We are called upon, in this appeal, to address two related issues: whether the District Court properly dismissed the plaintiff-appellant's complaint, and whether, under Puerto Rico law, the plaintiff-appellant's complaint is time-barred. Resolving the first issue requires discussion of the second, and we begin with a brief review of the facts.
Julia Mendez, wife of Luis Aldahonda Rivera, the plaintiff-appellant, developed cancer and died in February 1982. At the time of her illness, Mendez worked for Parke Davis Laboratories in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Approximately five years after her death, while consulting an attorney on another matter, appellant first learned of a possible connection between his wife's illness and her workplace exposure to chemicals, particularly estrogen. Within a year of this consultation, appellant instituted a wrongful death action against Parke Davis & Co., Parke Davis Laboratories' parent company, seeking damages of $1 million for himself, $1 million for each of his two daughters, and $50,000 in lost earnings.
Parke Davis responded by filing a "Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative Motion for Summary Judgment." This motion presented two arguments: first, that there were no genuine issues of fact and that Parke Davis was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and second, that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because it was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Appellant then filed an "Opposition to Motion to Dismiss" and an amended complaint. The District Court granted Parke Davis' motion to dismiss, with prejudice, against the appellant.
II. The Issues
This appeal raises two issues. First, appellant argues that the District Court in effect granted summary judgment for Parke Davis. This action was premature and improper, appellant asserts, because appellant had not yet had the opportunity to conduct discovery and produce evidence on factual matters essential to his claim. Taking up where this argument leaves off, appellant's second argument is that the statute of limitations was tolled until appellant discovered the "author" or cause of his wife's death. Because we find no abuse of discretion in the District Court's actions, we affirm.
a. Motion to Dismiss
While the argument that the District Court treated a motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment may, at first, seem little more than a tempest in a teapot, the matter can be of significant consequence. Rule 12(b)(6) and Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure place different burdens on the parties, and the two motions may be appropriate at different stages of the litigation. Although it is well established that a party's choice of label for the motion is not controlling, that the two motions are functionally equivalent in some circumstances, and that a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss can be transformed by the court into a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 (and vice versa), C. Wright, A. Miller & M. Kane, 10 Federal Practice & Procedure § 2713 (1983); 27 Federal Procedure, L.Ed. § 62:471 (1984), this does not mean that the two motions are the same. This much of appellant's argument is correct. Where appellant goes astray, however, is in seeing confusion between the two motions where
Whether denominated a motion to dismiss or a summary judgment motion, when a defendant raises an affirmative defense that is obvious on the face of plaintiff's pleadings, and the court makes its ruling based only on those pleadings, the motion is treated as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Fudge v. Penthouse International, Ltd., 840 F.2d 1012, 1015 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 821, 109 S.Ct. 65, 102 L.Ed.2d 42 (1988). Rule 12(b) requires that the grounds for dismissal must be clear on the face of the pleadings alone.
b. The Statute of Limitations
On the face of appellant's original complaint it is clear that the cause of action is barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
The District Court reviewed Puerto Rico's statute of limitations and the burden it places on the plaintiff who "commences an action more than a year after the injury occurred ... to show that he lacked the requisite `knowledge' of the relevant facts or that the limitations period was tolled." Aldahonda Rivera v. Parke Davis & Co., slip op. at 3, and cases cited therein. After carefully considering appellant's complaint and his amended complaint, the District Court concluded:
Id. The District Court further noted that:
Id. (citations omitted). Echoing the U.S. Supreme Court's language in United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 123-24, 100 S.Ct. 352, 360, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979), concerning the limitations period established by the Federal Tort Claims Act, Judge Laffitte correctly summarized the law: "Plaintiff knew of his wife's death for five years. He had the responsibility of seeking the cause of her death by examining the medical or hospital records of the decedent or seeking advice from the medical and/or legal profession." Slip op. at 4.
Reading appellant's pleadings in the most favorable light possible, the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that appellant filed his complaint four years too late only because it took him that long to consult an attorney. Appellant's arguments that the statute of limitations should be tolled because he had no reason to suspect negligence by Parke Davis, and did not know he could circumvent the workers' compensation statute by suing the parent company, have not been considered sufficient to toll the Puerto Rico statute of limitations. See, e.g., Hodge v. Parke Davis & Co., 833 F.2d 6, 8-9 (1st Cir.1987) (in this factually similar case, the court noted: "Although Puerto Rican law requires knowledge of the `author' or `person who caused' the injury, it does not suggest that ... a plaintiff must know the exact name of the tortfeasor or the precise intracorporate relationships that determine the name of the appropriate defendant. Indeed, such a fact about corporate relationships, normally a matter of public record, is rarely the kind of fact that would prevent the limitations statute from beginning to run...."); Galarza v. Zagury, 739 F.2d 20, 23 (1st Cir.1984) (in this medical malpractice action, the court recounted plaintiff's diligent and repeated efforts, including consulting several doctors, to determine the cause of her injury); Kaiser v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 678 F.Supp. 29, 32 (D.P.R.1987) (The court found plaintiff's complaint time-barred because he knew of his asbestos-related condition and its cause three to four years before filing suit; "the exact name of the tortfeasor(s) being immaterial."), aff'd, 872 F.2d 512 (1st Cir.1989); Ramirez Pomales v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 649 F.Supp. 913, 921 (D.P.R.1986) (the court explained that the limitations period remains frozen while plaintiffs' administrative claims are pending), aff'd, 839 F.2d 1 (1st Cir.1988);
c. The Affidavit
One final matter remains. Appellant's final argument appears to be that his affidavit, filed after the District Court granted Parke Davis' motion to dismiss, somehow converted that motion into a summary judgment motion. We have two responses. First, the affidavit was filed too late to convert the motion into a summary judgment motion, since the District Court could not possibly have considered it when granting the motion to dismiss, and second, "an affidavit filed by the plaintiff which merely reiterates the claim stated in the complaint in general and conclusory language does not convert an FRCP 12(b)(6) motion to one for summary judgment." 27 Federal Procedure § 62:474 at 587 (1984) (citation omitted). Appellant's affidavit consists of conclusory statements to the effect that "we had no knowledge, nor did we have any [way] of discovering" the cause of decedent's cancer; "no one informed us of this situation"; "my wife's illness and her decease was never investigated ... by the State Insurance Fund." As the District Court correctly observed, "[c]onclusory statements by Aldahonda Rivera that he has filed a timely claim without a statement of specific facts as to his discovery of the cause of his wife's death is insufficient." Slip op. at 4.
The District Court acted properly in finding appellant's cause of action for his wife's death barred by the Puerto Rico statute of limitations and granting Parke Davis' motion to dismiss. Neither appellant's affidavit, filed with his motion for reconsideration, nor his amended complaint raised any material issue of fact or matter outside the pleadings that converted this motion into one for summary judgment. When considering Parke Davis' Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the District Court was required to
Chongris v. Board of Appeals, 811 F.2d 36, 37 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 483 U.S. 1021, 107 S.Ct. 3266, 97 L.Ed.2d 765 (1987) (citations omitted). This the District Court did, without missing a step. The ruling below is