Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

A. Margaret Carranza et al v. Phillip Fraas

February 7, 2011

A. MARGARET CARRANZA ET AL., : PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PHILLIP FRAAS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Re Document Nos.: 29, 30

MEMORANDUM OPINION DENYING THE PLAINTIFFS'RENEWED MOTION FOR RELIEF UPON RECONSIDERATION; GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE DEFENDANT'S RENEWED MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT WITHOUT PREJUDICE

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs are female farmers who hired the defendant, attorney Phillip Fraas, to represent them in a civil rights discrimination claim against the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"). After settlement negotiations with the USDA failed, the plaintiffs commenced this action against the defendant for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty, claiming that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable skill, care and diligence while representing them in their civil rights claim. The plaintiffs subsequently filed a motion requesting a court-appointed expert witness, which this court denied.

The plaintiffs have now filed a motion for relief upon reconsideration of that ruling, again asking the court to appoint an expert witness on their behalf. The defendant has, in turn, filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs cannot succeed on their claims without expert testimony. Because it would be inappropriate for the court to appoint an expert witness in this case, the court denies the plaintiffs' motion for relief upon reconsideration. Furthermore, because only one of the plaintiffs' allegations of malpractice falls within the "common knowledge" exception to the expert testimony requirement in legal malpractice cases, the court grants in part the defendant's motion for summary judgment. With respect to the one surviving allegation that does fall within the "common knowledge" exception, the court cannot determine at this time whether the entry of summary judgment is appropriate, as the evidence offered by the plaintiffs in opposition to the defendant's motion raises significant questions about the viability of that claim. Accordingly, the court denies this portion of the defendant's motion for summary judgment without prejudice and grants the parties leave to file supplemental briefing on this remaining issue. Consequently, the court also denies without prejudice the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claim.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

The plaintiffs are female farmers who reside in Richland County, Montana. Compl. ¶ 3. In the early 1990s, the USDA threatened to foreclose on the plaintiffs' property based on their purported failure to repay loans owed to the Farm Service Agency ("FSA"). Id. ¶¶ 5, 9; Pls.' 1st Mot. for Relief Upon Recons. ("Pls.' 1st Mot. for Recons.") at 1-2. The plaintiffs subsequently commenced a civil rights action against the USDA, alleging that the USDA had discriminated against them during their participation in the USDA's Farm Loan Programs and during the course of the plaintiffs' attempts to obtain Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection. Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' Renewed Opp'n") at 3.

In 1998, the plaintiffs retained the defendant to represent them in their action against the USDA. Compl. ¶ 5. In December 1998, the USDA made a settlement offer to the plaintiffs in the amount of $98,000. Pls.' Renewed Opp'n, Aff. of A.M. Carranza ("A.M. Carranza Aff."), Ex. 2 at 1. After consulting with the defendant, the plaintiffs rejected this offer and proposed a counter-offer, which the USDA subsequently rejected. Pls.' Reply in Support of Mot. for Court-Appointed Expert Witness ("Pls.' 1st Reply") at 6. In April 2000, Rosalind Gray, the Director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights ("OCR"), requested information from the defendant concerning the plaintiffs' damages, presumably to aid in settlement of the plaintiffs' claim. Id. at 7. The defendant provided the requested information in September 2000. See id. at 7-8.

In January 2001, Gray allegedly extended a second settlement offer to the plaintiffs for an amount substantially higher than was offered in the USDA's initial offer.*fn1 See Pls.' Renewed Opp'n, Aff. of J. Carranza ("J. Carranza Aff.") ¶ 11. The plaintiffs allege that the defendant never informed them of this second offer. Id.; A.M. Carranza Aff. ¶ 5. According to the plaintiffs, because the defendant failed to communicate with them about the January 2001 settlement proposal and failed to provide certain paperwork requested by the USDA in connection with the offer, the January 2001 offer eventually expired. Compl. ¶ 7; Pls.' Renewed Opp'n at 4-7.

