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GLEN EDIN OF EDINBURGH ASSOCIATION, Appellant, v. HISCOX INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent.
In this insurance-coverage action, appellant-insured challenges the district court's dismissal under rule 5.04(a) of appellant's complaint against respondent-insurer. Because the plain language of the rule is not limited to filing a complaint, but would also include filing an answer, we reverse the district court's decision to dismiss appellant's complaint.
Appellant Glen Edin of Edinburgh Association (Glen Edin) is a nonprofit common interest community insured by respondent Hiscox Insurance Company (Hiscox). The parties agree with the following pertinent facts. In June 2017, a storm caused damage to the exteriors of Glen Edin's buildings. Glen Edin filed a claim with Hiscox for wind and hail damage under its insurance policy. The parties could not agree on the amount of the loss and required an appraisal.
On June 11, 2019, Glen Edin served, but did not file, a complaint alleging breach of contract and declaratory judgment. Six months later, Glen Edin filed and served its motion for appointment of a neutral umpire for appraisal.1 As an exhibit to an affidavit in support of Glen Edin's memorandum of law, Glen Edin included the complaint it served on Hiscox. In November 2019, the district court held a hearing on the motion and issued an order appointing a neutral umpire in December 2019. The judgment from that order was entered on December 6, 2019.
Approximately eight months after being served with the complaint, Hiscox filed its answer on January 30, 2020, making denials, stating affirmative defenses, and requesting the following relief: an award of costs, disbursements, and attorney fees. Glen Edin did not file its complaint as a stand-alone document until March 3, 2021. That same day, Hiscox requested that the district court dismiss the complaint under rule 5.04(a), because the complaint was not filed within one year of service. Without briefing or further written submissions of the parties, the district court held an informal hearing and ultimately dismissed the case. Glen Edin then moved to vacate the judgment. The district court denied Glen Edin's motion to vacate. Glen Edin appeals.
Does Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 5.04(a) require dismissal of the action if the defendant filed its answer within one year of commencement of the action?
Glen Edin argues that the district court erred when it dismissed the case pursuant to rule 5.04(a) because Hiscox had filed an answer within one year of being served with the complaint.2 In response, Hiscox argues that rule 5.04(a) only pertains to filing of a complaint, and dismissal is proper even where a party has filed an answer within one year of commencement of the action. We agree with Glen Edin and do not adopt the interpretation of rule 5.04(a) offered by Hiscox.3
We apply a de novo standard of review when interpreting the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure. Gams v. Houghton, 884 N.W.2d 611, 616 (Minn. 2016). “When interpreting court rules, we look first to the plain language.” Id. (quotation omitted). “If the language of a rule is plain and unambiguous, we follow the rule's plain language.” Id. “A rule is ambiguous only if the language of the rule is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.” Id.
Rule 5.04(a) provides: “Any action that is not filed with the court within one year of commencement against any party is deemed dismissed with prejudice against all parties unless the parties within that year sign a stipulation to extend the filing period.” Hiscox argues that the term “any action” is equivalent and limited to “a complaint.” We are not persuaded by Hiscox's argument and agree with Glen Edin.4
We begin with the observation that the rule does not include an actor, but rather uses the passive voice: “any action that is not filed with the court.” In this way, the language of the rule is not limited to a pleading filed by the plaintiff. In addition, the applicable definition of “action” dissuades us from accepting the interpretation offered by Hiscox. The legislature defined the term “action” broadly to mean “any proceeding in any court of this state.” Minn. Stat. § 645.45(2) (2020). The Minnesota Supreme Court has previously considered this statutory definition in conjunction with the dictionary definitions of the term “proceeding” to establish a broad definition of action: “the first definition in Black's Law Dictionary and a comment under the definitions expressly state that a ‘proceeding’ encompasses the entire lawsuit and is broader than any single act in a lawsuit.” Ellis v. Doe, 924 N.W.2d 258, 263 (Minn. 2019) (defining “action” and “proceeding” in the context of a rent-escrow action based on definitions from section 645.45(2), Black's Law Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (citations omitted)). Likewise, the American Heritage Dictionary defines an “action” as “a judicial proceeding whose purpose is to obtain relief at the hands of a court.” See Action, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 17 (4th ed. 2006). These definitions conflict with the narrow interpretation offered by Hiscox and encompass pleadings like the answer filed in this case, which requested an award of costs, disbursements, and attorney fees.
Finally, the interpretation offered by Hiscox is at odds with prior decisions of this court. For example, we have previously concluded that filing an answer was an action under rule 5.04: “Minn. R. Civ. P. 5.04(a) requires the filing of the action within one year of commencement. [Defendant's] filing of the amended answer satisfied the requirements of Minn. R. Civ. P. 5.04(a).” Sorchaga v. Ride Auto, LLC, 893 N.W.2d 360, 367 n.1 (Minn. App. 2017), aff'd on other grounds 909 N.W.2d 550 (Minn. 2018). In addition, in MCHS Red Wing v. Converse, we determined that, for the purposes of rule 5.04(a), service of an answer commenced the action: “A civil action is commenced, for the purposes of Minn. R. Civ. P. 5.04(a), when a plaintiff ineffectively serves a defendant and the defendant effectively serves an answer ․” 961 N.W.2d 780, 781 (Minn. App. 2021). Hiscox's interpretation is inconsistent with these two cases, and Hiscox offers no convincing rationale to distinguish or disregard the analysis therein.
Because Hiscox filed an answer on January 30, 2020, within one year of service of the complaint on June 11, 2019, the district court erred when it dismissed the action under rule 5.04(a). We reverse the dismissal and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Reversed and remanded.
1. We observe that the motion for appointment of a neutral umpire was filed within one year of service of the complaint. Glen Edin, however, does not argue to this court that filing this motion satisfied rule 5.04(a). Given our decision and the arguments presented, we need not address whether Glen Edin satisfied rule 5.04(a) when it filed the motion for appointment of a neutral umpire within one year of serving the complaint.
2. Glen Edin alternatively argues that the district court erred when it dismissed the complaint because Glen Edin filed the complaint as an exhibit to an affidavit in support of its motion to appoint a neutral umpire in November 2019. Given our holding, we need not address whether attaching the complaint in connection with a motion on which judgment was entered satisfies rule 5.04(a).
3. Glen Edin also challenges the district court's decision to deny Glen Edin's motion to vacate. Given our decision regarding the plain language of rule 5.04(a), we need not address this argument.
4. Glen Edin also advances an alternative argument: if the language of rule 5.04(a) is ambiguous, the history of the amendments to the rule resolves any ambiguity in favor of reversal of the district court's decision. More precisely, Glen Edin argues that the task force recommending the current language of the rule never referred to a plaintiff filing a complaint in its report, but instead recommended changes in more open-ended and broad terms so that “any party can file with the court at any time.” Recommendations of the Minnesota Supreme Court Civil Justice Reform Task Force, No. ADM10-8051, at 21 (Minn. Dec. 23, 2011); see also Gams, 884 N.W.2d at 614; Order Adopting Amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure and General Rules of Practice Relating to the Civil Justice Reform Task Force, No. ADM10-8051, at 3 (Minn. Feb. 4, 2013). Given our discussion of the plain meaning of rule 5.04(a), however, we need not address whether the history of the amendments also supports this interpretation.
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Docket No: A21-0761
Decided: April 04, 2022
Court: Court of Appeals of Minnesota.
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