Doe v. Hills-Pettitt, 122220 MESC, Ken-20-138

Docket Nº:Ken-20-138
Opinion Judge:HUMPHREY, J.
Party Name:PAT DOE[1] v. CHRISTOPHER HILLS-PETTITT
Attorney:Jade Richards, Esq., Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Augusta, and Melissa L. Martin, Esq. (orally), Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Portland, for appellant Pat Doe Ashley T. Perry, Esq. (orally), Sanders, Hanstein & Carey, P.A., Farmington, for appellee Christopher Hills-Pettitt
Judge Panel:Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.
Case Date:December 22, 2020
Court:Supreme Judicial Court of Maine

2020 ME 140

PAT DOE[1]

v.

CHRISTOPHER HILLS-PETTITT

No. Ken-20-138

Supreme Court of Maine

December 22, 2020

Argued: October 6, 2020

Jade Richards, Esq., Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Augusta, and Melissa L. Martin, Esq. (orally), Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Portland, for appellant Pat Doe

Ashley T. Perry, Esq. (orally), Sanders, Hanstein & Carey, P.A., Farmington, for appellee Christopher Hills-Pettitt

Panel: MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HUMPHREY, HORTON, and CONNORS, JJ.

HUMPHREY, J.

[¶1] Pat Doe appeals from a judgment entered in the District Court (Augusta, Nale, J.) dismissing with prejudice a complaint for protection from abuse that she brought on behalf of her three minor children against their father, Christopher Hills-Pettitt. Doe contends that the court erred or abused its discretion in dismissing her complaint with prejudice instead of granting her oral motion to voluntarily dismiss the complaint without prejudice. We conclude, contrary to the court's determination, that due process did not require the court to dismiss the matter with prejudice and we therefore vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] On February 19, 2020, pursuant to 19-A M.R.S. §§ 4001-4014 (2020), Doe filed a complaint for protection from abuse on behalf of the children, alleging that Christopher was sexually abusing two of them. The court granted a temporary order for protection from abuse and scheduled a final hearing for March 9, 2020. See 19-A M.R.S. § 4006.

[¶3] After the court entered the temporary order and before the final hearing, Christopher was arrested and charged with unlawful sexual contact. See 17-A M.R.S. § 255-A (2020). Christopher's bail conditions prohibited contact between Christopher and the children.[2] Both parties and their attorneys attended the March 9 hearing, but Doe did not bring the children whose reports served as the basis of the complaint. At the outset, Doe orally moved to dismiss the complaint without prejudice, citing the need to spare the children the trauma of testifying given that Christopher's bail conditions protected them by prohibiting any contact between him and the children. The court responded that it was going to either hold a final hearing that day or dismiss the complaint with prejudice. The court allowed the parties to confer briefly before Doe renewed her oral request. The court denied Doe's motion and entered an order dismissing the case with prejudice.

[¶4] On March 13, 2020, pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 52(a), Doe moved for further findings of fact and conclusions of law, arguing that the court was required to allow the voluntary dismissal of the complaint without prejudice pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1), and further requesting that the court find additional facts to support its decision to dismiss the complaint with prejudice. In an order denying that motion, the court stated that Christopher "was entitled to have the matter adjudicated on the day the trial was scheduled. [Doe] did not request a continuance. The court did not intend this dismissal to act as a sanction upon [Doe] but a rendering of due process." Doe timely appealed. See 19-A M.R.S. § 104 (2020); M.R. App. P. 2A, 2B(c)(1), (2)(B).

II. DISCUSSION

A. M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1)-Voluntary Dismissal by Plaintiff

[¶5] Doe argues that the court misapplied M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1) when it dismissed her complaint with prejudice. We review the court's interpretation of the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure3 de novo "and look to the plain language of the rules to determine their meaning." Kline v. Burdin, 2017 ME 194, ¶ 7, 170 A.3d 282 (quotation marks omitted).

