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Arrieta v. Bennett

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 5, 2019

ANDREW F. ARRIETA, Plaintiff,
v.
SARAH E. BENNETT and ROTHSTEIN, DONATELLI, HUGHES, DAHLSTROM & SCHOENBURG, LLP, Defendants.

          Wesley Johnson and Eric Hines, Cooper & Scully P.C., Dallas, Texas; Sean P. McAfee, Law Office of Sean P. McAfee, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Tom Carse, Carse Law Firm, Dallas, Texas, for Plaintiff.

          Briggs F. Cheney and Joshua A. Allison, Sheehan & Sheehan P.A., Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Defendant Sarah E. Bennett.

          Thomas A. Simons IV and Frieda Simons Burnes, The Simons Firm LLP, Santa Fe, New Mexico, for Defendant Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom & Schoenburg LLP.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul Kelly, Jr. United States Circuit Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the court on three motions: (1) Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed September 7, 2018 (ECF No. 48), (2) Defendants' Joint Motion for Summary Judgment September 7, 2018 (ECF No. 49), and (3) Defendants' Daubert Motion to Exclude Opinions of Plaintiff's Legal Expert, Claudia Work filed September 5, 2018 (ECF No. 46). Upon consideration thereof, the court finds the motions are well taken and should be granted.[1]

         Background

         A. Divorce Proceedings

          Plaintiff Andrew Arrieta married Rachel Rogers in May 2013, but by 2015 their marriage had soured. Pretrial Order at 7 (ECF No. 61). Mr. Arrieta hired Defendant Sarah Bennett, then working at Defendant law firm Rothstein Donatelli, to represent him in the divorce proceedings. Id. For her representation, Ms. Rogers hired David Walther and Amber Macias-Mayo. Id. In April 2015, the parties initially attempted collaborative law procedures to avoid litigation, but they were not successful. Defs.' Joint Mot. Summ. J. at 6, Undisputed Material Fact (“UDMF”) Nos. 3-4 (ECF No. 49). After this attempt, Mr. Arrieta and Ms. Rogers - without their attorneys' knowledge - prepared and signed a one-page handwritten, untitled document addressing certain aspects of their marriage dissolution.[2] Pretrial Order at 7; UDMF No. 5. In the document, Ms. Rogers was to pay Mr. Arrieta $3.25 million. Pl.'s Resp. Opp'n Mot. Summ. J., Ex. A (ECF No. 51-1).

         On July 2, 2015, Ms. Rogers filed a petition for dissolution of marriage in New Mexico state court. Pretrial Order at 7. On July 8, she filed a motion to set aside the handwritten document, UDMF No. 6, while on September 8, Mr. Arrieta filed a motion to enforce it. Id. On January 12, 2016, the parties met with a mediator to conduct a settlement facilitation. UDMF No. 8. The settlement facilitation was not successful; the parties nonetheless attempted to reach agreement on a settlement amount and exchanged a series of offers and counteroffers. UDMF No. 9. This round of settlement negotiations concluded with an offer from Ms. Rogers to pay $1.2 million to settle various divorce issues, $45, 000 for the couple's outstanding tax obligations, and $35, 000 for the couple's credit card debt. Id.

         On April 11, 2016, the parties attended a pretrial conference in district court. UDMF No. 11. The next day, Mr. Arrieta offered a settlement agreement to Ms. Rogers in which she would pay $2.8 million as a property settlement. UDMF No. 12. On April 18, Ms. Rogers countered with her “best and final” offer to pay $1.35 million as a property settlement. UDMF No. 13. The following day, Mr. Arrieta countered with a proposal for Ms. Rogers to pay $2.5 million in property settlement. UDMF No. 14. That same day, Ms. Rogers rejected Mr. Arrieta's counterproposal and notified him that she would not submit any further settlement offers. UDMF No.15.

         On April 22, the court entered a pretrial order with a schedule for discovery and set a trial date of May 9, 2016. UDMF Nos. 17-18. The trial was ultimately continued, first to begin on September 15, and then to begin on December 13. UDMF Nos. 19-20. After the pretrial order was entered and leading up to the trial date, the parties engaged in extensive discovery and investigation, which included deposing witnesses, subpoenaing documents, retaining experts, and other trial preparation. UDMF No. 21. On December 8, 2016 - days before the trial was set to begin - one of Ms. Rogers's attorneys, Amber Macias-Mayo, contacted Ms. Bennett and told Ms. Bennett that Ms. Rogers would consider paying Mr. Arietta $1.5 million as property settlement. UDMF No. 24. This offer restarted settlement negotiations, and on December 12, the parties agreed to the $1.5 million payment for property settlement and memorialized the settlement in a stipulated memorandum of understanding. Id.

         Ms. Bennett says she then discussed the settlement agreement with Mr. Arietta and conveyed to him her professional opinion of the settlement agreement and her judgment of the risks and benefits of accepting the settlement rather than proceeding to trial. UDMF No. 26. Mr. Arietta for his part argues he was not fully or accurately informed regarding the decision to accept the settlement and that the advice he did receive was intended to benefit Ms. Bennett and a law firm she would later join. Pl.'s Resp. Opp'n at 4 (ECF No. 51); First Am. Compl. at 4, ¶ 24 (ECF No. 4). Having agreed to the stipulated memorandum of understanding, the parties signed a full marital settlement agreement. It merged into the final decree, which was approved and entered by the state court on December 28, 2016. UMDF No. 27. The final agreement provided that Ms. Rogers would pay $1.5 million in property settlement in increments of $12, 400 per month at 5% interest, with a 1% discount if paid ahead of schedule. Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. B. at 53-54 (ECF No. 49-2).

         B. Merger of Law Practices

          After the entry of the marriage settlement and final decree, David Walther and Amber Macias-Mayo - who had represented Ms. Rogers - approached Ms. Bennett and her associate Morgan Honeycutt to discuss potentially merging their law practices. Defs.' Mot. Partial Summ. J. at 4. On approximately January 16 or 17, 2017, Ms. Macias-Mayo had a lunch with Ms. Honeycutt and broached the ...


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