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Marquez v. Board of Trustees for The Anton Chico Land Grant

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

September 23, 2019

BOARD OF TRUSTEES FOR THE ANTON CHICO LAND GRANT, CRISTOBAL MARQUEZ, ROBERT MONDRAGON, MAX SISNEROS, ROMIE MAESTAS, and STONEY JARAMILLO, individually and in their capacity as members of the Board of Trustees of the Anton Chico Land Grant, Defendants-Appellees.


          Egolf Ferlic Harwood Kate Ferlic Kristina Caffrey Santa Fe, N.M. for Appellants

          Padilla Law Firm, P.A. Ernest L. Padilla Santa Fe, N.M. for Appellees



         {¶1} John Marquez, Hope Gutierrez y Marquez, Gloria Gutierrez, and Gilbert Gutierrez (Plaintiffs) appeal from the district court's order denying their motion for attorney fees and costs. At issue is whether Plaintiffs were the "prevailing party" under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2018) in their claim against the Board of Trustees of the Anton Chico Land Grant (the Board). We hold that Plaintiffs were not the prevailing party in the underlying litigation and therefore affirm, although on grounds different from those relied on by the district court.


         {¶2} Plaintiffs petitioned the district court for a temporary restraining order and injunctions against the Board on March 29, 2013. They asserted that they were heirs and qualified voting members of the Anton Chico Land Grant. Among other remedies, they sought to postpone an election scheduled for April 1, 2013, of the land grant's board; Plaintiffs alleged that if the Board conducted the election as planned, the Board would violate the land grant's bylaws and state law and would "deprive[ Plaintiffs] of their rights." Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that the board election process was "rife with illegalities and corruption." In response, the district court issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Board from taking a vote until certain criteria were met.

         {¶3} On April 22, 2013, the Secretary of State filed a motion to intervene in the case. The district court held a hearing on the motion and then granted it on May 8, 2014; in so doing, the court ordered the Secretary of State to investigate the issues raised in Plaintiffs' complaint.

         {¶4} The next day, Plaintiffs filed an amended petition. The amended petition added a claim premised on both the facts alleged in the original petition and on additional, related facts. The new claim asserted violations by the Board of Plaintiffs' rights under the equal protection clauses of the Federal and State Constitutions and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plaintiffs invoked 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2018), which establishes liability for civil rights violations, and § 1988(b), which provides that a court may award a reasonable attorney fee to the prevailing party in an action to enforce § 1983.

         {¶5} On August 25, 2016, Plaintiffs notified the district court of a partial settlement reached sometime in 2015. Plaintiffs explained that (1) the parties had agreed to changes in the land grant's bylaws on April 29, 2016; (2) the Board had enacted the changes on August 2, 2016; and (3) the parties had agreed to a settlement on liability. Plaintiffs stated that the only outstanding issue in the case was the amount of attorney fees to which Plaintiffs were entitled.

         {¶6} Plaintiffs then petitioned the district court for attorney fees and costs, claiming entitlement under § 1988. After a hearing, the district court denied Plaintiffs' motion. The court reasoned that land grants are not governmental entities for purposes of constitutional claims or the Voting Rights Act and, because such status is required for recovery under §§ 1983 and 1988, Plaintiffs' contention of entitlement to attorney fees and costs lacked merit.


         {¶7} As a preliminary matter, we address this Court's jurisdiction to hear this appeal, an issue we instructed the parties to brief. The instruction was based on a possible interpretation of NMSA 1978, Section 1-14-5 (1969), which provides that our Supreme Court has jurisdiction over an appeal "from any judgment or decree entered in" a proceeding over the contest of an election governed by the Election Code, NMSA 1978, §§ 1-1-1 to 1-26-6 (1969, as amended through 2019). Having considered the issue further, we now conclude that Section 1-14-5 does not apply here because, among other reasons, Section 1-14-1 provides in relation to Section 1-14-5 that it is an "unsuccessful candidate for nomination or election to [a] public office" who may contest the election of another candidate, and Plaintiffs are not unsuccessful candidates for nomination or election to a public office. Rather, they are a party seeking an attorney fee award against an already-elected board of trustees of a land grant. This case thus does not fit the criteria our Legislature has established for election-related matters that proceed directly to our Supreme Court on appeal. We therefore conclude that jurisdiction is proper in this Court, and we proceed to the merits.

         {¶8} We generally review a district court's award of attorney fees for an abuse of discretion. N.M. Right to Choose/NARAL v. Johnson, 1999-NMSC-028, ¶ 6, 127 N.M. 654, 986 P.2d 450. However, this appeal presents one essential question: whether Plaintiffs are entitled to an attorney fee award under ยง 1988. This question is one of law; accordingly, our review ...

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