Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of N.Y., Inc. v. Mont. Twentieth Judicial Dist. Court

Decision Date26 January 2021
Docket NumberOP 20-0417
Citation479 P.3d 946,403 Mont. 57,2021 MT 13
Parties WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC., Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Petitioners, v. MONTANA TWENTIETH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, SANDERS COUNTY, and the Honorable Elizabeth A. Best, Presiding Judge, Respondents.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Petitioners: Bradley J. Luck, Tessa A. Keller, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, PLLP, Missoula, Montana, Joel M. Taylor, Associate General Counsel, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Patterson, New York

For Alexis Nunez: D. Neil Smith, Ross Leonoudakis, Nix, Patterson & Roach, LLP, Dallas, Texas, James P. Molloy, Gallik, Bremer & Molloy, P.C., Bozeman, Montana

Justice Ingrid Gustafson delivered the Opinion and Order of the Court.

¶1 Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses (the "Jehovah's Witnesses") seek a writ of supervisory control over the Montana Twentieth Judicial District Court, Sanders County, and the Honorable Elizabeth A. Best, presiding judge. The Jehovah's Witnesses maintain the District Court's June 10, 2020 Order Amending Order Granting Leave to Proceed with Common Law Negligence Claim and File Second Amended Complaint is in legal error. They ask this Court to direct the District Court to enter final judgment for them and terminate the case, because the doctrine of claim preclusion1 precludes Alexis Nunez from proceeding to trial with her common law negligence claim after remand from this Court in Nunez v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. , 2020 MT 3, 398 Mont. 261, 455 P.3d 829. For the reasons explained in this Opinion and Order, we deny the writ because the District Court is not proceeding under a mistake of law.


¶2 Alexis Nunez2 sued the Jehovah's Witnesses for negligence, negligence per se, and breach of fiduciary duty and sought punitive damages. Before trial, the District Court sua sponte granted partial summary judgment to Nunez, determining as a matter of law the Jehovah's Witnesses were both negligent per se and the cause of Nunez's damages for failing to report known abuse of other children by Nunez's perpetrator to the appropriate legal authorities. During a pretrial discussion about settling preliminary jury instructions, counsel for Nunez indicated Nunez was "fine limiting [her] negligence claim to the negligence per se claim." The District Court asked to clarify whether Nunez was dismissing her common law negligence claim and breach of fiduciary duty claim, to which counsel responded "Yes, your Honor." The Jehovah's Witnesses did not object. At trial, the jury determined Nunez's damages and awarded punitive damages to Nunez against the Jehovah's Witnesses. On appeal, this Court determined the District Court erred in determining the Jehovah's Witnesses were negligent per se and "reverse[d] and remand[ed] for entry of summary judgment in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses." Nunez , ¶ 34.

¶3 After remand to the District Court, Nunez moved to amend her complaint to revive her common law negligence claims. The District Court granted her motion. Upon Nunez's motion, the District Court amended its order to correct a misstatement of fact in its original order. In response to the District Court's amended order, the Jehovah's Witnesses filed a petition seeking a writ of supervisory control with this Court.


¶4 This Court may assume supervisory control, as authorized by Article VII, Section 2(2), of the Montana Constitution and M. R. App. P. 14(3) to control the course of litigation when the case involves purely legal questions and the district court "is proceeding under a mistake of law and is causing a gross injustice." M. R. App. P. 14(3)(a). Our determination of whether supervisory control is appropriate is a case-by-base decision, based on the presence of extraordinary circumstances and a particular need to prevent an injustice from occurring. Stokes v. Mont. Thirteenth Judicial Dist. Court , 2011 MT 182, ¶ 5, 361 Mont. 279, 259 P.3d 754.

¶5 The Jehovah's Witnesses first argue the District Court erred as a matter of law in allowing Nunez to amend her complaint to revive the common law negligence claim because claim preclusion precludes such a claim. Watchtower argues the situation presented in this case is no different than if Nunez had filed a separate post-appeal lawsuit in which she asserted a common law negligence claim, and had Nunez done so, there would be no question claim preclusion applies and would bar the claim. Watchtower argues Nunez had the opportunity to place her common law negligence claim in front of a jury and she choose not to do so, thereby precluding her from pursuing that claim now.

