False Name Results in Dismissal of Complaint

Shakespeare may argue otherwise, but a person’s name carries great legal weight, and the prosecution of a civil claim under a false name may result in the dismissal of the claim with prejudice. In Santiago v. E.W. Bliss Co., — N.E.2d —, Nos. 1-10-0796, 1-10-0780, 2010 WL 5292919 (Ill. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2010) [PDF], the Appellate Court of Illinois decided a certified question and set forth the facts of the case as follows:

On May 12, 2006, plaintiff was injured while working with a punch press. Components of the machine were manufactured by defendants, and on May 9, 2008, plaintiff filed a product-liability complaint against defendants in the circuit court of Cook County. The initial complaint identified plaintiff as “Juan Ortiz,” and it did not indicate whether he had ever been known by any other name. Plaintiff filed his first amended complaint on November 4, 2008, naming additional defendants that had been identified during discovery. The first amended complaint also named “Juan Ortiz” as the sole plaintiff.

During written discovery, plaintiff received at least three sets of interrogatories from various defendants. Among other information, each set of interrogatories asked plaintiff to disclose personal identification information, including his name, work history, and social security number. Plaintiff answered the interrogatories on February 25, 2009, identifying himself as “Juan Ortiz.” As required by section 1-109 of the Code of Civil Procedure . . . plaintiff signed and verified each interrogatory with the signature “Juan Ortiz.”

Defendants deposed plaintiff on May 19, 2009. When defendants asked plaintiff to state his full name, however, plaintiff responded that his name was Rogasciano Santiago, not Juan Ortiz. This was the first time during the course of litigation that plaintiff had used this name, and defendants had not previously been aware that plaintiff’s true name was not Juan Ortiz. The record does not disclose whether plaintiff’s attorney was aware of plaintiff’s true name.

Mr. Santiago/Ortiz moved for leave to amend the complaint to substitute his real name. The circuit court granted leave, after the statute of limitations had run on the products claim, and then the court asked for assistance in determining the effect of the amendment on the substantive claim given the facts and the defendants’ motion to dismiss the amended complaint. First, the appellate court ruled that dismissal of the complaint with prejudice is not a mandatory sanction, but it may be an appropriate sanction given the facts of the case. Second, the appellate court held that an amendment to substitute the real name of the plaintiff made after the statute of limitations has run bars the claim because the amended complaint cannot relate back to the original filing. The appellate court then instructed the circuit court to take actions consistent with its opinion.

There are several points for discussion, probably worthy of multiple posts, but here are just a few. First, this may create a certain conundrum for the plaintiffs’ bar. It’s unclear whether there was any willful blindness here, but when a lawyer decides to take on a case of a person who may or may not be properly documented, discovery certainly includes some risks that may have ramifications outside of the lawsuit. I am sure, though, that this would have been a great deposition to take or attend. Not often does the deposition go south right after “Can you please state your full name for the record?”

Next, this case shows that defense counsel should always ask the routine, mundane questions because the answers may let you out of a lawsuit. In addition, the timing of the filing of the complaint and subsequent discovery can certainly impact the merits of the case. Finally, the court shows that it is not going to allow the judicial system to be tampered with. There is a certain calculus in play in this case. Perhaps this was a case where the plaintiff’s goal was to settle prior to deposition. In any event, although a person who may or may not be properly documented has access to the court system, extrajudicial issues certainly play a part in the decision to bring what may otherwise be a meritorious case.

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