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Xander v. Snyder

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 25, 2018

CHASE XANDER, Plaintiff,
BRITT SNYDER, et al., Defendants.


          GREGORY B. WORMUTH, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Defendants' Motion for Review and/or Approval of Settlement (doc. 15). The Court held a competency and fairness hearing on the motion on January 18, 2018. Doc. 17. The Court issued an oral ruling granting the motion at the close of the hearing. Id. at 7. This Order memorializes that ruling and provides the factual and legal basis therefor.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed the underlying civil litigation in state court on April 21, 2017. See doc. 1-2. In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following facts. She called for an ambulance due to continued pain and an infection related to a serious dental procedure on April 10, 2017. Id. at 1. Officials from the Chaves County Sheriff's Office and the Midway Fire Department in Roswell responded to her call along with an ambulance from Superior Ambulance, and an unidentified EMT forced her into the ambulance. Id. at 1-2. Once she was in the ambulance, one of the Superior Ambulance employees began verbally harassing and assaulting her, and the driver refused to bring her to her hospital of choice. Id. at 2-3. Further, she alleges that the employee who forced her into the ambulance has harassed her and slandered her for years, but that the Sheriff's Office has refused to take her reports of these incidences seriously. Id. at 3-5. Generally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants are involved in a conspiracy to silence her by threatening to arrest her in response to her attempts to obtain information on various officials and to file reports relating to various incidents of assault and/or harassment. See Id. Defendants removed this action to federal court on May 16, 2017. Doc. 1.

         Counsel for Defendants informed the Court that the parties had tentatively reached a settlement agreement on December 28, 2017, and that Defendants believed court approval of the settlement may be necessary. Accordingly, the Court held a telephonic status conference with the parties on January 10, 2018. Docs. 12, 14. During that conference, defense counsel informed the Court that Plaintiff had been adjudicated incompetent to stand trial in several state court criminal cases. See doc. 14 at 2. These adjudications of incompetence caused Defendants concern that any settlement agreement with Plaintiff might be voidable on the basis that she lacked competency to contract. Id.

         Based on the concerns raised by Defendants, the Court determined that an in- person hearing was necessary to establish Plaintiff's competency to contract and the fairness of the proposed settlement agreement. Id. at 2-3. Because the parties mutually desired to waive the appointment of a guardian ad litem, the Court instructed Defendants to file a detailed motion setting forth the terms of the agreement and all pertinent factors bearing on the fairness of the agreement. The motion was filed on January 12, 2018, and the competency and fairness hearing took place on January 18, 2018. Docs. 15, 17.

         Having considered the motion, the hearing testimony, and the Court's own interactions with Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has the requisite mental capacity to sue and to contract under New Mexico law, and appointment of a guardian ad litem is therefore unnecessary to protect Plaintiff's interests. Moreover, having independently considered the relevant factors governing the fairness of settlement agreements generally, the Court finds that the settlement agreement is fair and reasonable. Therefore, the agreement will be approved.

         II. Analysis

         A. Appointment of a Guardian ad Litem under Rule 17(c) is not Necessary.

         As noted above, Plaintiff is proceeding pro se. Once defense counsel put the Court on notice that Plaintiff had been adjudicated incompetent in a criminal proceeding, that information triggered a duty of inquiry under Rule 17 to determine whether Plaintiff has the requisite capacity to bring suit in the first instance. See, e.g., Hudnall v. Sellner, 800 F.2d 377, 385 (4th Cir. 1986) (“[Rule 17(c)] does not indicate the basis upon which a court determines the predicate fact that a party not already legally adjudicated to be so, is presently ‘incompetent.' Obviously if there has been a legal adjudication of incompetence and that is brought to the court's attention, the Rule's provision is brought into play.”); Powell v. Symons, 680 F.3d 301, 308 (3d Cir. 2012); Ferelli v. River Manor Health Care Center, 323 F.3d 196, 201 (2d Cir. 2003); Dangim v. FNU LNU, USA Law Enf't, No. CV 16-0812 JB/SCY, 2017 WL 3149359, at *2-*3 (D.N.M. June 2, 2017). Rule 17(c)(2) provides that an incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by a next friend or by a guardian ad litem, and that the Court “must appoint a guardian ad litem-or issue another appropriate order-to protect a[n] . . . incompetent person who is unrepresented in an action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(c).

         “Rule 17(c) flows from the general duty of the court to protect the interests of infants and incompetents in cases before the court.” Garrick v. Weaver, 888 F.2d 687, 693 (10th Cir. 1989). However, “[t]he decision as to whether or not to appoint such a special representative rests with the sound discretion of the district court and will not be disturbed unless there has been an abuse of its authority.” Developmental Disabilities Advocacy Ctr., Inc. v. Melton, 689 F.2d 281, 285 (1st Cir. 1982) (citing Hoffert v. General Motors Corp., 656 F.2d 161, 164 (5th Cir. 1981)). See also Foe v. Vanderhoof, 389 F.Supp. 947, 957 (D. Colo. 1975) (“The suggestion in Rule 17(c) that a guardian be appointed to represent an infant or incompetent in court is not mandatory”). The Court finds that appointment of a guardian ad litem is not necessary here for several reasons.

