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Doe v. Albuquerque Public Schools

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 3, 2019

JANE DOE “VICTIM”, Plaintiff,
v.
ALBUQUERQUE PUBLIC SCHOOLS “APS, ” MONTE VISTA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL “MONTE VISTA, ” JOHN AND JANE DOE APS OFFICIALS AND EMPLOYEES, AMY LAUER, [1]AND WILLIAM BEEMS Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court following a hearing upon Defendant Beems' Motion for Imposition of Rule 11 Sanctions and Sanctions Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1927, filed on September 26, 2018 (Doc. 50). Having reviewed the parties' pleadings, the applicable law and after considering counsel's arguments presented at the hearing, the Court finds that Defendant's motion is granted with regard to sanctions under §1927.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed this action alleging that she was sexually assaulted by Defendant William Beems while she was a student at Monte Vista Elementary approximately twenty years ago, in violation of various federal statutory provisions and state tort law. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on December 20, 2017 in the Second Judicial District, County of Bernalillo and Defendants removed the case to federal court under federal question jurisdiction (28 U.S.C. §1331). The Court ultimately dismissed all federal claims in the lawsuit and remanded the case back to state court, declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The complaint contains six counts:

Count I: Sexual Assault, Abuse and Battery against Defendant Beems;
Count II: Negligence and Premises Liability;
Count III: Vicarious Liability and Premises Liability;
Count IV: Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress;
Count V: Violations of Plaintiff's Due Process, Equal Protection and Constitutional Rights (state and federal); and
Count VI: Outrage, Systemic Failure and Prima Facie Tort.

         I. Procedural Posture

         A. Defendant Lauer's Motion to Dismiss

         On May 29, 2018, the Court granted Defendant Lauer's motion to dismiss Counts IV and V based on Plaintiff's failure to assert plausible claims against that Defendant, finding that the complaint was factually insufficient and failed to identify how Ms. Lauer's conduct violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Doc. 33.[2] The Court also found that Defendant Lauer was entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims because Plaintiff failed to show that the law was sufficiently clearly established to where Ms. Lauer would have known that her conduct as alleged in the complaint would violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights. In that decision, the Court denied Defendant Lauer's motion to dismiss as to the state law claim in Count II brought under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“Tort Claims Act”) asserting negligence and premises liability. Plaintiff had alleged that Ms. Lauer was on notice regarding Defendant Beems' conduct toward Plaintiff and had failed to report it, and since the Court was required to view facts favorably to Plaintiff under a Rule 12(b)(6) standard, Count II was not dismissed. The Court also expressed concern about the quality of the drafting of the complaint, stating: “In short, the drafting of the complaint indicates either a sloppiness and lack of due care on Plaintiff's counsel's part, or an unfamiliarity with the various federal legal theories Plaintiff's counsel purports to raise in this case.” Doc. 33 at 7. Attorney Charles H. Kalm is counsel of record for the Jane Doe Plaintiff in this case.

         B. Defendant Beems' Motion to Dismiss

         On August 27, 2018, the Court granted Defendant Beems' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's federal and state law claims for lack of jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and for lack of merit under Rule 12(b)(6). Doc. 48. The Court found that Plaintiff's claims brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983, Title IX and Title VII were time-barred and were not subject to any tolling or continuing violation doctrine that would extend the three-year limitations period applicable to §1983 claims for personal injury in New Mexico and dismissed the federal claims with prejudice under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claim, remanding the case to state court.

         In addition, Defendant Beems sought sanctions. In addressing that request, the Court again expressed concern “over the manner in which Plaintiff's counsel has litigated this case, ” see Doc. 48 at 13, and deferred ruling on the sanctions issue pending briefing by parties, which has now been completed. Id.

         In this motion, Defendant seeks sanctions under both Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 and 28 U.S.C. §1927, and contends that Plaintiff filed a baseless and frivolous lawsuit against him and pursued the action in bad faith. Defendant argues that it would have been obvious to any reasonable and competent attorney that Plaintiff's claims would be time-barred under the applicable statute of limitations depriving the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. In addition, relevant case law from the Tenth Circuit would have indicated to an attorney showing minimal due diligence in researching the matter that most of Plaintiff's federal claims were subject to dismissal under Tenth Circuit precedent. Plaintiff's counsel contends that he presented Plaintiff's federal claims based on legal theories that a reasonable and competent attorney could believe had merit, and that sanctions are not warranted.

         II. Relevant Law

         A district court has discretion under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C. §1927 and its inherent equitable powers to impose costs against an attorney as a sanction. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 4849 (1991) (recognizing a court's inherent equitable power to sanction an attorney).

         A. Rule 11

         Under Rule 11, the attorney, in signing a pleading, affirms that, after making a reasonable inquiry, he believes in good faith that the pleading is well grounded both in fact and in law. Cotner v. Hopkins, 795 F.2d 900, 903 (10th Cir. 1986). However, Rule 11 contains a “safe-harbor” provision which requires a party to serve a copy of its Rule 11 motion on the other party and to give that party an opportunity (generally 21 days) to withdraw or correct the challenged document before filing the sanctions motion with the court. At the hearing, defense counsel advised the Court that he had not provided any notice, much less a Rule 11 motion to Plaintiff's counsel at any time, but urged the Court to accept the pleadings related to the motion to dismiss as substitute for the “safe harbor” motion requirement. This the Court cannot do, as Rule 11 is quite explicit in that it requires notice in the form of a motion to satisfy the “safe harbor” requirement, and the Tenth Circuit has held that it is an abuse of discretion to grant Rule 11 sanctions if a defendant does not comply with that requirement. See Roth v. Green, 466 F.3d 1179, 1191-92 (10th Cir.2006). (district court abused discretion where all defendants sent plaintiff's counsel warning ...


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