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Maestas v. Seidel

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 21, 2017

AMY SEIDEL, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon Defendant Amy Seidel's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Doc. 40), filed February 1, 2017. Having reviewed the parties' pleadings and the applicable law, the Court finds that Defendant's Motion is well-taken and, therefore, is GRANTED.


         Plaintiff Joseph R. Maestas worked as a Project Manager in the Public Works Department for the Town of Taos, New Mexico (“the Town”). He is suing his former employer for violations of his procedural due process and equal protection rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983. According to the Complaint, on April 30, 2014, Reuben Martinez, the IT Director for the Town of Taos (“Martinez”) and his staff were encountering problems working on a fiber optics connection between the Town of Taos and the dispatch center because the bandwidth was being used up for various reasons. Martinez and his staff discovered that Plaintiff and two other employees were caught viewing sexually explicit images on their computers and their viewing was taking up bandwidth. Martinez and Defendant Seidel, the Human Resource (HR) Director for the Town, went to Plaintiff's office and confiscated his computer. However, when Martinez and Seidel went to confiscate the computers in the offices of the other two employees they found the doors were locked. Despite having keys to those offices, Defendant Seidel did not enter the offices or direct any other persons to do so on her behalf. By the time Martinez gained access to the computers belonging to the other two employees, the history had been cleared. The complaint asserts that Martinez could have determined if the other two computers had been accessed between the time Martinez discovered the excessive bandwidth and the time Martinez was able to obtain access to the computers, but Defendant Seidel never asked Martinez or his staff to do this. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated his equal protection rights by terminating him for computer use while not terminating the other two employees. Plaintiff also asserts that his due process rights were violated by Defendant's failure to timely schedule Plaintiff's administrative appeal of his termination.

         On February 4, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against the Town of Taos in the Eighth Judicial District, County of Taos, New Mexico (the “state case”). In Count I of that lawsuit, Plaintiff alleges that he was terminated in violation of the state Whistleblower Protection Act (NMSA 1978 §10-16C-1, et seq.) (“WPA”) and in Count II he alleges breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in which Plaintiff asserted that he was wrongly denied an employment hearing in violation of the employee handbook (“state contract claim”).

         On June 21, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant federal suit. Plaintiff alleges violations of equal protection based on the Town's failure to similarly investigate the other two employees' computer use (Count I), and its failure to similarly terminate and discipline (Counts II and IV, respectively) the other two employees.

         Like the state case, the federal suit focuses on alleged deprivation of the employment hearing, and on alleged unequal treatment. Both Complaints arise out of Plaintiff's termination from the Town of Taos. The state case has been fully litigated, and the jury rendered its verdict in Plaintiff's favor on September 16, 2016. All post-trial motions were briefed and argued on January 20, 2017. Plaintiff moved for a new trial in the state case, which the state court denied. The Plaintiff in both cases, Mr. Maestas, is the same. The Town is the Defendant in the state case, while Ms. Seidel in her official and individual capacities is the Defendant in this case.


         “[A] federal court must give to a state-court judgment the same preclusive effect as would be given that judgment under the law of the State in which the judgment was rendered.” Migra v. Warren City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 81 (1984). Under New Mexico law, res judicata “applies equally to [bar] all claims arising out of the same transaction, regardless of whether they were raised at the earlier opportunity, as long as they could have been raised. Res judicata applies if three elements are met: (1) a final judgment on the merits in an earlier action, (2) identity of parties or privies in the two suits, and (3) identity of the cause of action in both suits.” Pielhau v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2013-NMCA-112, ¶ 8, 314 P.3d 698 (internal citation omitted). New Mexico law tracks federal law. See Moffat v. Branch, 2005-NMCA- 103, ¶ 11, 138 N.M. 224, 118 P.3d 732. “Under res judicata, or claim preclusion, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in the prior action. To apply the doctrine of res judicata, three elements must exist: (1) a [final] judgment on the merits in an earlier action; (2) identity of parties or privies in the two suits; and (3) identity of the cause of action in both suits.” Wilkes v. Wyoming Dep't of Employment Div. of Labor Standards, 314 F.3d 501, 503-04 (10th Cir. 2002) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (footnote omitted) (alteration and emphasis in original).


         As a threshold matter, the Court will not consider the Motion to Dismiss as a summary judgment motion. Defendant attached exhibits to her motion, which are comprised of the state complaint, copies of discovery from the state case, the verdict form from the state case, and portions from the trial record in the state case. The Court may take judicial notice of these documents, all of which were filed in the Eighth Judicial District Court, without converting this motion into a motion for summary judgment. “Although a court generally must convert a motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment when the court considers ‘matters outside the pleadings, ' Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), a court need not do so if it takes ‘judicial notice of its own files and records, as well as facts which are a matter of public record.'” Rose v. Utah State Bar, 471 F. App'x 818, 820 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1265 n. 24 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotation omitted) (emphasis added); Van Woudenberg ex rel. Foor v. Gibson, 211 F.3d 560, 568 (10th Cir. 2000), abrogated on other grounds by McGregor v. Gibson, 248 F.3d 946, 955 (10th Cir. 2001)); See also Grynberg v. Koch Gateway Pipeline Co., 390 F.3d 1276, 1278 n. 1 (10th Cir. 2004); Merswin v. Williams Companies, Inc., 364 F. App'x 438, 441 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Amphibious Partners, LLC v. Redman, 534 F.3d 1357, 1361-62 (10th Cir. 2008)) (“It is settled that the district court can take judicial notice of its own decision and records in a prior case involving the same parties.”).

         Turning to the merits, Defendant argues Plaintiff should be precluded from re-litigating issues that have already been raised, or could have been raised, in the state case and dismissal of this case is proper under the doctrine of res judicata. Defendant points out that this Court already ruled that Plaintiff's attempt to add the Town as a defendant in this suit was futile because Plaintiff's claims against the Town were precluded under res judicata, thereby denying Plaintiff's request to the Complaint. See Doc. 33.

         I. Judgment on the Merits

         Ms. Seidel first argues the state case has been fully litigated and the jury rendered its verdict on September 16, 2016, thus disposing of the case on the merits. Since that time, post-trial motions have been fully briefed and argued. The judge in the state case has indicated she will issue all final rulings on these Motions sometime early this year, thus concluding any remaining issues in the case. Therefore, under any evaluation, the state case has been heard on the merits by a jury and meets the first element of the res judicata analysis.

         In the Response, Plaintiff contends there is no final order in the state case, so the first element of res judicata is not met. Plaintiff states that because the state court has not yet entered a final order on his Motion for a New Trial, which under Rule 12-201(D)(1) is the “final” order in the case, then final judgment has not been entered. Plaintiff also argues that the jury never made any findings of fact or conclusions of law. However, as the Town argues in the Reply, res judicata requires that the prior suit ended with a judgment on the merits. Johnson v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 611 Fed.Appx. 496, 497 (10th Cir. 2015); Nwosun v. Gen. Mills Restaurants, Inc., 124 F.3d 1255, 1257 (10th Cir. 1997). The jury's verdict in the state case was based on the merits of the case and was not a procedural judgment. The ...

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