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Minor JGE v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 26, 2018

MINOR JGE et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

          Erlinda O. Johnson Law Office of Erlinda Ocampo Johnson Attorney for Plaintiffs

          Karen Grohman Ruth Fuess Keegan Assistant U.S. Attorneys Attorneys for Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARTHA VÁZQUEZ United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiffs JGE, Gabriela Gallegos, Jolene Estrada and Joyce Estrada's Motion to Alter or Amend the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Judgment as to Defendant United States, filed August 29, 2016 [Doc. 77]. On August 9, 2016, this Court dismissed all claims against the United States, finding that because the Complaint failed to state a claim of negligence under New Mexico law, Plaintiffs failed to state claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). [Doc. 75]. The Court, having considered the Motion, briefs, relevant law, and being otherwise fully informed, finds that Plaintiffs' Motion is not well-taken and will be DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs' claims against the United States, brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), arose out of the Drug Enforcement Agency's (“DEA”) activation and use of Edward Quintana as an informant. The allegations in the First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) supporting Plaintiffs' claims are set forth fully in the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order dated August 9, 2016. [Doc. 75]. The Court incorporates those facts by reference herein. In summary, while employed as an informant but unrelated to his activities as an informant, Quintana moved in with the Estrada family and shortly thereafter began sexually molesting the family's then five-year-old son, JGE. After Quintana moved out, JGE told his parents about the abuse, prompting JGE's father, Jason Estrada, to ask around the neighborhood for Quintana's whereabouts. Upon learning that Jason Estrada was telling people about the abuse, Quintana and two other males returned to the home on April 3, 2013, and, in the presence of young JGE, murdered Jason Estrada. Quintana was deactivated as an informant roughly the following day.

         Plaintiffs sued both individually named DEA employees as well as the United States. Plaintiffs claimed in Counts I-XVII of the Complaint that because the DEA (1) failed to warn Plaintiffs that Quintana was a dangerous DEA informant, and (2) negligently supervised Quintana, the United States breached its duty to protect Plaintiffs from Quintana, who the DEA knew or should have known had violent tendencies. [Docs. 19 at 65-114; 77 at 1].

         I. The Court's August 9, 2016 Opinion

         In its previous Memorandum Opinion and Order, this Court dismissed all claims against both the named Individual Defendants and the United States. [Doc. 75 at 21-37]. Plaintiffs' Rule 59(e) Motion only challenges the judgment in favor of the United States. [Doc. 77]. The Court's reasoning was guided by two fundamental principles governing FTCA claims. First, the FTCA does not create liability but merely provides that the tort law of the state where the conduct occurred applies to the United States. See Doc. 75 at 23 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); Hill v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 393 F.3d 1111, 1117 (10th Cir. 2004)). Second, under the FTCA the United States is only liable to the same extent as private individuals in comparable circumstances. Id. at 24 (citing Coffey v. United States, 870 F.Supp.2d 1202 (D.N.M. 2012). Accordingly, the Court examined negligence liability theories recognized under New Mexico law that might be analogous to the instant case.

         Particularly relevant to the present Motion, this Court examined whether there was a special relationship between the DEA and Quintana giving rise to a duty to protect Plaintiffs. Pursuant to the above framework for stating a claim under the FTCA, the Court examined New Mexico case law regarding the duties that medical professionals (i.e. potentially analogous private persons) may have to protect against harmful conduct by their patients. The Court focused its analysis on Section 319 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which had been adopted by New Mexico courts for the rule that medical professionals can be liable for harms caused by patients with known dangerous propensities, if the doctor exerts control over the patient. Id. at 29 (citing Brown v. Kellogg, 340 P.3d 1274 (Ct. App. N.M. 2014), inter alia). The Court reasoned that because Quintana's record of criminal convictions did not indicate Quintana's dangerous propensities, and because the DEA did not exert control over Quintana's residence with the Estrada family, this theory for private person liability did not apply to the present case. Id. at 31-33. Medical professionals can also be liable under New Mexico law for being aware of specific threats to specific individuals and failing to disclose them to authorities or to the individual threatened. Id. at 30 (citing Brown). The Court found that this theory also did not apply to the present case, as the DEA was not and could not have been aware of any specific threat to the Estrada family. Id. at 31-32.

         The Court also examined FTCA cases involving injuries inflicted by informants in other states, in which the federal district court looked to corresponding state law adopting Sections 315-319 of the Restatement, finding that the United States could be liable only where the harm inflicted by the informant was reasonably foreseeable. Id. at 30-31. Therefore, in light of the absence of an analogous liability theory under New Mexico law, and in light of the holdings in other federal informant cases applying analogous state caselaw, this Court held that because the harm to Plaintiffs was unforeseeable, the DEA did not have a duty to warn or otherwise protect the Estrada family. Id. at 27-36.

         II. Plaintiffs' Motion to Alter or Amend the Court's Opinion

         On August 29, 2016, Plaintiffs filed the present Motion to Alter or Amend the Court's Judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, [Doc. 77]. The United States submitted its response on September 15, 2016, [Doc. 78], and Plaintiffs replied on September 26, 2016, [Doc. 79].

         Plaintiffs' opening brief argues, first, that the Court improperly considered materials outside the pleadings in adjudicating the United States' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). [Doc. 77 at 8].

         Second, Plaintiffs' opening brief argues that the Court misapprehended New Mexico tort law and should have found that the United States owed a duty to warn Plaintiffs and protect Plaintiffs from harm through better supervision, because “foreseeability of a plaintiff alone does not end the inquiry” and the existence of a special relationship between the defendant and the tortfeasor gives rise to a duty towards all plaintiffs. [Doc. 77 at 10]. Plaintiffs cite New Mexico's adoption of the Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 314A, 319. [Doc. 77 at 10 (citing Ciup v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 928 P.2d 263, 265 (N.M. 1996) (“As a general rule, an individual has no duty to protect another from harm caused by the criminal acts of third persons unless the person has a special relationship with the other giving rise to a duty.”); Grover v. Stechel, 45 P.3d 80, 84 (N.M. 2002) (“In order to create a duty based on a special relationship, the relationship must include the right or ability to control another's conduct.”))]. Plaintiffs stated that “[w]hile [they] agree that the Court must determine foreseeability as part of determining whether a duty to plaintiffs existed, plaintiffs submit that the Court first had to determine whether there were sufficient facts alleged . . . from which reasonable inferences could be made to determine the existence of a special relationship between defendant United States and Quintana.” [Doc. 77 at 11]. Plaintiffs argue that Quintana's record showed “violent propensities against co-habitants in general” (noting an alleged incident of Quintana threatening a landlord) and that “[o]nce Quintana moved in with the Estrada family, they become foreseeable plaintiffs and DEA agents owed them a duty.” Id. at 15.[1]

         Third, Plaintiffs accuse the Court of applying the wrong standard for determining whether private persons in like circumstances would have a duty under New Mexico state law and argues, again, that the circumstances of the present case are analogous to those of a doctor who undertakes supervision and control of a patient with dangerous propensities, or a ...


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