Nolan v. Riverstone Health Care

Nolan v. Riverstone Health Care, 2017 MT 63 (March 21, 2017) (Sandefur, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in dismissing Nolan’s complaint for failure to comply with the service of process rules.

Short Answer: No.


Facts: In February 2013, Nolan filed a pro se complaint against RiverStone alleging that it violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment) by denying him access to a prescribed pain medication (Hydrocodone) while incarcerated. Nolan subsequently filed additional pro se documents and mailed some to RiverStone’s general business address. In April 2014, after obtaining issuance of a summons, Nolan mailed the summons to RiverStone along with purported amendments to his original complaint. The attempted mail service did not include his original complaint or an amended complaint.

In November 2015, the clerk of court notified Nolan that more than a year had passed without any action in his case and that local rules required dismissal absent a showing of good cause within 20 days. Nolan quickly filed a motion indicating he expected the sheriff to serve RiverStone on his behalf. In early December, Nolan filed two motions to compel RiverStone to answer his complaint, and mailed a copy of the second motion to RiverStone, At Nolan’s request, the clerk issued another summons on Dec. 21, 2015.

On Aug. 31, 2016, RiverStone moved for dismissal of Nolan’s complaint for failure to effect proper service within three years. Nolan belatedly effected personal service of process on Sept. 14, 2016.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court dismissed Nolan’s complaint with prejudice for failure to effect service of process. Nolan appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The plaintiff has the burden of timely effecting proper service of process. M.R. Civ. P. 4(c)(1). The defendant’s knowledge of the action is not a substitute for valid service. Though this Court often affords pro se litigants wide latitude regarding substantive pleading requirements, they must still strictly comply with procedural rules. Strict compliance is particularly important where, as here, the procedural rules are jurisdictional.