DeCook v. Olmsted Medical Center, Inc.

(Published, No. A14-1180)

Minnesota Supreme Court, Feb. 17, 2016

 

In DeCook v. Olmsted Medical Center, Inc., the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a summons and complaint bearing only the signature of an attorney not licensed to practice in Minnesota was defective, but that the district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the summons and complaint to be amended.

This case involves a medical malpractice claim arising from the birth of Mya DeCook.  Her parents, Jennifer and Ryan DeCook retained attorneys to bring a malpractice claim against Olmsted Medical Center and the doctors and nurses involved in Mya’s birth.  The DeCooks’ attorney contacted the Medical Center’s risk management department and were told by the compliance officer that she was authorized to accept service by e-mail on behalf of the three doctors and two nurses who were named in the lawsuit.  Relying on these representations, the DeCooks’ attorneys served the summons and complaint by e-mail on January 14, 2014.  However, the documents were only signed by Patrick Thronson, an attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland.  The compliance officer signed and returned an acceptance of service form to the DeCooks’ attorneys.

On January 31, 2014, however, the defendants filed motions to dismiss for insufficient service of process, among other things.  The district court denied the motions to dismiss.  The court noted that, although the summons and complaint were defective due to the lack of a Minnesota-licensed attorney’s signature, the court had discretion to allow the complaint to be amended to conform to the rules.  However, the district court did grant motions to dismiss to several of the defendants who had not been personally served with the summons and complaint.  Both parties appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The Minnesota Supreme Court held first that the summons and complaint were defective because they were not signed by an attorney licensed to practice law in Minnesota.  However, the court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it allowed the documents to be amended.  As such, the Supreme Court affirmed on that basis.

However, the Supreme Court found that the district court erred in finding that the record contained no evidence that the defendants consented to service.  The court notes that the DeCooks submitted evidence that the Medical Center’s compliance officer had consented to accept service on behalf of all defendants, and the defendants did not provide any evidence to contradict that.  As such, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ ruling on this matter and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

There are several take-aways from this case.  First, a summons and complaint must be signed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the state of Minnesota.  If this is not done, the district court may allow the documents to be amended.  However, that is within the district court’s discretion.  Furthermore, when faced with an impending statute of limitations, the best practice is always to perfect personal service on each defendant.

 

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