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Morris v. Giant Four Corners, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 26, 2017

FRANKLIN J. MORRIS, as Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Estate of MARCELLINO MORRIS, JR. Deceased, Plaintiff,
GIANT FOUR COURNERS, INC. d/b/a GIANT #7251, Defendant.


         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Giant Four Corners, Inc.'s Rule 12(B)(6) Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for Wrongful Death or, in the Alternative, to Stay the Case Pending Plaintiff's Exhaustion of His Tribal Court Remedies [Doc. 38] (Motion to Dismiss). The Motion to Dismiss presents the question of whether a tribal court dismissal based on tribal statute of limitation grounds should serve as a res judicata bar to the same suit brought under New Mexico law in U.S. Federal District Court. After reviewing the motions, briefs, and applicable law, the Court concludes that the Navajo Nation District Court's dismissal on statute of limitations grounds does not have preclusive effect on the current proceedings, and, therefore, the motion will be denied.


         This case arises out of an automobile collision that occurred on December 30, 2011, in which Decedent, Marcellino Morris, was killed. [Doc. 1-1] The Plaintiff, Decedent's estate, contends that Defendant Giant Four Corners is liable for Decedent's death under two theories of negligence-negligent entrustment based on Defendant's sale of gasoline to Andy Ray Denny, the driver of the other vehicle, who was visibly intoxicated, and negligent hiring, training, and supervision of the employees who sold the gasoline to Denny. [Doc. 1-1, p. 1-2]

         Franklin Morris, the representative of the estate Plaintiff, and Denny are both members of the Navajo Nation, as was Decedent. Defendant is not a member but is registered to conduct business on the reservation, and the events giving rise to Plaintiff's claims all occurred on the reservation. [Doc. 38-1] Accordingly, Plaintiff originally filed suit in the District Court of the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint. [Doc. 38-1] Defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that Plaintiff's suit was filed after the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims under the Navajo Nation Code. See 7 N. N.C. § 602(A)(1). [Doc. 38-2, p. 1-2] Plaintiff argued that his complaint was constructively filed on December 27, 2013, when it was faxed to the Navajo Court Clerk which was within the two-year statute of limitations. [Doc. 38-3] Defendant argued that the effective date of filing was January 13, 2014, based on the date the clerk stamped the document. [Doc. 38-2, 38-4] The District Court of the Navajo Nation ultimately agreed with Defendant and granted the motion for summary judgment. [Doc. 38-5] Plaintiff has appealed the decision to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court and is currently awaiting a ruling on that appeal.

         Before the tribal court issued a decision on the summary judgment motion, Plaintiff filed a wrongful death complaint alleging vicarious liability for negligent entrustment of a chattel and direct liability for negligent hiring, training, and supervision in New Mexico state district court. [Doc. 1-1] Defendant removed the case to Federal District Court in the District of New Mexico. [Doc. 1] On November 5, 2015, Defendant filed the instant motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), or, in the alternative to stay the case pending Plaintiff's exhaustion of tribal court remedies, arguing the case should be precluded under the doctrine of res judicata. [Doc. 38] The Court ordered the case stayed until November 29, 2016, when, although the Navajo Nation Supreme Court had not yet issued a decision on the matter, the parties requested that the Court lift the stay and proceed to decide the motion. [Doc. 55, 58, 63] The Court now considers the parties' arguments on Defendant's motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).


         Defendant argues that Plaintiff's current lawsuit in federal court is merely an attempt to relitigate the claims that were decided on summary judgment in tribal court and should be barred under comity principles and the doctrine of res judicata. [Doc. 38] Plaintiff responds that under New Mexico law, a dismissal of a claim as time-barred is not a decision on the merits, and the case should be allowed to proceed under the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in New Mexico. [Doc. 41]

         Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) allows for the dismissal of a complaint where the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1252 (10th Cir. 2006) (internal citation omitted). In considering dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court will “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, L.L.C. v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). A complaint will survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion if it “contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)).

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally decided on the face of the pleadings themselves, and consideration of matters outside the pleadings generally converts a Rule 12(b)(6) motion into a motion for summary judgment. Utah Gospel Mission v. Salt Lake City Corp., 425 F.3d 1249, 1253 (10th Cir. 2005). However, the Tenth Circuit has recognized that “facts subject to judicial notice may be considered in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.” Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1264-65 n.24 (10th Cir. 2006). “This includes another court's publicly filed records ‘concerning matters that bear directly upon the disposition of the case at hand.' ” Hodgson v. Farmington City, 675 F.App'x 838, 840- 41 (10th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Ahidley, 486 F.3d 1184, 1192 n.5 (10th Cir. 2007).

         Res Judicata

         “Under res judicata, 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 that action.” Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94, 101 S.Ct. 411, 414, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980). Res judicata promotes judicial economy by reducing unnecessary, duplicative litigation and promotes comity between separate jurisdictions by fostering reliance on existing adjudications. Id. at 95-96. Res judicata will preclude a subsequent suit where the following elements are satisfied: “(1) the prior suit must have ended with a judgment on the merits; (2) the parties must be identical or in privity; (3) the suit must be based on the same cause of action; and (4) the plaintiff must have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the claim in the prior suit.” Nwosun v. Gen. Mills Restaurants, Inc., 124 F.3d 1255, 1257 (10th Cir. 1997). Similarly, even where two causes of action present different claims, “issue preclusion bars a party from relitigating an issue once it has suffered an adverse determination on the issue.” Stan Lee Media, Inc. v. Walt Disney Co., 774 F.3d 1292, 1297 (10th Cir. 2014). Relitigation of an issue will be precluded where:

(1) the issue previously decided is identical with the one presented in the ...

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