This is the second of two posts about the Erie doctrine, anti-SLAPP laws, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. To see the first post, which covered anti-SLAPP laws and the conflict with Rules 12 and 56 of the FRCP, click here.
The Rule 11 Split
Should it be easier to sue your doctor or lawyer in federal court than in state court? The Eleventh Circuit purportedly says “yes,” while the Third and Tenth Circuits disagree. This consequential Erie Doctrine circuit split has complicated malpractice actions in federal courts for decades, and even touches some anti-SLAPP laws.
Many states have passed “tort reform” laws to protect doctors and lawyers from “frivolous lawsuits.” If you want to sue a doctor for malpractice in Georgia, for example, state law provides that you must attach an expert’s affidavit to your complaint or your case will be dismissed.
These statutes differ in timing (they may require filing an affidavit along with the complaint, or a certain number of days after) or to whom they apply (the affidavit may have to be signed by an attorney, a party, and/or an expert)—see the U. Penn. Law Review for a catalogue of the differences. But in federal court, all such laws run a risk of conflict with Rule 11, which states that, “Unless a rule or statute specifically states otherwise, a pleading need not be verified or accompanied by an affidavit.”
The Third Circuit in Liggon-Redding v. Estate of Sugarman (2011) allowed a Pennsylvania affidavit-of-merit statute to apply in a legal malpractice case despite Rule 11. The court emphasized the procedural differences between the Pennsylvania law and the federal rule to find no conflict under Hanna:
Pennsylvania Rule 1042.3 requires an additional written statement by ‘an appropriate licensed professional’ attesting to a ‘reasonable probability’ that a ‘licensed professional deviated from an acceptable professional standard.’ Additionally, the Pennsylvania certificate of merit must be filed within sixty (60) days of the filing of the complaint. Federal Rule 11, in contrast, does not require an additional consultation with experts or the filing of a separate written statement within sixty (60) days of the filing of the complaint. . . . Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 can co-exist with the Pennsylvania certificate of merit rule because each rule controls its own intended area of influence without any conflict.
The Tenth Circuit held there was no conflict under Hanna between Rule 11 and a similar Colorado statute in Trierweiler v. Croxton and Trench Holding Corp. (1996):
Despite the superficial similarity of the two rules, we conclude that they do not collide. . . . While § 13–20–602 penalizes the party, Rule 11 targets the attorney . . . . Furthermore, § 13–20–602 does not merely operate to discourage frivolous claims; it does so only with respect to lawsuits filed against licensed professionals, and it also seeks “to expedite the litigation process in [such] cases” by imposing a 60–day time limit. By protecting a particular class of defendants, and by expediting such cases, the statute vindicates substantive interests of Colorado not covered by Rule 11. Although the state and federal rules are similar, there is no “direct collision” between the two.
But the Eleventh Circuit created a circuit split with Trierweiler and Liggon-Redding in Royalty Network, Inc. v. Harris (2014). At issue was a bizarre former version of Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute, which required a SLAPP plaintiff to file an affidavit if the lawsuit was filed against someone who was exercising First Amendment speech or petition rights. The court found a direct conflict under Hanna between the Georgia law and Rule 11:
The federal rule explicitly provides that a pleading need not be verified or accompanied by an affidavit and allows parties discretion in deciding whether to verify pleadings. The Georgia statute, by comparison, mandates that a complaint or pleading asserting a claim must be accompanied by a verification making specific representations.
The Eleventh Circuit added that Rule 11 does not incorporate state laws:
We acknowledge that Rule 11 states a pleading need not contain a verification ‘[u]nless a rule or statute specifically states otherwise.’ The rule’s reference to other rules or statutes, however, means other federal rules or statutes.
A reasonable reader might think the circuit cases could be distinguished based on the timing of the statutes at play: The Georgia statute, which did not apply in federal court, required an affidavit to be filed contemporaneously with the complaint. The Colorado and Pennsylvania statutes, which did apply in federal court, allowed 60 days after filing the complaint to file an affidavit.
But the district courts haven’t divided on that fault line. For example, the Western District of Michigan has applied a Michigan statute that, like Georgia’s, required a contemporaneously filed affidavit, concluding that the conflict with Rule 11 was “illusory.” But the Western District of Texas refused to apply a statute requiring an expert report within 120 days of the complaint, because it would “get in the way of the operation of Rule 11.” District courts have, in fact, been long divided about affidavit-of-merit requirements, which may also conflict with Rules 8 and 9—an issue beyond the scope of this blog entry (see the Pennsylvania and Arizona Law Reviews for more).
(For more still, read the Western District of Michigan case linked above. It’s a doozy of a case, covering issues arising from Section 1983 and medical malpractice. The court extensively discusses the Erie problem, and touches not just on the Rule 11 conflict described here, but issues with Rules 8, 9, and 26. And, of special interest to readers of this blog, the court even discusses which circuits and district courts are split applying the Rules. Consider it the cherry on top of this sundae.)
A final note about Georgia. This year, the General Assembly passed an amendment to Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute to make it look like most other states’. The new law provides a “special motion to dismiss” for SLAPP defendants, eliminating the requirement that a plaintiff file an affidavit of merit at the pleading stage. Arkansas is now the only state whose anti-SLAPP law requires SLAPP plaintiffs to file a verification with their pleading.
Now that Georgia’s anti-SLAPP law falls within the Rule 12/56 split rather than the Rule 11 split, it has a fresh chance at applying in federal court—if the Eleventh Circuit allows it.