In a Win for Design Professionals, California Court of Appeals Holds That Relation-Back Doctrine Does Not Apply to Certificate of Merit Law

by Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean LLP
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The year was 1995. The old guard was still in power in Sacramento. “Button-Down” Pete Wilson was Governor. Willie Brown, the self-nicknamed “Ayatollah of the Assembly,” was Speaker of the Assembly. And Bill “Huggy” Lockyer was Senate Pro Tem. Names that, for many reasons as of late, seem . . .  well . . . let’s just say, “quaint.”

Their time, however, was coming to an end. Three years earlier, California voters approved Proposition 140, which instituted term limits for the first time in California. And by 1996, the first slate of legislators would be “termed out.” The immediate impact: It was the time for making deals because you didn’t know who would be keeping house next.

At the time, I was lobbying for a trade association in Sacramento representing the architecture profession. One of the key legislative priorities for the association was protecting and “preserving” a statute that had originally been enacted in 1979 and scheduled to have sunsetted in 1984. For more than 10 years, it has been kept alive by legislative extensions.

The law, Business and Professions Code section 411.35, was designed to limit frivolous lawsuits against licensed architects, registered professional engineers and licensed land surveyors by requiring attorneys to consult with another design professional as a condition of filing a complaint or cross-complaint against a licensed architect, registered professional engineer, or licensed land surveyor.

Also known as a “Certificate of Merit,” the law was supposed to sunset in 1995, but the association was able to get the sunset removed. Business and Professions Code section 411.35, as currently amended, provides that “on or before” serving a cross-complaint alleging the professional negligence of a licensed architect, registered engineer, or licensed surveyor, a certificate of merit must be signed by the attorney and filed with the court representing that either:

  1. The attorney has consulted with at least one architect, professional engineer, or land surveyor licensed to practice in California or any other state, who is in the same discipline as the architect, professional engineer, or land surveyor, and the attorney has concluded based on the consultation that there is reasonable and meritorious cause for filing the complaint or cross-complaint;
  2. The attorney was unable to obtain a consultation before the running of the statute of limitations, in which event, a certificate of merit shall be filed within sixty (60) days after filing the complaint; or
  3. The attorney was unable to obtain a consultation following three (3) good faith attempts to obtain an opinion from three (3) separate architects, professional engineers, or land surveyors.

An attorney is not required to disclose the identity of architect(s), professional engineer(s), or land surveyor(s) consulted unless the attorney files a certificate of merit stating that it was unable to obtain a consultation, in which event, the identities of the architects, professional engineers, or land surveyors from whom a consultation was sought may be required to be disclosed by the court.

However, if, at the conclusion of litigation, the licensed architect, registered engineer, or licensed surveyor prevails, the licensed architect, registered engineer, or licensed surveyor may file a motion with the court requiring the attorney to disclose the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the persons consulted. If the court finds that the consulting requirements were not met, the court may order a party, a party’s attorney, or both, to pay reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, to the licensed architect, registered engineer, or licensed surveyor.

In Curtis Engineering Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego, Case No. D072046 (October 23, 2017), the California Court of Appeals addressed the impact of the relation-back doctrine – a doctrine that generally provides that a later-filed pleading “relates back” to the date of an earlier-filed pleading for statute of limitations purposes – on the certificate of merit law.

Curtis Engineering Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego

In Curtis Engineering, George Sutherland, a crane operator, was injured when his crane tipped over on May 5, 2014. Nearly two years later, on May 3, 2016, he filed suit in the San Diego Superior Court. His complaint included a negligence cause of action against Curtis Engineering Corporation.

Sutherland’s original complaint, however, did not include a certificate of merit. On December 1, 2016, Sutherland filed an amended complaint that included a certificate of merit.

In response, Curtis Engineering filed a demurrer arguing that Sutherland had failed to file the required certificate of merit within the two-year statute of limitations period applicable to a negligence cause of action. The trial court, however, denied the motion concluding that the first amended complaint “related-back”to the date the original complaint was filed

Curtis Engineering appealed.

The Court of Appeal Decision

On appeal, Curtis Engineering argued that the two-year statute of limitations for negligence expired on May 5, 2016, that the certificate of merit was not filed until December 1, 2016 (nearly seven months after expiration of the statute of limitations), and that the sixty (60) day grace period under Business and Professions Code section 411.35 had expired on July 2, 2016.

Discussing the relation-back doctrine, the Court of Appeals explained that under the doctrine a later-filed pleading will be deemed to have been filed at the time of an earlier complaint if the amended complaint is based on the same general set of facts. However, held the Court, based on the language of the certificate of merit statute, the relation-back doctrine does not apply to later-filed pleadings alleging the professional negligence of a licensed architect, professional engineer, or licensed surveyor for two reasons.

First, held the Court of Appeals, Business and Professions Code section 411.35 states that a certificate of merit “shall” be signed and filed by an attorney “on or before the date of service.” This requirement, explained the Court, would be rendered meaningless if the relation-back doctrine permitted an attorney to file a certificate of merit later in time in order to avoid a statute of limitations deadline.

Second, held the Court of Appeals, Business and Professions Code section 411.35 provides a sixty (60) day grace period applicable in situations where an attorney is unable to file a certificate of merit before a statute of limitations deadline. “[A]pplying the relation-back doctrine in this situation,” explained the Court, “would mean a plaintiff has virtually an unlimited amount of time to obtain the necessary consultation as long as the plaintiff files the certificate of merit with an amended complaint that relates back to the original complaint. This cannot be what the Legislature intended.”

Conclusion

Curtis Engineering provides further assurances to licensed architects, registered engineers and licensed surveyors that the intent of the certificate of merit law is preserved, by requiring attorneys to obtain a certificate of merit “on or before” service of a complaint or cross-complaint, or if a certificate of merit cannot be filed by the time a statute of limitations deadline expires, by requiring that a certificate of merit be filed within sixty (60) days after the filing of a complaint or cross-complaint.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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