United States District Court, D. New Mexico
ARLINDA LESLIE, INDIVIDUALLY and as Next Friend of BLAIR KING AND SETH KING, and BRANDON LESLIE, Plaintiffs,
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
H. RITTER, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion to
Lift Stay and Request for Scheduling Conference [Doc. 47],
filed May 14, 2018. Having considered Defendant's
Response [Doc. 48] and Plaintiff's Reply [Doc. 49], the
Court denies the Motion for the reasons set forth below.
case arises from a car-on-cow collision occurring on or about
November 1, 2013. [See Doc. 1-1 (Complaint for
Damages for Personal Injury)]. The cow, which belonged to
non-party Huning Limited Partnership, entered into and was
present in the right of way of New Mexico State Highway 6
where it was struck by the passenger vehicle driven by
Plaintiff Arlinda Leslie. [Id., pp. 2-3]. Mrs.
Leslie suffered severe injuries to her head and face and
significant injuries to other parts of her body, which were
witnessed by her children, Blair and Seth King, and her
husband, Plaintiff Brandon Leslie. [Id., p. 3].
Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in state court against
“the Huning defendants.” [Id.].
Pertinent here, the Huning defendants have claimed that they
believe the cow entered the highway by jumping over a gate
owned and maintained by Defendant BNSF Railway Company.
[Id.]. Plaintiffs accordingly filed a separate
lawsuit against Defendant, which was removed to this Court on
November 3, 2016. [Id.].
case was promptly set for a Rule 16 Scheduling Conference by
then-assigned Magistrate Judge William Lynch. [Doc. 6].
However, soon thereafter, the parties filed a Joint Motion to
Stay All Proceedings on November 9, 2016. [Doc. 7]. In the
Joint Motion, the parties asked the Court to stay this case
pending resolution of Plaintiffs' lawsuit against the
Huning defendants. [Id., p. 2]. The Court, Chief
Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen presiding at that time, entered
the parties' proposed stipulated Order Staying All
Proceedings and Deadlines [Doc. 8], pending resolution and
adjudication of the state court proceedings. [Id.,
p. 1]. A little over a year later, the parties filed a Joint
Status Report indicating that the Plaintiffs were able to
reach a settlement with the Huning defendants in the state
court case. [See Doc. 18]. At that time, both
parties requested that the stay be lifted, and that the Court
set the matter for a scheduling conference. [Id.,
pp. 1-2]. Consequently, this Court set a Rule 16 Initial
Scheduling Conference for February 8, 2018. [See
Doc. 19 (Initial Scheduling Order)]. After the conference,
the Court entered a Scheduling Order and set a Settlement
Conference between the parties in early August, 2018.
[See Docs. 26, 27].
a month later, Defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings and Motion for Summary Judgment in March 2018.
[See Docs. 28, 29]. And, a month after that,
Plaintiffs filed their own cross-Motion for Partial Summary
Judgment. [Doc. 37]. Three days later, the parties filed a
Joint Unopposed Motion Vacating Order Setting Case Management
Deadlines and Discovery Parameters (Doc. No. 26) and Staying
all Discovery. [Doc. 38]. In this Motion, the parties
represented that “[w]holly independent of the claims
and defenses at issue in this litigation, the outcome of the
cross-motions for summary judgment may be dispositive to the
merits of the continuation of this litigation.”
[Id., p. 1]. The parties continued by stating that
“[u]nrelated to the merits of the claims and defenses
at issue in this case, a preliminary issue the Court must
decide is whether or not the September 2017 Settlement
Agreement released or discharged any liability of BNSF to
Plaintiff in this matter. This is a preliminary and threshold
matter.” [Id., p. 2]. Additionally, the
parties stated that “[s]imultaneous with these
proceedings, Plaintiffs continue to litigate certain other
issues concerning the September 2017 Settlement Agreement in
New Mexico State Court. The final outcome of that litigation,
to which BNSF is not a party, may also impact the
continuation of this litigation.” [Id.]. As
such, “the parties respectfully request[ed] this Court
enter its Order Vacating the Court's Order Setting Case
Management Deadlines and Discovery Parameters [Doc. No. 26]
and staying all discovery in this matter until the resolution
of the State Court proceedings and this Court's final
ruling on the cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. No. 29
and 37] concerning the September 28, 2017 Settlement
parties submitted a stipulated Order Granting Joint Unopposed
Motion Vacating Order Setting Case Management Deadlines and
Discovery Parameters and Staying all Discovery, which this
Court signed and entered on April 18, 2018. [Doc. 39
(hereafter “the Stipulated Order”)]. The
Stipulated Order was signed by counsel for Defendant and
approved by counsel for Plaintiffs. [Id., p. 2]. The
Stipulated Order vacated the Court's Scheduling Order,
all case management and other deadlines, stayed all
discovery, and provided that “[t]his stay shall remain
in place until such time as the State Court proceedings in
Cause No. D-1113-CV-2017-00609 are fully resolved AND this
Court enters its final order on the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 29 and
37].” [Id., p. 1].
a month later, Plaintiffs had a change of heart and filed the
instant Motion to Lift Stay and Request for Scheduling
Conference. [Doc. 47]. In the Motion, Plaintiffs represent
that they “primarily agreed to the stay of proceedings
after counsel for Defendants (sic) contacted Plaintiffs'
counsel and indicated BNSF wanted to discuss
settlement.” [Id., p. 1]. However, after
Plaintiffs tendered a demand, Defendant refused to make a
counteroffer. [Id., p. 2]. While Plaintiffs
acknowledge that part of the purpose of the stay was to
permit the Court to rule on the parties' pending motions,
which have not been decided, they nonetheless ask the Court
to lift the stay and set a new Rule 16 conference to
establish new case management deadlines. [Id.].
