1998 -NMCA- 23, Brantley Farms v. Carlsbad Irr. Dist.

Decision Date08 January 1998
Docket NumberNo. 17844,17844
Citation954 P.2d 763,1998 NMCA 23,124 N.M. 698
Parties, 1998 -NMCA- 23 BRANTLEY FARMS, a New Mexico General Partnership, composed of Draper Brantley, Jr., George Brantley, and Henry McDonald, d/b/a McDonald Farm & Ranch, Petitioners-Appellees, v. CARLSBAD IRRIGATION DISTRICT, Respondent-Appellant, and Jerry Calvani, et al., Intervenors-Appellants.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
OPINION

APODACA, Judge.

¶1 Carlsbad Irrigation District (the District) and intervening farmers appeal from a peremptory writ of mandamus directing the District's Board of Directors to release water from two reservoirs within the District to supply irrigation water to Brantley Farms (Petitioners) and other members of the District. The District argues that the district court abused its discretion in issuing the peremptory writ and an earlier alternative writ of mandamus for two reasons. First, the District contends that the writs are defective and legally insufficient because: (1) the District's duty to distribute water was discretionary, rather than "ministerial" and therefore was not subject to mandamus; (2) the United States, as owner of the reservoirs and administrator of the Carlsbad Project, was an indispensable party absent from the action; and (3) the writs failed to allege sufficient facts establishing Petitioners' clear right to mandamus. Second, the District contends that Petitioners were collaterally estopped from arguing that they were water rights owners legally entitled to mandamus. Petitioners argue that the issues raised by the District are now moot because of lapse of time and because of the District's previous compliance with the district court's writs. Because of our disposition, we need not address issue (3) above. We hold that the issues in this appeal are not moot and that the district court erred in issuing both the alternative and peremptory writs. We therefore reverse.

I. FACTS

¶2 Petitioners, as members of the District, raise crops and livestock and claim to be water rights owners in the District. The District is an irrigation district formed in cooperation with the United States under NMSA 1978, Sections 73-10-1 to -47 (1919, as amended through 1981). The District constructs, maintains and operates irrigation works within the District and distributes water to its members.

¶3 The Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner Reservoirs are upstream reservoirs within the District and are owned by the United States government. The District has no control over the Santa Rosa Reservoir and can only request, through the Bureau of Reclamation, that water be released from the reservoir in accordance with governing federal contracts.

¶4 Each year, the District's Board of Directors determines the amount of water to be allotted on a pro rata basis to each member of the District for the upcoming crop season. See § 73-10-16. For the 1996 crop year, the Board allotted three acre feet of water to each member. Petitioners maintained that, due to rainfall in the spring and summer of 1996, approximately 30,000 acre feet of additional water had been captured for storage in the Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner Reservoirs. They requested the release of this additional water from the District. In August of 1996, the Board, at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting, specifically considered the issue of whether the water captured for storage in the Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner Reservoirs should be reserved for the 1997 water supply or released to members as an additional allotment during the 1996 irrigation season. Based on several factors, including existing drought conditions and other options available to Petitioners, including access to supplemental water from irrigation wells and the possibility of purchasing water from members who had not exhausted their 1996 allotment, the Board decided to conserve the water for following year's water supply.

¶5 After the Board's decision not to release the water, Petitioners filed their civil action against the District giving rise to this appeal. The United States was not made a party to Petitioner's suit. Additional facts are included in our discussion of the issues.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Mootness

¶6 Petitioners initially argue that the appeal should be dismissed because the issues have been rendered moot by the "lapse of time" and by the District's actions in complying with the peremptory writ. Petitioners rely on Snodgrass v. Tularosa Board of Education, 74 N.M. 93, 391 P.2d 323 (1964), in which our Supreme Court held that an appeal from the dismissal of a mandamus complaint seeking to compel the school district to tender an employment contract to an employee was moot where the employee voluntarily retired and accepted retirement benefits when the appeal was pending. We consider Snodgrass inapplicable to this appeal--the District has not taken any action, such as releasing the water sought by Petitioners, to cause this appeal to become moot as in Snodgrass. We agree with the District that an actual controversy exists, notwithstanding the District's efforts to comply with the peremptory writ, because the terms of the writ are not limited to the 1996 planting season and the district court specifically ruled that the peremptory writ would remain in effect for future use and consideration by the district court should "the feds decide to get out of the water business."

