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Belen Consolidated School District v. The County of Valencia

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

May 2, 2019

BELEN CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent,
v.
THE COUNTY OF VALENCIA, Petitioner. And GREGORY A. NASH and SUSIE K. NASH, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
GROUP I: BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF CATRON COUNTY, NEW MEXICO, a Political Subdivision of the State of New Mexico; and ELENA GELLERT, and GROUP II: ALL UNKNOWN CLAIMANTS OF INTEREST IN THE PREMISES ADVERSE TO THE PLAINTIFFS, Defendants-Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF VALENCIA COUNTY James L. Sanchez, District Judge

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF CATRON COUNTY Shannon Murdock, District Judge

          Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A. Arthur D. Melendres Zachary L. McCormick Albuquerque, NM for Respondent Belen Consolidated School District

          Nance, Pato & Stout, LLC Adren R. Nance David M. Pato Socorro, NM for Petitioner Valencia County for Appellees Catron County Board of Commissioners

          The Turner Law Firm, LLC Scott E. Turner Albuquerque, NM for Appellants Gregory A. Nash and Susie K. Nash

          OPINION

          MEGAN P. DUFFY, Judge

         {¶1} In these appeals, we address whether the defendant counties are immune from Plaintiffs' quiet title lawsuits under NMSA 1978, Section 42-11-1 (1979) ("Granting immunity; providing for exceptions."). In two separate quiet title suits, Plaintiffs named the County of Valencia (Valencia County) and the Board of County Commissioners of Catron County (Catron County) (collectively, the Counties) as parties who claimed or may claim an interest in the properties. In both actions, the Counties responded by filing motions to dismiss on the ground that Section 42-11-1 provided them with immunity and barred the lawsuits. In the Valencia County suit, the district court determined that Valencia County was not immune from suit and allowed the lawsuit to proceed. In the Catron County suit, the district court reached the opposite conclusion and dismissed the lawsuit. Because these appeals raise substantially similar issues, we exercise our discretion to consolidate them for decision. See Rule 12-317(B) NMRA. We conclude that Section 42-11-1 grants the Counties immunity from these lawsuits, and that there is no statutory exception to the Counties' immunity in these cases. We therefore reverse the district court in the Valencia County suit and affirm the district court in the Catron County suit.

         BACKGROUND

         Development of Immunity in New Mexico

         {¶2} Before presenting the factual and procedural background of these cases, we provide a brief overview of the history and development of the law of immunity relevant to this appeal. In 1876, our territorial legislature "adopted the common law as the rule of practice and decision[.]" Beals v. Ares, 1919-NMSC-067, ¶ 36, 25 N.M. 459, 185 P. 780. Consequently, New Mexico followed the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity, whereby "no sovereign state can be sued in its own courts or in any other without its consent and permission." Hicks v. State, 1975-NMSC-056, ¶ 4, 88 N.M. 588, 544 P.2d 1153 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), superseded by statute as stated in Upton v. Clovis Mun. Sch. Dist, 2006-NMSC-040, ¶ 8, 140 N.M. 205, 141 P.3d 739; see id ("[T]he doctrine of sovereign immunity is one of common law, judicially created."). Due to the "oftentimes harsh results of that doctrine," our Legislature carved out certain statutory exceptions to sovereign immunity in which the state gave its consent to be sued. Id. ¶ 5. In 1947, the Legislature enacted such an exception in NMSA 1978, Section 42-6-12 (1947), [1]allowing the State to be sued in certain property actions. See Brosseau v. N.M. State Highway Dep't 1978-NMSC-098, ¶ 6, 92 N.M. 328, 587 P.2d 1339 (stating that the purpose of Section 42-6-12 was to create an exception to sovereign immunity). Section 42-6-12 provides:

Upon the conditions herein prescribed for the protection of the state of New Mexico, the consent of the state is given to be named a party in any suit which is now pending or which may hereafter be brought in any court of competent jurisdiction of the state to quiet title to or for the foreclosure of a mortgage or other lien upon real estate or personal property, for the purpose of securing an adjudication touching any mortgage or other lien the state may have or claim on the premises or personal property involved.

         {¶3} Section 42-6-12 remains in effect and unmodified since its enactment. In its seventy-two year history, it has been construed only once, in 1958, when the New Mexico Supreme Court, relying on specific language in the statute, concluded that the scope of the state's consent to suit granted by the statute was limited to quiet title actions against the state "for the limited purpose of aiding a mortgagee who discovers that the [s]tate has acquired an interest in the mortgaged property and is unable to pass a marketable title to the purchaser at a foreclosure sale unless the state can be joined in the foreclosure suit." Maes v. Old Lincoln Cty. Mem'l Comm'n, 1958-NMSC-115, ¶ 10, 64 N.M. 475, 330 P.2d 556; see also Nevares v. State Armory Bd, 1969-NMSC-144, ¶ 11, 81 N.M. 268, 466 P.2d 114 (applying Maes without analysis).

         {¶4} In 1975, the New Mexico Supreme Court abolished sovereign immunity "as a defense by the [s]tate, or any of its political subdivisions, in tort actions." Hicks, 1975-NMSC-056, ¶ 9 ("Sovereign immunity was born out of the judicial branch of government, and it is the same branch which may dispose of the doctrine."). Three years later, our Supreme Court extended the holding of Hicks and abolished sovereign immunity in quiet title actions as well. Brosseau, 1978-NMSC-098, ¶ 11.

         {¶5} The Legislature responded to Hicks by enacting statutes that created immunity for the State once again. See NMSA 1978, §§ 41-4-1 to -30 (1976, as amended through 2015) (Tort Claims Act); Ferguson v. N.M. State Highway Comm'n1982-NMCA-180, ¶¶ 4-6, 99 N.M. 194, 656 P.2d 244 (affirming the Legislature's constitutional authority to adopt statutory partial immunity and observing that New Mexico turned from common law total immunity to our Supreme Court's denial of any immunity to partial statutory immunity). And one year after Brosseau was decided, the Legislature reestablished immunity in property actions by enacting Section 42-11-1, which provides that "[t]he state of New Mexico and its political ...


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