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Sanchez v. Williams

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 1, 2018

MARK SANCHEZ, and PATRICK MARQUEZ, on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated individuals, Plaintiffs,
DEREK WILLIAMS, et al., Defendants.


         The Village of Los Lunas and Bosque Farms Defendants (Defendants) filed a motion to dismiss in which they allege numerous discovery violations and, as a sanction, seek dismissal of all claims against them. Doc. 59.[1] I propose finding that Plaintiffs disregarded a Court order regarding class certification discovery and that Plaintiffs otherwise failed to provide class certification discovery.[2] Further, after considering factors set forth in Tenth Circuit precedent, I recommend that the Court dismiss Plaintiffs' class claims. However, after considering the same factors with regard to Plaintiffs' individual claims, and considering that the discovery violations at issue pertain to Plaintiffs' class claims rather than their individual claims, I recommend that the Court deny Defendants' motion with regard to Plaintiffs' individual claims.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiffs Mark Sanchez and Patrick Marquez (Plaintiffs), together with former plaintiffs Oscar Leyva and Dustin Sarrett, commenced this lawsuit against the Village of Los Lunas and Bosque Farms Defendants, among others, in 2011. Doc. 1. In early 2012, the Court consolidated this case with Wilson v. Montano et al., Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY and Ortiz v. Benavidez et al., Civ. No. 11-951 KG/SCY. Doc. 36.

         Plaintiff Sanchez alleges that Bosque Farms police officer Steven Roberts arrested him without a warrant on July 1, 2010. Doc. 5 at 4, 11. Further, he alleges, Officer Roberts booked him into the Valencia County Detention Center (VCDC) and then failed to file a criminal complaint against him. Id. at 11. As a result, Plaintiff Sanchez claims that he unnecessarily remained in custody at the VCDC for approximately eight days. Id. With regard to the VCDC, Plaintiff Sanchez asserts that the booking officer (referred to as “John Doe”) never arranged to have him appear before a magistrate judge and did not release him when it became apparent no charges were filed. Id. at 6, 11.

         Plaintiff Marquez alleges that Los Lunas Officer Delinda Chavez arrested him without a warrant on or about June 15, 2010. Doc. 5 at 5, 12. According to Plaintiff Marquez, Officer Chavez booked him into the VCDC following his arrest but waited until June 28, 2010 to file a criminal complaint against him. Id. at 13. When Plaintiff Marquez was then brought before a magistrate judge on June 29, 2010, the magistrate judge released him. Id. Further, Plaintiff Marquez alleges that the VCDC booking officer (referred to as “John Doe”) neither arranged to have him brought before a magistrate judge nor released him during the time he was kept in custody without any charges having been brought against him. Id.

         Plaintiffs Marquez and Sanchez are also representatives in a putative class action brought on behalf of “all people who have been incarcerated in VCDC without criminal charges being filed on the day of their arrest or, if the court is not open on the day of the arrest, on the next business day of the court.” Doc. 5 at 32. Their co-plaintiffs, Dustin Sarrett and Oscar Leyva, are no longer part of this case, as the Court dismissed their claims with prejudice on February 6, 2018, as a sanction for discovery violations and failure to prosecute their claims. Doc. 50.

         II. Procedural History

         Discovery stays have been in place throughout much of this litigation. In December 2016, the Court ruled on a number of motions that had been pending. See Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Docs. 158-166. I held a status conference on January 24, 2017 and lifted the discovery stay in place at the time. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Docs. 172-73. Although the cases remained consolidated, discovery in this case and Wilson largely diverged, primarily because the plaintiffs in this case intend to seek class certification. Specifically, I initially bifurcated discovery in this case to allow all of the parties to conduct written discovery regarding class certification issues before commencing merits discovery. Id. Subsequently, over the course of multiple follow-up status conferences with the parties, I modified the discovery process to allow for a phased pre-certification discovery approach. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 178. First, I allowed a period of “Phase 1” discovery, designed to provide Plaintiffs an opportunity to obtain the information they would need to support their motion for class certification. “Phase 2” discovery was designed to provide Defendants an opportunity to obtain the information they would need to respond to Plaintiffs' motion for class certification. Unfortunately, due to the volume of discovery involved and various disputes regarding the production of this discovery, the Phase 1 discovery process took longer than the parties initially anticipated. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Docs. 188, 196, 207, 208, 211, 215.

