Federal Appellate Court Rules That Lawyer’s Death Is Not Sufficient Justification To Reopen Civil Rights Case

February 1, 2019

The Third Circuit recently addressed a New Jersey man's attempt to reopen his federal civil rights claim against two New Jersey State Troopers after it had been dismissed and his lawyer passed away. In the case of Mitchell v. Fuentes, Mr. Mitchell alleged that the officers had fabricated claims about him speeding that resulted in him being convicted. Following the conviction, Mr. Mitchell filed a complaint in the Federal District of New Jersey alleging violation of his constitutional rights by the officers and a claim for violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The officers moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Mitchell's claims were either barred by collateral estoppel or failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Mitchell cross-moved for leave to file a first amended complaint. Mitchell, represented by lawyer William Buckman, filed his first amended complaint, and the officers again moved to dismiss. On March 18, 2014, the District Court granted the motion to dismiss and terminated the case. On October 14, 2014, Mr. Buckman died. Mitchell learned of Buckman's death almost a week later and subsequently learned that his case was dismissed.

Mr. Mitchell alleges that prior to Mr. Buckman's death, he assured Mr. Mitchell that his case was proceeding well and he failed to advise him of the dismissal of the case or how he might appeal the matter. Once he learned of Buckman's death and that his case had been dismissed, he attempted to secure alternate counsel to proceed but could not find a lawyer to take his case. He ultimately filed a petition to open the case without a lawyer in May of 2017, nearly three years after his case had been dismissed.

The trial court refused to open the case stating that too much time had passed and despite Mr. Mitchell's claims, he did not have a sufficient excuse for waiting so long to approach the Court. He appealed to the Third Circuit who agreed that the case should not be reopened. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), a "court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding" under an enumerated set of circumstances including "any other reason that justifies relief." A motion under Rule (60)(b) must be made within a reasonable time," and where it is not a party must show "extraordinary circumstances justifying the reopening of a final judgment."

The Court found that Mitchell's claims regarding his lack of legal education, his inability to access computerized legal research programs, and Buckman's failure to communicate the termination of the case and abandonment of the appeal, did not amount to "extraordinary circumstances." The Court found that Mitchell knew of his counsel's passing within a week of it occurring "yet waited two years before informing the Court that he sought relief." Inability to find another attorney "did not stop him from notifying the Court that he wished to pursue his case." Thus, Mitchell's failure to seek timely relief was unreasonable.

While the Court seemed sympathetic to the situation in that Mr. Mitchell appears to have been disadvantaged by his lawyer's death, the Court found that he simply waited too long to take action. This is the lesson from this case in that in most circumstances, it is wise to take quick action as the longer you wait to pursue a claim or defense, the less inclined a court will be to give you the benefit of the doubt. It is unknown whether the Court would have been more forgiving if Mr. Mitchell acted quicker but I suspect he would have stood a better chance. In situations such as this, businesses and individuals need counsel with the experience that can make the difference. Please contact our offices for a free consultation so we can discuss how this substantial experience can be used to your benefit.