Defendant opposes the Motion. [Doc. 48]. Most basically,
Defendant argues that “nothing in the April 17, 2018,
joint motion makes reference to any pending settlement
discussions or negotiations between the Parties.”
[Id., p. 2]. And, “like the joint motion,
nothing in the agreed-to Order either makes reference to or
is conditioned upon any ongoing or future settlement
negotiations between the parties.” [Id.].
Defendant then argues that Plaintiffs are bound to their
stipulation as a matter of contract, and that this Court
cannot rewrite the contract between the parties absent fraud,
mistake, improvidence, material change in circumstances or
other equitable considerations. [Id., p. 3].
Plaintiffs do not dispute any of these contentions in reply,
but argue that “[t]he only benefit that plaintiffs
stood to gain from agreeing to a stay was the opportunity to
engage in good faith settlement discussion.” [Doc. 49,
p.1]. They then argue the merits of their partial motion for
summary judgment. [Id., pp. 1-2].
position is that the Stipulated Order entered by the Court is
nothing more than a contract between the parties that this
Court is bound to enforce. [Doc. 48, p. 3]. There is support
for Defendant's position that “[u]nder New Mexico
law the general rule is that stipulations are ordinarily
binding on the parties absent fraud, mistake, improvidence,
material change in circumstances, or unless equitable
considerations require otherwise…. Federal law is the
same.” In re Garcia, 434 B.R. 638, 641-42
(D.N.M. 2010) (citations omitted). However, the Court is not
convinced that it must enforce the parties' stipulation
without regard to the interests of justice. While it is true
that “[s]tipulations ‘cannot be disregarded or
set aside at will[, ]'” Morrison Knudsen Corp.
v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063,
1075 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Wheeler v. John Deere
Co., 935 F.2d 1090, 1097 (10th Cir. 1991)), they
“are not absolute and will be set aside to prevent
manifest injustice.” Id. (citing United
States v. Montgomery, 620 F.2d 753, 757 (10th Cir.
1980)). For this reason, “[t]he district court has
broad discretion to determine whether a party should be held
to a stipulation or whether justice requires the stipulation
be set aside.” Id.
question is under what Rule, if any, the Court entered the
Stipulated Order. For example, if it was entered pursuant to
Rule 16(b)(4), which permits a case management schedule to be
modified “only for good cause and with the judge's
consent, ” then it would appear that only good cause
(and the undersigned's consent) is required to modify it.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 16(b)(4). On the other hand, the
Stipulated Order may properly be thought of as a protective
order under Rule 26(c). See Fed. R. Civ. P.
26(c)(1)(A) (permitting the Court to forbid discovery.);
Clark v. Dashner, CIV 14-0956 KG/KK, 2016 WL
3900640, at *1 (D.N.M. Jan. 27, 2016) (“The Court may
also issue a stay pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
26(c), which for good cause shown allows the Court to limit
discovery to protect a party from “annoyance,
embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or
expense.”). If so, “[t]he modification of a
protective order, like its original entry, is left to the
sound discretion of the district court.” Rohrbough
v. Harris, 49 F.3d 1313');">549 F.3d 1313, 1321 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing
United Nuclear Corp. v. Cranford Ins. Co., 905 F.2d
1424, 1427 (10th Cir. 1990)). Likewise, the Stipulated Order
might be thought of arising under this Court's
“broad discretion to stay proceedings incident to its
power to manage its docket.” Clark, 2016 WL
3900640, at *1 (citing Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S.
681, 706 (1997); Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone, 600 F.3d
1301, 1310 (10th Cir. 2010)). In such a circumstance, the
Court's decision to enter, or in this case, leave a stay
in place, will be reviewed for abuse of discretion. See
Clinton, 520 U.S. at 707.
carefully considered the parties' positions, the Court
will not lift the stay implemented by the Stipulated Order in
this case. Regardless of what authority permitted the Court
to enter the stay in the first place, one thing is clear:
there was no mention of settlement discussions in the Joint
Unopposed Motion or Stipulated Order. [See Docs. 38,
39]. Rather, the language of both the Joint Unopposed Motion
and Stipulated Order indicated that the case should be stayed
due to the pending dispositive motions and the ongoing state
court litigation between Plaintiffs and the Huning
defendants. Neither of these events having occurred, the
Court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate good
cause to lift the stay, and that it would be an abuse of
discretion for the Court to lift the stay that the parties