         On July 24, 2017, I set settlement conferences which, at the request of the parties, I later vacated and reset to the end of November 2017. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Docs. 219, 221, 226-228. At a status conference on September 12, 2017, the parties requested that the commencement of Phase 2 discovery be delayed until after the November settlement conferences. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 225. I then ordered the parties to file a joint status report (JSR) regarding proposed parameters and deadlines for Phase 2 discovery. Id. The parties filed this JSR on October 2, 2017. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 231. Even though the Court had not yet entered a Phase 2 discovery order, Defendants represent that they propounded discovery on October 19, 2017. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 259-1, 259-2. On October 26, 2017, I entered an order setting a deadline for Phase 2 discovery to be completed by January 26, 2018. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 236. I also set a deadline of February 16, 2018 for Plaintiffs to file their motion for class certification. Id.

         On December 14, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to compel, arguing that Plaintiffs had been completely unresponsive to their attempts to obtain discovery. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 259. The Court denied this motion because Defendants propounded their discovery requests prior to the commencement of Phase 2 discovery and because the scope of discovery requested exceeded the amount the Court allowed. Civ. No. 11-658 KG/SCY, Doc. 280. The Court then directed Defendants to serve written discovery that complied with its order regarding Phase 2 discovery no later than January 31, 2018, and allowed Plaintiffs two weeks thereafter to respond to the discovery. Id. Importantly, the Court advised Plaintiffs “that the failure to comply with discovery obligations or Court orders may result in the imposition of sanctions, up to and including dismissal of their claims.” Id. at 2. The Court further reiterated in bold lettering that the “February 16, 2018 deadline for Plaintiffs to file a motion for class certification remains unchanged.” Id. at 2. Defendants represent, and Plaintiffs do not dispute, that Defendants complied with this order by serving their written discovery on January 24, 2018. Doc. 59 at 3. Thus, Plaintiffs' response to this discovery was due no later than February 8, 2018. Having received no response, Defendants filed the instant motion on February 14, 2018. Doc. 59. Plaintiffs, however, did not file a timely response.

         On March 8, 2018, I scheduled a hearing on Defendants' motion to dismiss to take place on April 5, 2018. Doc. 65. On March 19, 2018, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for the Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court notified this Court of a pending Petition for Administrative Suspension of Plaintiffs' counsel. Doc. 68. On March 29, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a motion to extend the deadline to respond to, among other things, Defendants' motion to dismiss. Doc. 69. In this motion, Plaintiffs' counsel represented that he “was unable to respond in a timely manner . . . because he experienced significant medical difficulties and a condition that rendered it impossible for him to respond by the deadline.” Doc. 69 at 2. I denied this motion with leave to renew it at the April 5, 2018 hearing. Doc. 70.

         For a portion of the April 5, 2018 hearing, I sealed the courtroom so that I could hear details from Plaintiffs' counsel about his medical condition. Plaintiffs' counsel represented that his medical condition had existed for the past six to eight months and that his condition declined rapidly during the previous three to four months. Doc. 85 at 4-5, 9-10. He stated that from late December, 2017 into January, 2018, his medical condition severely affected his ability to represent his clients. Doc. 85 at 4-5, 9-10. Plaintiffs' counsel indicated that, while he did need to hire investigators to help locate Plaintiffs, he was able to locate them and their failure to appear at the hearing as well as their recent unresponsiveness was the fault of counsel, not the fault of Plaintiffs themselves. Id. at 6. Based on the representations of Plaintiffs' counsel, I am convinced that Plaintiffs' counsel did suffer from a medical condition that reached a peak in late December 2017 and which significantly impaired his ability to respond to discovery and meet Court imposed deadlines. I recommend that the Court make such a finding.

