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Saeedi v. Greyhound Lines

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


January 19, 1995

ESMAT SAEEDI, APPELLANT
v.
GREYHOUND LINES, INC. AND WILLIAM CARROLL, APPELLEES

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Steffen W. Graae, Motions Judge).

Before Ferren and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Reilly, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge: Appellant, Esmat Saeedi, appeals the denial of her motion for reconsideration of an order sustaining dismissal of her civil action against Greyhound Lines, Inc. without prejudice for failure to prosecute. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 41-I. Because appellant's lawsuit was automatically stayed as a result of appellee Greyhound's Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, federal law precluded appellant from taking any further action to pursue her case. We therefore reverse and remand for entry of a trial court order reinstating the complaint.

I.

On July 6, 1990, appellant filed a complaint against Greyhound Lines, Inc. (Greyhound), Greyhound/Trailways Bus System, and Greyhound's agent, "John Doe" Carroll, for assault, battery, false arrest, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, all arising from an incident that occurred on July 7, 1989. A month earlier, on June 4, 1990, Greyhound had filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. §§ 1101 et seq. (1988). On July 11, 1990, in response to the complaint, Greyhound sent appellant a letter ("the 1990 letter") informing her of Greyhound's Chapter 11 filing and of the automatic stay pursuant to § 362 of the Bankruptcy Code. Melanie Scofield, Greyhound's Associate General Counsel, sent a copy of this letter to the Clerk of the Superior Court on July 16, 1990.

As a result of the information supplied by Greyhound's 1990 letter, appellant took no further action on her claim. On April 16, 1991, appellant received a computer-generated order from the Superior Court requiring her to show cause why her suit should not be dismissed pursuant to Rule 41-I(a) for failure to prosecute. On July 5, 1991, Judge Huhn (now Judge Nan Shuker) *fn1 granted appellant's motion to vacate the computer-generated order and docketed an order to that effect on July 11, "conditioned on the filing of proper notice to stay pending bankruptcy no later than August 2, 1991." (Apparently, this order meant that appellant was required to file a suitable notice in Superior Court reflecting the federal stay in effect while Greyhound's bankruptcy proceeding was pending.) Aware of this order (it is not clear how), Greyhound's Scofield apparently sent another letter addressed to the Clerk of the Superior Court on July 31, 1991 ("the 1991 letter"), informing the court that "Greyhound Lines, Inc. has not emerged from the bankruptcy proceeding and that the Stay Order issued by the Federal Court [on August 10, 1990], a copy of which is enclosed, remains in effect." *fn2 On August 2, 1991, appellant filed a praecipe stating that she would not oppose Greyhound's efforts to stay Superior Court proceedings.

Several months later, on January 6, 1993, appellant filed another praecipe noting that Greyhound's bankruptcy proceedings had been terminated and requesting a scheduling conference for appellant's case. The court did not respond. Five months later, on June 8, 1993, the Superior Court issued a second computer-generated Rule 41-I order dismissing the case for failure to prosecute. On June 14, 1993, appellant filed a motion to vacate that order, arguing that the case had been automatically stayed under 11 U.S.C. § 362 (a). On July 12, 1993, the motions Judge upheld the dismissal order on several grounds:

Defendant has never properly appeared in this case; Plaintiff did not timely file certificates of service; *fn3 this case has never been stayed; *fn4 although Plaintiff has served Greyhound, Plaintiff has never moved for default; Judge Huhn's [Shuker's] order has never been complied with; and Plaintiff has not been serving his motions and praecipes on an attorney authorized to represent Greyhound. *fn5 [Footnotes added].

The Judge further ruled that, because appellant's original complaint had named "John Doe" Carroll as a defendant instead of "William" Carroll, William Carroll was not a party to the action. *fn6 Appellant filed a motion for reconsideration. *fn7 This was denied on September 29, 1993. *fn8 She now appeals this denial.

II.

A.

