The Minnesota Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue of the unauthorized practice of law. The question it considered is whether a complaint signed by a lawyer who was unlicensed is a nullity or whether the defect can be cured. This is an important question and it has been considered by other states.
The highlights of the court’s reasoning are as follows:
The Minnesota rules of court are clear on the need for pleadings such as a complaint to be signed by an attorney licensed in Minnesota. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.01; Minn. Gen. R. Prac. 5. A complaint lacking the signature of a Minnesota attorney is defective. The rules also require a summons to be “subscribed by the plaintiff or by the plaintiff’s attorney.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.01. In keeping with statutory requirements that attorneys not licensed in Minnesota may not practice in the state, see Minn. Stat. § 481.02, we conclude that the Rule 4.01 imperative that a summons be subscribed by the plaintiff “or by the plaintiff’s attorney” requires that a summons not subscribed by the plaintiff be subscribed by an attorney licensed to practice in Minnesota. Accordingly, a summons is defective if it is not subscribed by either the plaintiff or an attorney licensed to practice law in Minnesota. Here, both the summons and the complaint were defective.
Minnesota’s Rules of Civil Procedure specifically grant district courts the authority “in [their] discretion and on such terms as [they] deem[ ] just” to “allow any summons or other process . . . to be amended, unless it clearly appears that substantial rights” would be prejudiced by the amendment. Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.07. This broad discretion encompasses the power to allow a signature defect on the summons to be remedied. Further, Rule 11.01 provides that “[a]n unsigned document shall be stricken unless omission of the signature is corrected promptly after being called to the attention of the attorney or party.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.01 (emphasis added).
Despite these applicable rules, the defendants and amicus argue that the summons and complaint were void and therefore could not be amended because the signature defect is jurisdictional. They argue that attorneys unlicensed in Minnesota have no authority to commence actions in Minnesota courts, and that because service of a valid summons confers personal jurisdiction over the defendant, see Shamrock Dev., Inc. v. Smith, 754 N.W.2d 377, 382 (Minn. 2008),service of a summons signed by an out-of-state attorney does not commence an action at all. Therefore, they argue, the district court could not allow amendment of the summons and complaint because no valid summons and complaint existed to be amended.
This position is at odds with the policies underlying the Rules of Civil Procedure and the way we have previously addressed the amendment of defective summonses and complaints. We have repeatedly interpreted the rules regarding the court’s acquisition of jurisdiction by summons liberally “to avoid defeating an action merely because of technical and formal defects which could not reasonably have misled or prejudiced a defendant.” See Nelson v. Glenwood Hills Hosps., 240 Minn. 505, 511, 62 N.W.2d 73, 77 (1953). Accordingly, as reflected in the Rules of Civil Procedure, “amendment should be granted freely when justice so requires.”Id. at 513, 62 N.W.2d at 78. To allow amendment of a summons and complaint if the opposing party has not been prejudiced by the defect ensures that the rules help “effect the settlement of controversies upon their merits rather than . . . by dismissal on technical grounds.” Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 273 v. Gross, 291 Minn. 158, 165, 190 N.W.2d 651, 656 (1971).
Further, in other circumstances in which personal jurisdiction would otherwise not exist because of defective process, we have held that “[i]f service of summons and complaint results in an intended defendant being fully informed as to the circumstances of the action, the court has acquired sufficient jurisdiction over that defendant, even though an amendment is necessary to correct” the defect.Nelson, 240 Minn. at 513, 62 N.W.2d at 78. If a summons and complaint that name the wrong entity as a defendant in the lawsuit are correctable, see id., so should be a summons and complaint with signature defects. Indeed, in a closely analogous case, we held that a complaint signed by a non-attorney could be amended. Save Our Creeks v. City of Brooklyn Park, 699 N.W.2d 307, 310-11 (Minn. 2005). In doing so, we specifically rejected the contention that the signature defect made the complaint a legal nullity. Id.; cf. Becker v. Montgomery, 532 U.S. 757, 768 (2001) (concluding that where a notice of appeal lacked the required signature, the defect was curable, particularly where the rule in question specifically provided for correction of an omitted signature)…
In this case, the district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the amendment to cure the signature. In accord with Rule 11.01, the defect was promptly corrected once it was brought to the attention of the DeCooks. Regarding the requirements of Rule 4.07 and Rule 15.01, the lack of a Minnesota attorney’s signature on the complaint cannot be said to have prejudiced the defendants’ ability to answer or undermined the ends of justice in any way. Given these circumstances, the district court’s decision to allow the amendment was not an abuse of discretion.