         First, both parties wish to waive the appointment of a guardian ad litem. See doc. 14 at 3. Plaintiff in particular desired a quick approval of the proposed settlement due to the exigent circumstance that the well providing running water to her home needed to be replaced. Id.; doc. 17 at 6. Second, as just noted, while Rule 17 creates an obligation of the Court to protect minors and incompetent litigants, the rule explicitly allows the Court to “issue another appropriate order” to fulfill such obligation; appointment of a guardian ad litem is not required. Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(c). See also Gardner by Gardner v. Parson, 874 F.2d 131, 140 (3d Cir. 1989) (explaining that the court may decline to appoint a guardian ad litem if the interests of the litigant in question- there, a child-“may be protected in an alternative manner[, ]” but noting that “the cases and commentators appear unanimous in interpreting the [“another appropriate order”] provision of Rule 17(c) to mean that, if a court declines to appoint a guardian, it must act in some other way to protect the [litigant's] interests in the litigation.”).

         Third, and most significantly, at the time of the status conference, Plaintiff had thus far conducted herself competently before the Court, and had given no indication that she was unable to understand the proceedings or the terms of the proposed settlement agreement. In the context of federal civil litigation, the relevant inquiry regarding a litigant's competency to sue under Rule 17 is whether she is “mentally competent to understand the nature and effect of the litigation she has instituted.” Bodnar v. Bodnar, 441 F.2d 1103, 1104 (5th Cir. 1971) (per curiam), cert denied, 404 U.S. 913 (1971); Donnelly v. Parker, 486 F.2d 402, 407 (D.C. Cir. 1973) (stating that Rule 17(c) may require an inquiry into the plaintiff's “capacity to understand the meaning and effect of the litigation being prosecuted in her name.”). Plaintiff's conduct before the Court indicated that she fully understood both the nature and effect of the actions she had brought, and was capable of understanding the nature and effect of the settlement agreement. Indeed, Plaintiff initiated settlement negotiations by approaching defense counsel with a monetary offer, and she ably and intelligently questioned a particular condition suggested by defense counsel as part of the agreement. See doc. 14 at 1-2; see also doc. 15-2 at 2, 5.

         Therefore, being sensitive to Plaintiff's exigent circumstance and inclined to agree with Plaintiff that her ability to intelligently pursue her claims evinced her competence, the Court determined that an in-person hearing to evaluate Plaintiff's competence along with an independent evaluation of the fairness of the settlement sufficed to satisfy its duty under Rule 17. See Allen v. Calderon, 408 F.3d 1150, 1153 (9th Cir. 2005) (“[W]hen a substantial question exists regarding the mental competence of a party proceeding pro se, the proper procedure is for the district court to conduct a hearing to determine competence, so a guardian ad litem can be appointed, if necessary.”).[1] See also Eagan by Keith v. Jackson, 855 F.Supp. 765, 782-83 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (in the settlement approval context, declining to appoint a guardian ad litem despite conflict of interest between incompetent litigant and representative who brought suit, where the litigant was in need of money and the court had sufficient familiarity with the law and facts of the case to allow it to independently assess the merits of the settlement agreement).

         For the following reasons, the testimony presented at the competency and fairness hearing persuades the Court that Plaintiff is competent to sue in her own name, and that appointment of a guardian ad litem is therefore unnecessary to protect Plaintiff's interests in the litigation. First, Plaintiff testified that she regularly sees a psychiatrist for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but she has never been diagnosed with a mental illness that affects her cognitive functioning. Doc. 17 at 3. She is prescribed medical marijuana and Wellbutrin for PTSD, to aid her in quitting smoking, and to stabilize her mood. Id. However, she was not under the influence of any mood-altering drugs during the hearing. Id.

         Second, Plaintiff's testimony and other documentation support a finding that the adjudication of Plaintiff's incompetence in various criminal cases in state magistrate court was primarily a matter of administrative formality, and that such adjudication is therefore not dispositive here. Documents provided to the Court by defense counsel reflect that as to the incompetence finding that applied to two of the six criminal cases- M-7-MR-2017-00359 and M-7-MR-2017-00398-Plaintiff simply stipulated to incompetence without undergoing any underlying psychological evaluation. The incompetence finding that applied to the remaining four cases resulted from a psychological evaluation performed by Susan B. Cave, Ph.D. However, Plaintiff described that this evaluation lasted approximately twenty minutes and involved questions regarding the court process and basic information such as the identity of the ...

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