Appellant filed her case at a time when Greyhound was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Consequently, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 362 (a), appellant's case was automatically stayed; *fn9 federal law precluded appellant from taking any further action on her lawsuit until Greyhound's bankruptcy case was closed, dismissed, or discharged. See 11 U.S.C. §§ 362 (a)(1) -362 (c)(2). *fn10 For one simple, straightforward reason, therefore - federal bankruptcy law - the motions Judge erred in sustaining dismissal of appellant's lawsuit for failure to prosecute. His reasoning that appellant's case had "never been stayed," and that appellant had failed to take a number of actions she was required to take to keep her claim alive, is not sound - as elaborated below.

B.

The motions Judge's Conclusion that appellant's civil action against Greyhound had not been stayed is apparently premised on a belief that, irrespective of the federal bankruptcy Judge's authority to stay a Superior Court lawsuit, such a stay could not prevent the Superior Court from dismissing the lawsuit when the plaintiff fails to give the Superior Court formal notice of the stay and to take various other steps to keep it alive. Thus, the motions Judge dismissed appellant's lawsuit, and denied reconsideration of that dismissal, because of his finding that appellant had not complied with the condition Judge Shuker had imposed when she lifted the computer-generated dismissal order: filing of a notice of the federal stay in Superior Court no later than August 2, 1991.

As a preliminary matter, therefore, we are presented with the question whether the Superior Court, applying its own rules, can lawfully dismiss a civil action stayed under federal bankruptcy law, because the plaintiff fails to file a timely notice of the federal stay in Superior Court. The question, while ostensibly answerable by reference to the absolute nature of the federal stay - i.e., stay means stay of any Superior Court activity in support of a pending claim - is not necessarily frivolous. A plaintiffs actions to comply with local or state court housekeeping rules, for purposes of keeping the status of cases on the court's docket clear, will not impose any hardship on the debtor whom the bankruptcy stay is intended to protect, because such actions will not move the case forward in any respect. On the other hand, any dismissal for failure to comply with such rules would appear to violate the plain meaning of a "stay" barring "continuation, including the issuance or employment of process, of a judicial . . . action or proceeding against the debtor." 11 U.S.C. § 362 (a)(1), (supra) note 9. In any event, we do not have to resolve this question because, contrary to the motions Judge's understanding, the parties met the condition imposed by Judge Shuker.

The record shows that, on July 16, 1990, Greyhound filed with the Superior Court a copy of the 1990 letter that informed appellant her case had been stayed under 11 U.S.C. § 362 (a), (supra) note 9. The motions Judge apparently concluded, however, that the 1990 letter did not meet Judge Shuker's condition simply because "Judge Huhn found that this was not notice to the court that Greyhound was in bankruptcy." See (supra) note 4. This Conclusion is premised on the motions Judge's apparent understanding that Judge Shuker, who did not reference the 1990 letter in her June 11, 1991 order, was aware of and rejected that communication. We will not second-guess the motions Judge's understanding. We conclude, very simply, that if Judge Shuker was aware of Greyhound's 1990 letter from its submission to the Superior Court, she erred in conditioning her reinstatement of appellant's complaint on a later filing of some kind evidencing, for a second time, a stay that the court already knew about from a letter filed a year earlier.

In any event, contrary to the motions Judge's understandings, even if Judge Shuker was unaware of the 1990 letter - and even if we assume, solely for the sake of argument, that a Superior Court Judge (here, the motions Judge) had authority to dismiss a lawsuit, stayed under federal bankruptcy law, because of the plaintiff-appellant's failure to file a copy of the stay order with the Superior Court - the fact is that the motions Judge knew of the 1990 letter revealing the stay by the time he dismissed appellant's lawsuit and denied reconsideration. There was no evidence before the court indicating that the stay had been lifted or questioning the authenticity of Greyhound's letter. The motions Judge, therefore, could not lawfully ignore the 1990 letter as evidence of the stay order simply because he thought Judge Shuker had found the letter wanting in some respect. Such a law-of-the-case analysis (which the motions Judge apparently was making here) would have no validity in this context, where the simple issue was whether the record reflected that a federal stay had been entered. *fn11

Accordingly, because the motions Judge knew a federal stay was in effect, *fn12 he erred in dismissing appellant's case for failure to comply with Judge Shuker's order. *fn13 We reverse and remand for the trial court to order reinstatement of appellant's complaint.

So ordered.


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