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Ricketts v. Strange

Supreme Court of Virginia

February 16, 2017

SHERYL DENISE RICKETTS
v.
CHARLIE EDWARD STRANGE, ET AL.

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF DANVILLE Joseph W. Milam, Jr., Judge

          OPINION

          WILLIAM C. MIMS JUSTICE

         In this appeal, the Court considers whether Sheryl Denise Ricketts had standing to pursue a personal injury claim against Charlie Edward Strange after filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The Court also considers whether the circuit court erred by denying her motions to correct a misnomer in her complaint or substitute the bankruptcy trustee as the proper plaintiff.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On February 3, 2012, Ricketts was involved in a motor vehicle accident. She visited her primary care physician later that day complaining of back and neck pain that was radiating into her head and causing a "severe" headache. A subsequent MRI revealed "a small posterior disc protrusion at C7-T1." She received corticosteroid injections, participated in physical therapy, and was treated by a chiropractor. When these treatments proved unavailing, she elected to undergo surgery.

         On January 16, 2014, shortly before the statute of limitations expired, Ricketts filed a complaint in the circuit court alleging that Strange's negligence was the direct and proximate cause of the accident. Strange moved for summary judgment on the ground that Ricketts lacked standing to pursue her claim. He asserted that in September 2012, Ricketts filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia. Strange argued that Ricketts's negligence claim was "assertable only by the trustee in bankruptcy" because she failed to properly exempt it from the bankruptcy estate.

         In her bankruptcy petition, Ricketts was required to list her interests in personal property. 11 U.S.C. § 521(a)(1)(B)(i). Question 18 of Schedule B directed Ricketts to identify any "liquidated debts owed to [her] including tax refunds." Rickets responded as follows:

Potential funds due to Debtor unknown at this time, including State & Federal tax refunds, 9/12 interest in joint 2012 tax refund of approximately $9700 = $7274, debtor 1/2 interes[t] = $3638, possible garnishment funds, insurance proceeds, proceeds related to claims or causes of action that may be asserted by the debtor, any claim for earned but unpaid wages, and/or inheritance.

         Question 21 directed Ricketts to list "[o]ther contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature, including tax refunds, counterclaims of the debtor, and rights to setoff claims." Ricketts marked, "None."

         On Schedule C, Ricketts was required to list the assets she "claimed as exempt" from the bankruptcy estate. She copied the assets listed under question 18 of Schedule B into Schedule C and alleged that these assets were exempt under Code § 34-4, Virginia's Homestead Exemption.

         The circuit court granted Strange's motion for summary judgment. It concluded that because Ricketts "failed to disclose [her claim against Strange] with the requisite reasonable particularity under the circumstances, " it "remained part of the . . . bankruptcy estate, [and was] assertable only by the trustee in bankruptcy."

         At the time of the circuit court's ruling, the statute of limitations on Ricketts's claim had expired. Moreover, the statute had not been tolled because, without standing, Ricketts's suit was a legal nullity. Kocher v. Campbell, 282 Va. 113, 119, 712 S.E.2d 477, 480-81 (2011) ("[A]n action filed by a party who lacks standing is a legal nullity . . . [and] has no tolling effect on the statute of limitations."). To avoid the statute of limitations bar, Ricketts moved, pursuant to Code § 8.01-6, for the circuit court to "amend the named plaintiff [in her pleadings] to [George McLean, the bankruptcy trustee], due to the misnomer." Alternatively, Ricketts asked that McLean be substituted as the proper plaintiff pursuant to Rule 3:17. The circuit court denied the motions. Ricketts appeals.

         II. ...


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