[¶6] Rule 41(a)(1)4 provides that a plaintiff may dismiss an action without a court order by filing either a notice of dismissal-if the defendant has not served an answer or a motion for summary judgment5-or a stipulation of dismissal signed by all of the parties. "Unless otherwise stated in the notice of dismissal or stipulation, the dismissal is without prejudice." M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1) (emphasis added). Thus, the plain language of the Rule permits a plaintiff to specify whether or not the dismissal is with prejudice. See e.g., In re Kaleb D., 2001 ME 55, ¶ 3 n.4, 769 A.2d 179 ("Because there was no stipulation among the parties indicating otherwise and because the dismissal was silent as to whether it was with or without prejudice, the dismissal in this case did not operate as an adjudication on the merits.").

[¶7] However, to avail herself of Rule 41(a)(1), a plaintiff must file a written notice of the dismissal with the court or a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties. See M.R. Civ. P. 41 Advisory Committee's Notes 1989 (stating that the 1989 amendment adopts the language of Federal Rule 41(a)(1)); 8 James W. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 4l.33(4)(a) (3d ed. 2007) (noting that oral notice is insufficient for a plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss an action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(1)). Here, the defendant did not serve an answer or a motion for summary judgment and Doe orally moved to dismiss her complaint. Thus, in the absence of a written notice or signed stipulation, Doe could not implement the provisions of Rule 41(a)(1) that allowed her to specify that the dismissal was without prejudice.

B. M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2)-Voluntary Dismissal by Order of the Court

[¶8] Next, we examine whether the court abused its discretion in dismissing the case with prejudice. M.R. Civ. P. 41(a)(2) provides that a court may dismiss a case "upon such terms and conditions as the court deems proper," and we have recognized that this language grants a court "discretion to dismiss a case with or without prejudice," Green Tree Servicing, LLC v. Cope, 2017 ME 68, ¶ 16, 158 A.3d 931. Thus, unlike Rule 41(a)(1), which allows the plaintiff to decide whether the dismissal is with or without prejudice, Rule 41(a)(2) gives this discretion to the court. We review a court's dismissal with prejudice for an abuse of discretion. U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n v. Curit, 2016 ME 17, ¶ 10, 131 A.3d 903. In doing so, we evaluate "(1) whether the court's factual findings are supported by the record according to the clear error standard, (2) whether the court understood the law applicable to the exercise of its discretion, and (3) whether the court's weighing of the applicable facts and choices was within the bounds of reasonableness." Green Tree Servicing, LLC, 2017 ME 68, ¶ 12, 158 A.3d 931. Here, because the court concluded that Christopher's due process rights precluded it from exercising its discretion, 6 we begin by addressing the court's understanding of the law, which requires us to determine "the parameters of the court's authority-a matter that we review de novo." Id.; see also State v. Mason, 408 A.2d 1269, 1272 (Me. 1979) (noting that where "the presiding Justice does not exercise judicial discretion when he is authorized to do so, his ruling is based upon a misconception of the applicable law").

1. Procedural Due Process

[¶9] Doe argues that the court erred in concluding that if no hearing was held on March 9, 2020, due process required the court to dismiss the complaint with prejudice. Christopher contends that because 19-A M.R.S. §4006(1) requires a hearing within twenty-one days after the filing of the complaint, due process dictates that the matter either be adjudicated on that exact date or be dismissed with prejudice.

[¶10] We review this issue of procedural due process de novo. State v. Jones, 2012 ME 126, ¶ 35, 55 A.3d 432. The due process clause of the Maine Constitution echoes its federal counterpart: "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." Me. Const, art. I, § 6-A; U.S. Const, amend. XIV, § 1; see also Green v. Comm'r of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 2000 ME 92, ¶ 21 n.4, 750 A.2d 1265.

[¶11] In determining whether a person has been deprived of a protected interest without due process of law, we employ two steps. "First, we determine if the government has deprived a claimant of life, liberty, or property interests. Second, if such deprivation occurred, we then determine what process, pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment, is due utilizing the factors in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976)." DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Exec. Dir., Me. Revenue Sen/., 2007 ME 62, ¶ 26, 922 A.2d 465 (citation...

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