The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) held in its precedential Opinion dated June 15, 2021: “Victor Mondelli sued Berkeley Heights Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (“Berkeley Heights”) and several of its employees for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Mondelli failed to cooperate with his counsel to provide discovery, so the District Court dismissed his complaint for failure to prosecute. Because there was verifiable evidence that placed Mondelli’s competency at issue, the Court prematurely dismissed his case. We will therefore vacate the dismissal order and remand for the Court to examine his competency, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17, and to then reevaluate whether dismissal is warranted.”
Mondelli has a long history of mental health issues, including suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and major depression. Despite these conditions, he attempted to attend to the needs of his mother while she resided at Berkeley Heights. During his daily twelve-hour visits, Mondelli allegedly observed the staff provide his mother with inadequate care. Mondelli regularly complained to Berkeley Heights staff, the New Jersey Board of Health, and the Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly. After several contentious visits, including ones when both sides called the police, Mondelli’s visits were limited to one to two hours per day in the lobby. Mondelli’s mother passed away in 2015.
Mondelli filed a complaint alleging violations of Title II of the ADA and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendants sent Mondelli interrogatories and requests for admission, which Mondelli failed to respond to despite several deadline extensions. Mondelli provided the federal district court with a certification in which he explained, among other things, that he (1) suffers from a variety of physical and mental health conditions; (2) was found incompetent to stand trial in the Municipal Court of Fanwood, New Jersey; and (3) has been unable to properly communicate with his lawyer. Mondelli also presented several exhibits, including letters from physicians and a psychiatrist stating he suffers from major depression and schizophrenia, which causes him stress and anxiety that has made it difficult for him to attend school, work, and court proceedings. Based upon the certification and accompanying exhibits, Mondelli asked the Magistrate Judge to place his case on administrative hold, which the Magistrate Judge granted.
Mondelli thereafter moved to reopen or extend the time to do so, which the District Court denied.
Federal Appellate Court Opinion
The Federal Appellate Court stated: “The Court has a duty to ensure that incompetent persons are properly represented. To this end, we must determine whether Rule 17 requires a district court to inquire into a plaintiff’s competency before dismissing his complaint for failure to prosecute. Rule 17 provides that “an incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by a next friend or by a guardian ad litem. The court must appoint a guardian ad litem—or issue another appropriate order—to protect [an] incompetent person who is unrepresented in an action.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c)(2). Rule 17 sets forth examples of representatives who may sue or defend on behalf of an incompetent person, such as a general guardian, a committee, a conservator, or a like fiduciary. Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c)(1).”
“A court’s obligation under Rule 17 to appoint a guardian for an incompetent person is mandatory … A district court must invoke Rule 17 sua sponte and consider whether to appoint a representative for an incompetent person when there is “verifiable evidence of incompetence” … Here, there was verifiable evidence of Mondelli’s potential incompetence to trigger a Rule 17 inquiry … Based on this verifiable evidence of Mondelli’s potential incompetence, a Rule 17 inquiry was required. Contrary to Defendants’ arguments, Rule 17’s obligation is not limited to pro se litigants.”
The Federal Appellate Court held: “In sum, a district court presented with verifiable evidence of incompetence may abuse its discretion under Rule 17(c) if it fails to appoint a next friend or guardian ad litem to represent an incompetent person, even when he or she is represented by counsel. Because Mondelli presented verifiable evidence concerning his potential incompetency, the District Court should have conducted an inquiry into his competency regardless of whether he had legal counsel. Relatedly, because Mondelli’s competence may impact the findings concerning his personal responsibility for disregarding his discovery obligations and whether he did so willfully or in bad faith, the Court prematurely determined that the Poulis factors supported dismissal.”
Source Mondelli v. Berkeley Heights Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, No. 18-2193.
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