Clem v. Pinal County (D2 5.10.21)

Clem’s son Skyler died from morphine intoxication while in custody at the Pinal County Jail. His mother filed suit in state court against Pinal County and its Sheriff, and then a year later filed a second lawsuit under § 1983 naming individual detention officers. Plaintiff moved to consolidate the two cases but before this occurred, the individual defendants in the second case removed the second lawsuit to federal court. The federal court action moved a little quicker, and after the case was narrowed against only one defendant corrections officer. The federal court ruled as to that defendant there was no constitutional tort claim, no causation, and qualified immunity applied. The federal court dismissed the case. The defendants in case number one then asked for a dismissal in the first state law case arguing res judicata and issue preclusion. First, on res judicata, the court held there was no privity between the individual officers with the County and its Sheriff. This is so because the individuals were sued in their individual capacity under § 1983; they are individually responsible for damages; there is no respondeat superior liability in constitutional tort claims; and individuals, unlike the entity defendants, are entitled to assert qualified immunity. Qualified immunity was a basis for the ruling; therefore, no privity and res judicata cannot apply. The court of appeals then moved to issue preclusion. Issue preclusion does not require privity but requires identity of issues, actual litigation, full and fair opportunity to litigate, and the issue must have been necessarily decided. Part of the federal court ruling was the one remaining individual defendant did not cause the death. Here, the causation issue overlapped and as to that ruling, any state law claim based on that individual defendant’s actions (failure to check on Skyler’s wellbeing) the defendants are entitled to issue preclusion. Since the federal court did not address the actions of other corrections officers on state law claims, however, those claims can continue. The opinion is well reasoned although those pesky footnotes have us chasing the bottom of pages. The lesson here is more on litigation tactics. Federal court is a tough playground for constitutional tort claims, and pursuing defendants in two different forums is never a good idea.

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State of Arizona v. City of Tucson (Arizona Supreme Court 4.14.21)

This blog post written a couple of weeks ago did not publish so here it is.

Arizona’s constitution includes a “home rule charter provision.” Ariz. Const. art. 13, § 2. A recurring issue is what authority this gives because the provision states the charter must be “consistent with, and subject to, the Constitution and laws of the state.” The City of Tucson has litigated over its turf for many years because courts have recognized local autonomy for “purely municipal concerns.” This case is about setting election dates for city officials. And, one wonders what more of a local concern could there be? The Arizona Legislature enacted a law in 2018 stating if a local election was held on a non-statewide election date (off-cycle), and the voter turnout significantly decreased from a statewide election, local elections would be consolidated with the statewide election dates and local terms adjusted accordingly.

After running through the home rule charter provision and arguments from Justice Bolick’s lengthy and continuing dissent over the court’s home rule jurisprudence, the Arizona Supreme Court asks if Justice Bolick is right, what’s left of the charter provision? The supreme court holds the decision of whether to have municipal elections on cycle or off cycle is a matter of purely municipal concern. State law cannot preempt this decision absent a better articulated statewide interest.

A few words about the dissent. Justice Bolick argues the court’s jurisprudence has resulted in “decades of cacophony-producing cases.” To enforce his argument, he begins with a humorous anecdote of a carpenter hitching a ride with a farmer driving a “rust-bucket” truck that never worked and still doesn’t. After leaving the farmer and the carpenter, he gives a textualist reading of the home rule charter provision, questions a statute enacted after the constitution was adopted, and relentlessly attacks prior court decisions. The path he would take is direct – if a state law conflicts with a charter city ordinance, then the ordinance is invalid. But all of this gets rather lost because we are still thinking about the farmer. The late Reid Buckley warned against starting a speech with a joke. Perhaps a dissent should not begin with one either.

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Major v. Coleman (D2 5.5.21)

The parties entered into a settlement agreement under which the defendant agreed to make settlement payments over time. If the payments were not made, the parties agreed plaintiff could file a stipulation for entry of judgment. The parties then filed a stipulation to dismiss the case with prejudice stating, “in the event of a default in payment of the settlement amount, [plaintiff] shall have the right to file, and the Court shall have jurisdiction to immediately enter, and shall enter, a Stipulated Judgment held by [plaintiff’s’ counsel].” The trial court denied the request stating that the dismissal with prejudice is an adjudication on the merits and such language was inconsistent with the dismissal.

The court of appeals could not find anything in the rules or statutes “allowing or forbidding” courts from retaining jurisdiction; the United States Supreme Court has given some direction to federal courts allowing such under Fed.R.Civ.P. 41 (in dicta); and, several other states allow courts to retain jurisdiction to enforce settlements. After citing what other jurisdictions have done, the court determined cases allowing such were persuasive and consistent with Arizona law by encouraging settlement and providing an easy mechanism to enforce an agreement. Retaining jurisdiction will enable “a trial court to clear the case from its docket until the time arises, if ever, to enforce the terms of the agreement.” Thus, the trial court abused its discretion by stating it could not retain jurisdiction when a case is dismissed with prejudice. But what if the trial court refuses to retain jurisdiction not because it cannot retain jurisdiction but because it does not want to do so? What then? The court of appeals does not give any bounds to this discretion. A trial court may decide a case is better cleared from it docket and better reflective of the rule of law by not retaining jurisdiction instead of giving an open-ended opportunity for litigants to come back.

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