¶6 Nunez argues she is neither bringing forth a new claim nor filing a new lawsuit. She characterizes her attempt as seeking "to proceed on the claims that remain following this Court's remand order." Nunez points out that this Court in Slater v. Central Plumbing & Heating Co. , 1999 MT 257, ¶ 24, 297 Mont. 7, 993 P.2d 654, explained "a reversal extends only to those issues which the appellate court decided in actuality or by necessary implication; it does not affect collateral matters not before the court," and she maintains her common law negligence claim remains a live issue that has not been decided in actuality or by necessary implication before the District Court or this Court.

¶7 The doctrine of claim preclusion "embod[ies] a judicial policy that favors a definite end to litigation, whereby we seek to prevent parties from incessantly waging piecemeal, collateral attacks against judgments." Brilz v. Metro. Gen. Ins. Co. , 2012 MT 184, ¶ 18, 366 Mont. 78, 285 P.3d 494 (quoting Baltrusch v. Baltrusch , 2006 MT 51, ¶ 15, 331 Mont. 281, 130 P.3d 1267 ). The doctrine promotes judicial economy and finality of judgments. Brilz , ¶ 18. "Under claim preclusion, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating claims that were or could have been raised in that action ." Brilz , ¶ 18 (emphasis added); see also Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 19 (Am. Law. Inst. 1982) ("A valid and final personal judgment rendered in favor of the defendant bars another action by the plaintiff on the same claim." (emphasis added)).

¶8 We agree with Nunez that Slater involved the question of whether a party could litigate certain previously raised claims after this Court reversed and remanded the matter. In that case, the general contractor, Edsall, filed an amended crossclaim against its subcontractor Central after the district court had determined Edsall was strictly liable to an injured worker of one of Central's subcontractors under statute and the jury awarded the injured worker almost $700,000 against Edsall. Slater , ¶¶ 5-8.

¶9 The amended crossclaim contained four causes of action, including breach of contract and negligence by Central. Slater , ¶ 8. Central moved for summary judgment on all claims and Edsall moved for partial summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. The District Court ultimately granted Edsall summary judgment on the breach of contract claim and denied Central's motion for summary judgment. The court awarded Edsall over $600,000 under the breach of contract claim and Central appealed. Slater , ¶ 11. This Court reversed the District Court's grant of summary judgment on the breach of contract issue. After remand, Central moved for judgment to be entered against Edsall; Edsall objected, arguing that it was entitled to pursue the other issues raised by its crossclaim. The District Court entered judgment in favor of Central and dismissed the crossclaims. Edsall then appealed. Slater , ¶ 12.

¶10 On appeal, Edsall argued that the negligence claim it had asserted in its amended crossclaim was based on an indemnity provision in the contract it had entered into with Central that would indemnify Edsall against any loss arising out of Central's negligence. Slater , ¶ 18. Central argued that claim preclusion precluded Edsall from raising this issue at this point in the case. Slater , ¶ 25. This Court disagreed. This Court ultimately determined claim preclusion did not prevent litigation from resuming on previously asserted causes of action after the reversal of a partial summary judgment order on appeal, explaining "Edsall has yet to have a full opportunity to present the issue of indemnity based on Central's negligence for a judicial determination." Slater , ¶ 27. Causes of action that were not at issue on appeal were not determined and were not precluded from going forward on remand. Like in Slater , ¶ 31, "[t]his is a situation where [Nunez] pleaded all of [her] claims to a single court ...; [she] is not pleading new claims." Despite its similarity in this regard, Slater is distinguishable in that there was never a withdrawal or dismissal of any claim—that factual circumstance though was not the basis for this Court's ruling.

¶11 The cases upon which Watchtower relies are cases in which the losing party attempted to bring a new cause of action after their initial litigation failed. See Fisher v. State Farm Gen. Ins. Co. , 1999 MT 308, 297 Mont. 201, 991 P.2d 452 ; Orlando v. Prewett , 236 Mont. 478, 771 P.2d 111 (1989) ; Kimpton v. Jubilee Placer Mining Co. , 22 Mont. 107, 55 P. 918 (1899). While Watchtower argues in its petition, "If Nunez had filed a separate post-appeal lawsuit asserting her common law negligence claim, all claim preclusion elements would clearly be present," the fact is Nunez did not file a separate post-appeal lawsuit. Nunez is seeking to litigate additional claims against the Jehovah's Witnesses in the same suit. Claim preclusion simply does not apply to the continued proceedings before the District...

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