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Nobre v. Louisiana Department of Public Safety

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 19, 2019

AMY MCDONALD NOBRE, on behalf of K.M.C.; CHASTITY GUIDRY, on behalf of L.G., Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY; JERRY GOODWIN, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, ELROD, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The mother of a Louisiana inmate filed suit against state prison officials alleging Eighth Amendment violations and state-law wrongful death and survival claims arising out of her son's death. A year later, she learned that her son had two children. Under Louisiana law, these children were the proper parties to bring the action, and so she substituted their natural tutors, Amy Nobre and Chastity Guidry, as plaintiffs. But the substitution occurred after expiration of the statutory limitations period. We must determine whether the substitution relates back to the date of the initial complaint. We hold that it does, REVERSE the district court's dismissal of Nobre and Guidry's wrongful death and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims, and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         According to the pleadings, inmates arriving at the Louisiana Department of Corrections' David Wade Correctional Center were routinely issued two combination locks. In the first two months of 2016, the Center experienced two incidents in which an inmate attacked another using a lock as a weapon. The Department nonetheless allowed inmates to retain locks. On February 11, 2016, while inmate Kenneth Cotton was sleeping in his bed, another inmate, Anthony Tellis, beat Cotton, striking his head with a lock and fracturing his skull. Prison staff transported Cotton to a hospital, where he underwent brain surgery, but died from his injuries on February 20, 2016.

         On September 14, 2016, Cotton's mother, Enriqueta Moore, filed a petition for damages in Louisiana's Second Judicial District Court for the Parish of Claiborne, naming the attacker Tellis, the Department of Corrections, the David Wade Center's warden, and the Department's insurers as defendants. Moore alleged that the defendants failed to protect Cotton from bodily harm, allowed inmates to possess combination locks that defendants knew would be used as weapons, failed adequately to train staff to supervise prisoners, failed to provide timely medical attention to Cotton, caused Cotton physical harm, and otherwise committed acts of negligence. Moore also alleged that the Department, warden, and their agents inflicted extreme emotional distress upon her, deceiving her as to Cotton's health status following the attack, and preventing her from seeing or speaking with her son between the attack and his death. Moore sought damages under Louisiana's wrongful death and survival action statutes, and Section 1983. As Cotton's mother, Moore alleged she was the proper party to bring the action.

         On October 20, 2016, the Department and the warden filed a Notice of Removal in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. They stated that Moore's suit "assert[s] federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983," and that the district court "ha[d] jurisdiction of this cause of action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal question jurisdiction."

         On March 8, 2017, Moore moved for leave to file an amended complaint. Since filing her original complaint, Moore had learned that Cotton had two minor children. Under Louisiana law, these children were the proper parties to bring the action, and so Moore substituted the children's natural tutors- their mothers Amy Nobre and Chastity Guidry-as plaintiffs. The amended complaint otherwise "reiterate[d] all allegations, theories of recovery and remedies which were listed and set forth in the allegations and prayer of the original Complaint." The district court granted Moore's motion for leave to amend.

         The Department and warden moved to dismiss Nobre and Guidry's action as untimely. Pointing out that the district court looks to state law for the limitations period in Section 1983 suits, the defendants argued that the relevant limitations period under Louisiana Civil Code Article 3492 was one year running from Cotton's death. Although Moore's original complaint was filed during the limitations period, Moore was not the proper party to bring the action. The amended complaint substituted the correct plaintiffs, but was filed sixteen days after the limitations period had expired.

         Nobre and Guidry responded that the amended complaint related back to the filing of the original complaint. While Moore only learned of Cotton's children in March 2017, Nobre and Guidry argued the defendants knew of the children earlier. The plaintiffs attached for the first time a "Master Record Inquiry," a document prepared by the David Wade Correctional Center in which Cotton was described as the father of two children.

         Refusing to consider evidence beyond the pleadings, the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. "Out of an abundance of caution," the district court analyzed the relation-back issue under both Louisiana law and Rule 15(c). It held that, under both, relation back was not permitted because the pleadings did not establish that the defendants knew of Cotton's children. Nobre and Guidry appeal the dismissal of their wrongful death claim and associated Section 1983 claim for wrongful death damages.[1]

         II.

         A.

         We have jurisdiction to hear this appeal. The well-pleaded complaint presents a federal question.[2] It alleges that Cotton was an inmate in state custody, that state officials failed to protect him and failed to provide him with adequate medical care, and that he died as a result. These facts support colorable claims under Section 1983 to redress violations of Cotton's rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments[3] to be free from officials' deliberate indifference to substantial risks of serious harm, including via the provision of adequate medical care, [4] and thus a federal question. The appeal challenges a final judgment of the district court.[5] We review the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo.[6] In reviewing such a decision, we accept all well-pleaded facts as true and view those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.[7]

         B.

         As Section 1983 does not provide a relevant limitations period, we look to the law of the forum state.[8] Here, the parties agree that in analogous delictual actions under the Louisiana Civil Code, plaintiffs must file within one year of the decedent's death.[9]

         Cotton died on February 20, 2016. Moore's original complaint was filed on September 14, 2016, within the relevant limitation periods; Nobre and Guidry's amended complaint was filed on March 9, 2017, after that period had expired. To determine whether the amended complaint relates back to Moore's original complaint, the court applies Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1).[10] This Rule provides:

An amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when:
(A) the law that provides the applicable statute of limitations allows relation back;
(B) the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be ...

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