In January 2002, the plaintiffs traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the trial of Sharon Mavity, an individual who had asserted discrimination claims against the USDA similar to those asserted by the plaintiffs. Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s 1st Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pls.' 1st Opp'n") at 6-7. While in Washington, the plaintiffs allegedly met with Gray, who had since left her position as Director of USDA OCR, to discuss their claim against the USDA. Pls.' Renewed Opp'n at 4-6. During this meeting, the plaintiffs allegedly learned for the first time of the January 2001 settlement proposal. Id.; Compl. ¶ 6. On January 29, 2002, the plaintiffs terminated their attorney-client relationship with the defendant. See generally Pls.' Renewed Opp'n, Ex. 7.

B. Procedural History

In January 2005, the plaintiffs filed their complaint against the defendant for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. See generally Compl. The court directed the plaintiffs to designate an expert witness by August 18, 2006. Minute Entry (Sept. 13, 2005). The plaintiffs did not designate an expert witness by that date. Instead, on September 11, 2006, the plaintiffs filed a motion requesting that the court appoint an expert witness on their behalf, citing Federal Rule of Evidence 706(a). See generally Pls.' Mot. for Court-Appointed Expert Witness. The defendant opposed the plaintiffs' motion and filed a motion for summary judgment. See generally Def.'s Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. for Court-Appointed Expert Witness; Def.'s 1st Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s 1st Mot."). While the defendant's motion for summary judgment remained pending, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for a court-appointed expert witness. See generally Mem. Order (Jan. 3, 2007).

In January 2007, the plaintiffs filed a motion for relief upon reconsideration of the court's ruling on their request for a court-appointed expert witness. See generally Pls.' 1st Mot. for Recons. The defendant failed to file a response within the allotted deadline presumably because the arguments raised in the plaintiffs' motion were identical to those in their initial motion for a court-appointed expert witness. Def.'s Opp'n to Pls.' 1st Mot. for Recons. ("Def.'s 1st Opp'n") at 1-2. At the court's prompting, however, the defendant subsequently filed a motion for leave to late-file his opposition together with an opposition to the plaintiffs' motion for relief upon reconsideration. See generally Def.'s Mot. for Leave to Late-File Opp'n to Pls.' 1st Mot. for Recons.; Def.'s 1st Opp'n.

Before ruling on the plaintiffs' motion for relief upon reconsideration or the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the court stayed this case because the Circuit was considering an appeal from the court's ruling in Mavity v. Fraas, 456 F. Supp. 2d 29 (D.D.C. 2006). Like the plaintiffs in this case, the plaintiff in Mavity, the aforementioned Sharon Mavity, had commenced a legal malpractice action against attorney Fraas based on her dissatisfaction with the defendant's representation in her case against the USDA. Id. at 31-32. The court granted summary judgment to the defendant because the plaintiff had not designated an expert witness as required. Id. at 34-35. Because the court's decision in Mavity turned on the necessity of providing expert testimony in an action for legal malpractice, see id. at 33-35, the court stayed this action, noting that the Circuit's decision in Mavity could affect the outcome of the present case. See Order (Apr. 23, 2007). In February 2009, after the Circuit affirmed this court's ruling in Mavity and after the Mavity plaintiff's petition for certiorari was denied, the court lifted the stay and ordered the parties to re-file any dispositive motions.

On March 23, 2009, the plaintiffs renewed their motion for relief upon reconsideration of the court's ruling on their request for a court-appointed expert witness.*fn2 See generally Pls.' Renewed Mot. for Relief upon Recons. ("Pls.' Renewed Mot. for Recons."). The defendant, in turn, filed a renewed motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs could not succeed on their legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty claims without an expert witness, and that their claims were barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel based on this court's ruling in Mavity.*fn3 Def.'s Renewed Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Renewed Mot.") at 1-3. With both motions ripe for adjudication, the court turns to the applicable legal standards and the parties' arguments.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The Court Denies the Plaintiffs' Renewed Motion for Relief Upon Reconsideration

1. The Plaintiffs Are Not Entitled to a Court-Appointed Expert Witness Under ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.