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In re Morin

Supreme Court of Montana

June 4, 2013

IN THE MATTER OF: TRACEY L. MORIN, Appellant,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant and Appellee. AS PART OF: SARAH WEST, AUSRA WEST, and JAMES WEST, Plaintiffs,

Submitted on Briefs: April 3, 2013

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-First Judicial District, In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DV 07-330/158 Honorable James A. Haynes, Presiding Judge

For Appellant: Jonathan R. Motl, Morrison, Motl & Sherwood, PLLP, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Bradley J. Luck, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, PLLP, Missoula, Montana

Mike McGrath, Chief Justice

¶1 This case arose from civil litigation known as West v. State Farm, Cause DV-07-330, in the District Court of the Twenty-first Judicial District, Ravalli County. Tracey Morin, attorney at law, represented the West plaintiffs in that action. At the conclusion of the action the District Court, the Hon. James Haynes, imposed sanctions on Morin individually under M. R. Civ. P. 11, and Morin appeals.

¶2 On appeal Morin contends that the "depth and breadth" of the sanctions imposed upon her constituted an abuse of discretion. We affirm.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶3 In 2004 Sarah West was injured in a motor vehicle accident with a third party, and reached a settlement with that party's insurer for about $93, 000. She then made a claim against her own insurer, State Farm, for underinsured motorist benefits of $75, 000 under the West family's State Farm policy. State Farm paid $20, 000 in benefits and then denied liability for additional payments.

¶4 In 2007 Morin filed a complaint against State Farm on behalf of Sarah for breach of contract under the State Farm policy. Morin later filed an amended complaint adding Sarah's parents Ausra and James West as plaintiffs and asserting additional claims for violation of the Montana Unfair Trade Practices Act, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and punitive damages. In November 2008, attorney Paul Meismer appeared as co-counsel for the West plaintiffs in the litigation. Discovery

¶5 In late April 2009, Morin, on behalf of the West plaintiffs, moved the District Court to bifurcate the breach of contract claim from the tort claims against State Farm. The stated reasons were that the breach of contract claim was distinct from the tort claims, and that bifurcation would benefit all parties. In May 2009, attorney Meismer, with the express consent of the Wests, was allowed to withdraw from the case for health reasons.[1]

¶6 On June 5, 2009, Morin entered a written stipulation with the attorneys for State Farm to dismiss one of the tort claims, and to bifurcate the contract claim from the remaining tort claims. The parties' written stipulation provided that unless the Wests requested a revised scheduling order within 60 days of the final disposition of the breach of contract claims, the tort claims "shall be dismissed with prejudice." The District Court entered an order in accordance with the stipulation and stayed the action as to the tort claims. The order reflected the agreement in the stipulation and provided:

A revised Scheduling Order shall be requested by Plaintiffs in relation to Counts Two and Four, if they desire, following the settlement or entry of final judgment on Count One. Plaintiffs shall make such request within 60 days of the settlement or final judgment on Count One or the case (Counts Two and Four) shall be dismissed with prejudice.

(Emphasis added.) The parties proceeded with discovery and preparation for trial on Count One, the contract-underinsured motorist claim.

¶7 On August 25, 2010, the day before the final pretrial conference on Count One and only weeks before the scheduled trial, Morin moved the District Court to dismiss Count One without prejudice. The District Court held hearings on the motion (August 26 and 27, 2010), during which Morin stated that it was "financially impossible" for the Wests to proceed with two trials on the bifurcated claims.[2] State Farm objected to a dismissal without prejudice because the parties were on the verge of going to trial and had expended considerable effort and money to get to that point. The District Court denied the motion to dismiss without prejudice, and indicated that trial would proceed as scheduled on October 1, 2010.

¶8 Attorney Morin then filed several pleadings in which she asserted that the District Court had required her to choose either a dismissal of the breach of contract claim with prejudice, or participation in a "forced trial." She further characterized the prior bifurcation stipulation that she entered with State Farm as a "court ordered stipulation." In a subsequent hearing the District Court explained to Morin that there was no order that required her to dismiss the contract claim with prejudice; that the only order had been to deny her motion to dismiss the claim without prejudice; and that the Court was ready to proceed to trial on the merits. Several days later Morin stipulated with State Farm's counsel to dismiss the breach of contract claim with prejudice. Pursuant to that stipulation, the District Court ordered the breach of contract ...


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