Hunnicutt v. Sewell, 28,343.

Citation2009 NMCA 121, 219 P.3d 529
Case DateSeptember 03, 2009
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
219 P.3d 529
2009 NMCA 121
Crystal HUNNICUTT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Regina Ryanczak SEWELL, Individually; and Regina Ryanczak Sewell, Attorney at Law, P.C.; Twelfth Judicial District Court; and Administrative Office of the Courts for the State of New Mexico, as primary contracting parties with Regina Ryanczak Sewell and/or Regina Ryanczak Sewell, Attorney at Law, P.C.; and Lynne Jessen, in her individual and official capacity; Ida Lujan, in her individual

[219 P.3d 530]

capacity; Angela Adams, in her individual and official capacity; Mary Dale Bolson, in her individual capacity; John and Jane Does 1-10, in their individual capacities; John Doe 11; John Doe 12; and New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department, Defendants-Appellees.
No. 28,343.
Court of Appeals of New Mexico.
September 3, 2009.

[219 P.3d 531]

Nancy L. Simmons, Law Offices of Nancy L. Simmons, P.C. Albuquerque, NM, for Appellant.

Michael Dickman, Santa Fe, NM for Appellees Twelfth Judicial District Court, Administrative Office of the Courts, John Doe 11, and John Doe 12.

OPINION

CASTILLO, Judge.


{1} Plaintiff appeals the district court's order dismissing the case against the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the Twelfth Judicial District Court (TJDC), and John Does 11 and 12 (John Does) (collectively Defendants). Because we hold that each of these Defendants were entitled to judicial immunity, the complaint was properly dismissed as to them, and we affirm the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

{2} The following facts are drawn from the pleadings filed by Plaintiff. Plaintiff was the subject of an abuse and neglect proceeding that resulted in her placement with adoptive parents. Plaintiff's adoptive mother relinquished custody of Plaintiff to the Children, Youth and Families Department (Department) in October 2005. In May 2006, the Department initiated a petition for court-ordered family services on Plaintiff's behalf. The district court appointed an attorney (Attorney) to represent Plaintiff during that proceeding pursuant to a youth-attorney contract. In November 2006, Attorney moved to withdraw as Plaintiff's counsel, and the district court entered an order of withdrawal. On January 5, 2007, the matter was dismissed because Plaintiff reached the age of eighteen.

{3} Plaintiff originally filed a complaint for damages against Attorney and injunctive relief against AOC. She alleged breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, legal malpractice, violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act, and abandonment. AOC filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted with permission for Plaintiff to file an amended complaint within seven days. In her first amended complaint, Plaintiff sought damages against AOC and added defendants, including the Department, the TJDC, various state employees, and John

219 P.3d 532

Does 1 through 10. Sometime later, Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint with additional claims that included yet more defendants-among them John Does 11 and 12.

{4} Specific to the appeal before us are the allegations regarding the youth-attorney contract and the allegations regarding constitutional violations. In her second amended complaint, Plaintiff alleged that she was a third-party beneficiary to the youth attorney contract and that TJDC and AOC breached that contract by failing to oversee Attorney's performance and by failing to ensure that substitute counsel was provided after Attorney was allowed to withdraw. As to the John Does, Plaintiff alleged that they violated her constitutional rights by failing to (1) arrange for competent counsel for Plaintiff, (2) oversee Attorney's representation of Plaintiff, and (3) secure substitute counsel for Plaintiff after Attorney was allowed to withdraw.

{5} Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint and argued that they were protected from Plaintiff's allegations by absolute judicial immunity and by qualified immunity or, in the alternative, that the complaint failed to state a contract claim against AOC and TJDC. After a hearing on Defendants' motion, the district court granted the motion and entered an order dismissing the complaint as to Defendants. Plaintiff appeals from that order.

{6} The district court's order did not affect Plaintiff's complaint against Attorney. Consequently, Plaintiff's current appeal relates only to the allegations brought against Defendants.

II. DISCUSSION

{7} On appeal, both parties maintain the positions that were developed below. Plaintiff's appeal is based on the two sets of allegations contained in the second amended complaint: the breach of contract claim against TJDC and AOC and the constitutional claims against John Does. Defendants maintain that they are immune from Plaintiff's allegations or, in the alternative, that the complaint failed to state a contract claim against AOC and TJDC. Because we conclude that Defendants are entitled to judicial immunity, we do not need to consider Defendants' remaining arguments.

A. Standard of Review

{8} "In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 1-012(B)(6) NMRA ..., we take the well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint as true and test the legal sufficiency of the claims." Envtl. Control, Inc. v. City of Santa Fe, 2002-NMCA-003, ¶ 6, 131 N.M. 450, 38 P.3d 891 (2001). We also review questions of immunity de novo. See Starko, Inc. v. Gallegos, 2006-NMCA-085, ¶ 11, 140 N.M. 136, 140 P.3d 1085 ("The applicability of qualified immunity is a question of law that we review de novo."); Candelaria v. Robinson, 93 N.M. 786, 789, 606 P.2d 196, 199 (Ct.App.1980) (identifying issues of absolute immunity as questions of law). We begin by examining whether Defendants are immune from suit: if immunity is applicable in the present case, it is a bar to suit and therefore a threshold issue. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) ("[T]he essence of absolute immunity is its possessor's entitlement not to have to answer for his conduct in a civil damages action."); Leach v. N.M. Junior Coll., 2002-NMCA-039, ¶¶ 11, 19, 132 N.M. 106, 45 P.3d 46 (explaining that the Eleventh Amendment and qualified immunity protect not only against liability, but from the burden of litigation).

B. Judicial Immunity

{9} Judicial immunity was developed to preserve the "autonomy and integrity of the judiciary" so that "persons who are integral to the judicial process [are] able to...

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