Ramirez’s appeal. Rather, it focused on the district court’s dismissal after the case was removed from state court. After being removed, the parties entered into a written stipulation that provided Ramirez could amend his complaint to dismiss certain defendants. The district court altered the time to amend from twenty to ten days.

Once the First Amended Complaint was filed on May 22, 2013, the defendants moved to dismiss and for a more definite statement. Under local rule 7-9, Ramirez was required to file an opposition to the motion within 21 days; rather than submit such a pleading, however, he filed a Second Amended Complaint.

Two days later the district court rejected that filing “because leave of court had neither been sought nor granted.” The court then dismissed the action entirely because Ramirez had been deemed to have consented to dismissal for failing to oppose the defendants’ motion as required by the local rule. His request for reconsideration was denied.

Rule 15 provides for two methods for amending a complaint. The first is a matter of course within 21 days of service on the defendants or within 21 days of service after a responsive pleading is filed. The second requires a party’s written consent or leave of court.

The district court held that Ramirez had filed his First Amended Complaint as a matter of course, barring another such amendment. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that determination was erroneous. Because the first amendment was filed pursuant to a stipulation between the parties, it should have been considered an “other” type of amendment.

Rule 15(a)(2) does not mandate a matter of course amendment, although amendments typically follow that order. Thus, a plaintiff may amend in whatever order he or she deems fit so long as there is compliance with the rule’s requirements.

Amendments made as a matter of course have been deemed “as of right” under Rule 15, so there can be no waiver or exhaustion of the automatic right if it is timely. In this case, Ramirez submitted his Second Amended Complaint 21 days after the motion to dismiss was filed, making it timely.

The Ninth Circuit found the district court had “erred in permitting a local rule to trump the governing federal rule.” The First Amended Complaint became moot upon the filing of the Second Amended Complaint, so Ramirez did not need to address the motion to dismiss. The district court’s order was reversed and the case remains pending on remand, where the court dismissed the Second Amended Complaint in March 2016 and allowed the filing of a Third Amended Complaint. Ramirez is represented by attorney Moises Aviles with the San Bernardino firm of Aviles and Associates. See: Ramirez v. County of San Bernadino, 806 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Ramirez v. County of San Bernadino