It’s easy to assume that, in order to file a lawsuit, you must necessarily know who you are suing and what you are suing for. This is only partially true.
It is actually not at all uncommon for a party to know that they have been wronged in some manner and know that they have viable legal claims as a result of that wrong, yet not know the identity of the party from whom to seek redress. When this situation arises, there are a couple of options.
Civ.R. 15(D) states:
“When the plaintiff does not know the name of a defendant, that defendant may be designated in a pleading or proceeding by any name and description. When the name is discovered, the pleading or proceeding must be amended accordingly. The plaintiff, in such case, must aver in the complaint the fact that he could not discover the name. The summons must contain the words ‘name unknown,’ and a copy thereof must be served personally upon the defendant.”
These unknown defendants will often be identified as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.”
Petition for Pre-Suit Discovery
On the other hand, Ohio law provides with a process by which they can file a “Petition for Discovery,” which is filed like a complaint but, practically speaking, is more akin to a motion asking the court to order another party to produce certain documents or divulge certain information in response to an interrogatory.
The pre-suit discovery process is governed by R.C. 2317.48, which states:
When a person claiming to have a cause of action or a defense to an action commenced against him, without the discovery of a fact from the adverse party, is unable to file his complaint or answer, he may bring an action for discovery, setting forth in his complaint in the action for discovery the necessity and the grounds for the action, with any interrogatories relating to the subject matter of the discovery that are necessary to procure the discovery sought.
Ohio courts have clarified that “R.C. 2317.48 is available to obtain facts required for pleading, not to obtain evidence for purposes of proof.” Marsalis v. Wilson, 149 Ohio App. 3d 637, 642 (2d Dist. 2002). In other words, this is not a free pass for a party to determine whether he or she has a claim or weigh how strong it may be; it is a limited opportunity to ascertain facts that must be alleged in a proper pleading relative to a claim for which the party already has a good faith basis. In nearly every instance, the missing information being sought is the identity of a potential party.
Civ.R. 34(D) further governs this process with regard to requests for documentation. See generally Huge v. Ford Motor Co., 155 Ohio App. 3d 730 (2004). “R.C. 2317.48 and Civ.R. 34(D) work in tandem to govern discovery actions.” Id., at 734. In order to take advantage of this Rule, the party must first make reasonable efforts to obtain the discovery voluntarily. The petition must include:
(a) A statement of the subject matter of the petitioner’s potential cause of action and the petitioner’s interest in the potential cause of action;
(b) A statement of the efforts made by the petitioner to obtain voluntarily the information from the person from whom the discovery is sought;
(c) A statement or description of the information sought to be discovered with reasonable particularity;
(d) The names and addresses, if known, of any person the petitioner expects will be an adverse party in the potential action;
(e) A request that the court issue an order authorizing the petitioner to obtain the discovery.
Civ.R. 34(D)(1). The court will issue an order for the discovery if it finds:
(a) The discovery is necessary to ascertain the identity of a potential adverse party;
(b) The petitioner is otherwise unable to bring the contemplated action;
(c) The petitioner made reasonable efforts to obtain voluntarily the information from the person from whom the discovery is sought.
Civ.R. 34(D)(3). Note that, under Civ.R. 34(D), that the discovery is needed “to ascertain the identity of a potentially adverse party” is not just a practical effect but, rather, a requirement of the Rule.
Which is best?
If a party can reasonably identify and is merely missing the name of the adverse party or parties or believes they can obtain information from the unnamed parties via discovery once the action is filed, naming a “Doe Defendant” under Civ.R. 15(D) is likely the most efficient route. However, if additional information or documentation is necessary to even begin to identify the adverse party, an action for pre-suit discovery may be warranted.
Statute of Limitations Implications
One common misconception is that an action for pre-suit discovery under R.C. 2317.48 and/or Civ.R. 34(D) or, alternatively, naming a Doe Defendant somehow preserves or tolls the statute of limitations until the party can be identified and the ultimate action (or amended action) brought against them. This is not the case. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued its decision in Erwin v. Bryan, holding that it could not, “through a court rule, alter the General Assembly’s policy preferences on matters of substantive law, and Civ.R. 15(D) therefore may not be construed to extend the statute of limitations beyond the time period established by the General Assembly.” 125 Ohio St. 3d 519, 525 (2010). “Civ.R. 15(D) does not authorize a claimant to designate defendants using fictitious names as placeholders in a complaint filed within the statute-of-limitations period and then identify, name, and personally serve those defendants after the limitations period has elapsed.” Id., at 526.
While Erwin does not make as explicit of a finding as to R.C. 2317.48 and/or Civ.R. 34(D), its inclusion of these rules in the same discussion, as well as the nature of such rules (contemplating an action exclusively for discovery and not naming the adverse party or parties, as they cannot be ascertained without the same) strongly suggests an identical result. Indeed, the statute of limitations is intended to encourage parties to be diligent in investigating their claims and, if the identity of an adverse party is in question, the spirit (and, likely, the letter) of the law would require such party to initiate a discovery action with sufficient time to obtain the discovery and then bring the ultimate action.