         During the open portion of the April 5, 2018 hearing, I pointed out that, while Plaintiffs had moved to extend the time to respond to Defendants' motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs had not filed a motion to extend the February 16, 2018 class certification deadline. Doc. 75 at 9. Plaintiffs' counsel responded that he would be filing a motion for a new scheduling order but that he first needed to verify with his clients that they continued to be willing to pursue the class claims as class representatives. Id. at 10, 13. Plaintiffs' counsel stated that he could ascertain his clients' willingness to remain as class representatives within seven to fourteen days. Id. at 13.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, I granted Plaintiffs' counsel's request for an opportunity to file a written response to Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 59) as well as to the motions for summary judgment (Docs. 61, 62) filed by the Valencia County Defendants. Plaintiffs filed responses to these motions on April 19, 2018. Docs. 76-78. To date, however, Plaintiffs have not filed a motion to extend the February 16, 2018 deadline to move for class certification.

         III. Analysis

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorize a district court to impose sanctions, including dismissal of a case with prejudice, for a party's failure to comply with court orders and discovery requirements set by local and federal rules. Here, Defendants rely on Rules 37 and 41 to support their argument that the Court should dismiss Plaintiffs' claims with prejudice. Doc. 59 at 3-4.

         Turning first to Rule 41(b), this rule authorizes the involuntary dismissal of an action “[i]f the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with the [Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] or a court order.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b); see also AdvantEdge Bus. Grp. v. Thomas E. Mestmaker & Assocs., Inc., 552 F.3d 1233, 1236 (10th Cir. 2009) (“A district court undoubtedly has discretion to sanction a party for failing to prosecute or defend a case, or for failing to comply with local or federal procedural rules.”) (internal citation omitted). As the Tenth Circuit has emphasized, “the need to prosecute one's claim (or face dismissal) is a fundamental precept of modern litigation . . ..” See Rogers v. Andrus Transp. Services, 502 F.3d 1147, 1152 (10th Cir. 2007). “Although the language of Rule 41(b) requires that the defendant file a motion to dismiss, the Rule has long been interpreted to permit courts to dismiss actions sua sponte for a plaintiff's failure to prosecute or comply with the rules of civil procedure or court[s'] orders.” Olsen v. Mapes, 333 F.3d 1199, 1204 n.3 (10th Cir. 2003). When a defendant seeks to dismiss a case with prejudice, as here, the Court should consider the five factors set forth in Ehrenhaus v. Reynolds, 965 F.2d 916, 921 (10th Cir. 1992). These factors are: (1) the degree of actual prejudice to the defendant; (2) the amount of interference with the judicial process; (3) the culpability of the litigant; (4) whether the court warned the party in advance that dismissal of the action would be a likely sanction for non-compliance; and (5) the efficacy of lesser sanctions.” Id. This is a highly fact-intensive inquiry that should generally be conducted on the record although the Tenth Circuit has affirmed dismissals even where the district court did not consider all of the factors. See Lee v. Max Intern., LLC, 638 F.3d 1318, 1323 (10th Cir. 2011). “Only when the aggravating factors outweigh the judicial system's strong predisposition to resolve cases on their merits is dismissal an appropriate sanction.” Procter & Gamble Co. v. Haugen, 427 F.3d 727, 738 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted). Ultimately, “the chosen sanction must be both just and related to the particular claim which was at issue in the order to provide discovery.” Ehrenhaus, 965 F.2d at 920 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Rule 37 has several provisions concerning a party's failure to comply with his/her discovery obligations. Of particular relevance here, Rule 37(d) governs a party's failure to serve answers to interrogatories, and provides that the Court may, on motion, order sanctions if a party “after being properly served with interrogatories under Rule 33 . . . fails to serve its answers, objections, or written response.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(d)(1)(A)(i)-(ii). Rule 37(d)(3) specifies that the Court may impose the following sanctions for these particular discovery violations:

(i) directing that the matters embraced in the order or other designated facts be taken as established for purposes of the ...

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