¶7 Additionally, Petitioners' contention that the appeal is moot because of the District's "compliance" with the peremptory writ rings hollow in light of Petitioners' own motion and order to show cause why the District should not be held in contempt of court for "failure to comply" with the peremptory writ. The District's attempts to comply with the district court's directives during the pendency of the proceedings below should not be held against it in light of the continuing attempts to dissolve the writs the District has always contended were wrongly issued. After all, any litigant is fully aware that, if its attempts to dissolve a writ fail in the court below or on appeal, it must take precautionary steps to comply with the rulings of the court. We therefore determine that the issues raised in this appeal are not moot and address the merits. Cf. State ex rel. Blanchard v. City Comm'rs, 106 N.M. 769, 770, 750 P.2d 469, 470 (Ct.App.1988) (holding that, where petitioner continued his quest for information, appeal from grant of peremptory writ requiring city to release information to petitioner regarding job applicants was not moot even though city rejected all applicants and position was filled).

B. Collateral Estoppel

¶8 We first address the District's contention that the trial court erred by refusing to apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The District argues that collateral estoppel precluded Petitioners from asserting the right to mandamus based on their alleged ownership of water rights in the Project. In a prior action, Draper Brantley, Jr. v. Carlsbad Irrigation District, Fifth Judicial District Court, Eddy County, Case No. CV-91-307-W (the Brantley suit), Petitioners and several other individuals sought an ex parte injunction to enjoin the District from releasing water from the Brantley Reservoir, which is also owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and is part of the Project. In that case, the district court granted the District's motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiffs' claims depended upon the ownership of water rights in the District and that the district court in State ex rel. S.E. Reynolds, State Engineer & Pecos Valley Artesian Conservation District v. L.T. Lewis & United States, Fifth Judicial District, Chaves County, Case Nos. 20,294 and 22,600 (consolidated) (the Lewis suit), had exclusive jurisdiction over the adjudication of such claims. The Lewis suit is an ongoing action involving the adjudication of water rights in the Pecos River Stream System, including the Project. Notwithstanding those other proceedings, the district court in this appeal declined to apply collateral estoppel, finding no identity of parties or issues.

¶9 The doctrine of collateral estoppel promotes judicial economy "by precluding 'relitigation of ultimate facts or issues actually and necessarily decided in a prior suit.' " In re Forfeiture of $14,639 in U.S. Currency v. Martinez, 120 N.M. 408, 414, 902 P.2d 563, 569 (Ct.App.1995) (citing State v. Bishop, 113 N.M. 732, 734, 832 P.2d 793, 795 (Ct.App.1992)) (quoting Silva v. State, 106 N.M. 472, 474, 745 P.2d 380, 382 (1987)). For collateral estoppel to apply, the following factors must be satisfied:

(1) the party to be estopped was a party to the prior proceeding, (2) the cause of action in the case presently before the court is different from the cause of action in the prior adjudication, (3) the issue was actually litigated in the prior adjudication, and (4) the issue was necessarily determined in the prior litigation.

Shovelin v. Central N.M. Elec. Coop., Inc., 115 N.M. 293, 297, 850 P.2d 996, 1000 (1993). Once the district court determines that the elements have been met, it must then decide "whether the party against whom estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior litigation." Id. We review the district court's decision for an abuse of discretion. Id.

¶10 We conclude that all of the elements of collateral estoppel have been satisfied in this case. Petitioners, against whom estoppel is asserted, were parties in the Brantley suit. The cause of action in the present case, a claim for a writ of mandamus requiring the District to release water from two federally owned upstream...

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