With Rare Exception, District Court Has No Duty to Consider a Potential Statute of Limitations Defense Sua Sponte — District Court Has Broad Discretion to Interpret Its Local Rules

 O'Connell v. Fernandez-Pol,  2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 19964 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2013):

Defendant Dr. Jose Fernandez-Pol ("Dr. Pol") appeals the district court's order granting Plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the pleadings after the district court struck Dr. Pol's answer as a discovery sanction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37, and entered  judgment in the form and amount requested by Plaintiffs. Dr. Pol contends the district court erred because: (1) the action was allowed to proceed even though Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations; (2) actual and punitive damages were awarded without taking any evidence of damages; and (3) the district court ordered the transfer of certain patents and patent applications without first ascertaining the existence or ownership of the patents, or assessing whether the court had personal jurisdiction over the entities transferring or receiving the patents. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

I. The District Court's Failure to Consider a Potential Statute of Limitations Defense
Dr. Pol contends the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the matter because each of Plaintiffs' claims were time-barred. Dr. Pol argues he presented a statute of limitations defense before the district court, but the district court never considered the merits of the defense because the court struck his Answer as a discovery sanction under Rule 37. Because the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that must be pled and proved by the party asserting it, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(c); Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 209 (2006), and the district court was not required to sua sponte raise a potential statute of limitations defense on behalf of Dr. Pol, we must only address whether the district court erred in striking Dr. Pol's Answer as a discovery sanction under Rule 37.

 

1   Although the district court in this case was not required to sua sponte raise the statute of limitations defense on behalf of Dr. Pol, there are certain types of claims and cases that require and/or permit a court to address the merits of a statute of limitations defense before entering judgment. See e.g., Wood v. Milyard, 132 S. Ct. 1826, 1834 (2012) [habeas]; John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130, 132-35 (2008) [Court of Federal Claims].

 

Whether the district court erred in striking Dr. Pol's Answer as a discovery sanction under Rule 37 is reviewed for abuse of discretion. See Hester v. Vision Airlines, Inc., 687 F.3d 1162, 1169 (9th Cir. 2012). The exercise of this discretion will not be found to be an abuse unless the reviewing court finds the district court committed a clear error of judgment in the conclusion it reached. See United States v. Sumitomo Marine & Fire Ins. Co. Ltd., 617 F.2d 1365, 1369 (9th Cir. 1980).   Pursuant to Rule 37(b), a court may impose sanctions on a party for failure to comply with discovery requests, including "prohibiting the disobedient party from supporting or opposing designated claims or defenses . . . striking pleadings in whole or in part. . . dismissing the action or proceeding in whole or in part . . . [or] rendering a default judgment against the disobedient party." Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2)(A)(ii)-(vi). By the very nature of its language, sanctions imposed under Rule 37 must be left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. See Craig v. Far West Eng'g Co., 265 F.2d 251, 260 (9th Cir. 1959), cert. denied, 361 U.S. 816 (1959).

Here, the district court stuck Dr. Pol's Answer after Dr. Pol failed to produce documents requested by Plaintiffs during discovery, failed to file a notice of appearance or intent to appear pro se after he was explicitly ordered to do so by the district court, and failed to file an opposition to Plaintiffs' motion for sanctions pursuant to Arizona Civil Local Rule 7.2(i).2 Therefore, in light of the troubled defense of this case, and the broad discretion district courts are afforded in interpreting and applying their local rules, we find  the district court did not abuse its discretion in striking Dr. Pol's Answer as a discovery sanction under Rule 37. See Delange v. Dutra Constr. Co., 183 F.3d 916, 919 n.2 (9th Cir. 1999) (stating that district courts have broad discretion in interpreting and applying their local rules); Chism v. Nat'l Heritage Life Ins. Co., 637 F.2d 1328, 1331-32 (9th Cir. 1981); In re Rice, 14 B.R. 843, 846 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 1981) (finding no abuse of discretion where trial court struck appellant's answer as a discovery sanction because appellant failed to respond to interrogatories and ignored appellee's efforts to litigate the action). Accordingly, we find the district court properly struck Dr. Pol's Answer under Rule 37. As a result, because Dr. Pol did not re-assert a statute of limitations defense prior to entry of judgment (even though the district court provided Dr. Pol ample opportunity to do so), and Dr. Pol did not make a post-judgment motion for relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 or 60,3 we also find the district court did not err in granting Plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c).

2   Arizona Civil Local Rule 7.2(i) states: "If a motion does not conform  [*8] in all substantial respects with the requirements of this Local Rule, or if the unrepresented party or counsel does not serve and file the required answering memoranda, or if the unrepresented party or counsel fails to appear at the time and place assigned for oral argument, such non-compliance may be deemed a consent to the denial or granting of the motion and the Court may dispose of the motion summarily."

3   Rule 59 allows a party to file a motion to alter or amend a judgment no more than 28 days after entry of judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e). Rule 60 allows a party to file a motion for relief from a judgment or order no more than one year after entry of judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(c).

 

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