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Rogers v. Board of County Commissioners of Torrance County

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

August 22, 2019

PAUL ROGERS, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TORRANCE COUNTY Mercedes C. Murphy, District Judge

          Rothstein Donatelli LLP Marc M. Lowry Alicia C. Lopez Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

          New Mexico Association of Counties Brandon Huss Grace Philips Santa Fe, NM for Appellees



         {¶1} In this appeal, we resolve whether a lawyer's mistaken action that had the unintended effect of terminating litigation warrants relief under Rule 1-060(B)(1) I NMRA, when that action was undertaken without client authority. Concluding so, we reverse the district court's denial of Plaintiff s limited Rule 1-060(B) motion.


         {¶2} On January 6, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint for damages under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act and common law in the Seventh Judicial District Court in I Torrance County, New Mexico (state case). Plaintiff filed a second lawsuit in United States District Court (federal case) a year later, on January 5, 2015, asserting Fourth Amendment claims based on the same events as underpinned the state case. In May 2016 Plaintiff and his attorney (Plaintiffs counsel) discussed dismissing Plaintiffs state case. Sometime after the discussion, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Plaintiffs counsel stating "[p]er our telephone conversation today, I agree to drop the state case in order to better position ourselves in our ongoing federal case."

         {¶3} Plaintiffs counsel contacted Defendants by telephone to report Plaintiffs i wish to dismiss the state case without prejudice. Defendants opposed the proposed dismissal because trial in the state case was then imminent and "significant costs and expenses had been and were being incurred to prepare for trial." Either too ill[1] to understand or simply unaware that such a dismissal would have preclusive effect in federal court based upon established principles of res judicata, Plaintiffs counsel filed the opposed motion seeking dismissal with prejudice "as a show of good faith to Defendants that the state case would be terminated forever." Plaintiff explained in his motion that dismissal would not be prejudicial to Defendants since their trial preparation to date on the state case would be "applicable in the parallel federal proceeding" and that by dismissing the case after expiration of the applicable statute of limitations, Plaintiff would forgo his municipal liability and property damage claims, adding specifically that Plaintiff would only pursue his federal case. After viewing Plaintiffs filed motion containing new dismissal "with prejudice" language, Defendants reversed course, consented to dismissal and submitted to Plaintiffs counsel a proposed order of dismissal. Subsequently, Defendants filed a response clarifying that they "only opposed dismissal without prejudice[, ]" and that although they "disagree with most of the basis and argument contained in [P]laintiff s motion[, ]" they no longer oppose dismissal with prejudice. The district court entered an order granting dismissal of the state case with prejudice on June 3, 2016.

         {¶4} Two months later, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in the federal case arguing it should be terminated on res judicata grounds. The motion- which was eventually granted by the federal court-rested exclusively on the fact that the state case was dismissed with prejudice. As a result, approximately two months after the summary judgment motion was filed in the federal case, Plaintiff moved, under Rule 1-060(B), to reopen the state case for the limited purpose of recharacterizing Plaintiffs motion to dismiss, along with the stipulated order of dismissal, as "without prejudice." Among several grounds identified as a basis for Rule 1-060(B) relief, Plaintiff posits that Plaintiffs counsel acted without authorization because his actions unwittingly terminated litigation in both the state and federal cases. Defendants opposed the motion, arguing that Plaintiffs decision to dismiss the case with prejudice was a failed strategy decision instead of a mistake and that Plaintiff is not entitled to relief because his counsel did not understand the legal consequences of his deliberate acts. In reply, Plaintiff submitted an affidavit that he had "never directed [his] legal counsel to do anything that would have jeopardized [his] federal case."

         {¶5} After a hearing, the district court entered an order denying Plaintiffs motion. Although the district court found that it was Plaintiffs decision to "drop the state case in order to better position [himself] in [the] ongoing federal case[, ]" and that it was Plaintiffs understanding that dismissing the state case would not affect his federal claims, it also found that "Rule [1-060(B)](1) relief is not available for a party who simply misunderstands the legal consequences of his deliberate acts." The district court then found that "the decision to pursue the case only in federal court was a strategic decision made by counsel with the consent of the Plaintiff."


         {¶6} Plaintiff makes many of the same arguments on appeal as he did before the district court, and in addition, argues that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard when it concluded, based upon Jacobs v. Electronic Data Systems Corp., 240 F.R.D. 595, 601 (M.D. Ala. 2007), that "[c]lients retain counsel and entrust him or her with the fiduciary duty to make certain strategic and tactical litigation decisions which bind the client, even if made without express authorization or approval, and even if they are bad decisions." Defendants again argue that Plaintiffs decision to dismiss the state case was strategic and therefore the district court correctly denied relief to Plaintiff under Rule 1-060(B)(1).

         Standard of Review

         {¶7} "We generally review the district court's grant of relief under Rule 1-060(B) for an abuse of discretion except in those instances where the issue is one of pure law." Kinder Morgan CO2 Co., L.P. v. State Taxation & Revenue Dept.,2009-NMCA-019, ¶ 9, 145 N.M. 579, 203 P.3d 110 (alteration, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted). "The scope of Rule 1-060(B)(1) and application of the rule to the facts involve questions of law which we review de novo." Kinder Morgan,2009-NMCA-019, ΒΆ 9. A reviewing court may reverse the district court under an abuse-of-discretion standard if it is determined that the district court's decision was "arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable." ...

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