The Fourth Circuit recently upheld a decision denying relief to a deceased KFC employee whose lawsuit was filed two days after his death. House v. Mitra QSR KNE LLC, No. 18-1779 (4th Cir. 12/3/19) (unpublished).
House worked as a General Manager for KFC in Baltimore when he told his supervisor he suffered from alcoholism and was seeking treatment in a rehab program. When he returned from rehab, he discovered he had been fired. He filed a claim with the EEOC who issued a right to sue letter granting 90 days to file his lawsuit. In the meantime, House passed away. His lawsuit was filed on day 90, two days after his death, in his name.
Mitra filed a motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment, arguing that the case could no go forward because House had passed away before the lawsuit was filed. House agreed that the case could not proceed in his name but argued that he should be allowed to substitute House’s estate representative in his place. Such a substitution, House argued, would permit the case to proceed “as if it had been originally commenced by the real party in interest” (i.e., the person who is entitled to enforce the right in question).
The district court did not permit House’s estate to take House’s place and disposed of the lawsuit. House appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
On appeal, House argued that the district court should have permitted House to substitute his estate representative as the plaintiff in the suit. It is true, the Court said, that plaintiffs who fail to file lawsuits in the name of the real party in interest have the ability, under the Federal Rules, to correct the flaw by substituting the real party in interest. However, it went on, there are constitutional requirements of a lawsuit that must also be met. Specifically, individuals must have standing (i.e., “a concrete, particularized injury, fairly traceable to the challenged conduct, and likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision”) in order to be entitled to legal relief. Standing is measured at the time the case begins. Without standing, the court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
In this case, House was the named plaintiff. Because House was deceased at the time the lawsuit was filed, he simply had no standing to sue. In other words, House had no concrete, particularized injury that was traceable to his ADA claim at the time his case was filed because he was deceased at the time his case was filed. Without standing, there was no jurisdiction. And without jurisdiction, the Federal Rule permitting substitution of a real party in interest could not apply. As a result, the Court concluded, dismissal was the only proper way to resolve the lawsuit.