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Kyle v. Rich County

November 16, 2012

KYLE ATHAY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
RICH COUNTY, UTAH,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT,
AND
DALE M. STACY; CHAD L. LUDWIG; GREGG ATHAY; BRENT R. BUNN; BEAR
LAKE COUNTY, IDAHO,
DEFENDANTS.



Appeal from the District Court of the Sixth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Bear Lake County. Hon. Mitchell W. Brown, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burdick, Chief Justice

2012 Opinion No. 139

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

District court rulings following jury trial, affirmed.

This case comes before this Court on an appeal from several district court rulings in an ongoing dispute between Kyle Athay (Athay) and Rich County, Utah (Rich County). Athay was injured in a motor vehicle collision with Daryl Ervin (Ervin), who was fleeing police pursuit. Subsequently, Athay filed a civil suit against the pursuing law enforcement officers from Bear Lake County, Idaho and Rich County. This Court previously heard argument on this case in Athay v. Stacey, 142 Idaho 360, 128 P.3d 897 (2005) ("Athay I"), and in Athay v. Stacey, 146 Idaho 407, 196 P.3d 325 (2008) ("Athay II").

After Athay II, a jury trial commenced with Rich County as the sole remaining defendant. The jury returned a special verdict for Athay and awarded him $2,720,126.00 in economic damages and $1,000,000 in non-economic damages. The jury found that Ervin was 70% responsible for Athay's injuries, and that Rich County was responsible for the remaining 30%.

On appeal, Rich County argues that the district court made multiple errors: that the district court abused its discretion when it declined to disqualify the presiding judge for the limited purpose of deciding Rich County's First Motion for a New Trial; that the district court erred by denying Rich County's first and second motions for new trial; and that the district court erred when it denied Rich County's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict. We affirm the decisions of the district court.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 10, 1999, Athay was injured when his vehicle was struck by Ervin, as Ervin fled police pursuit. Rich County Sheriff Dale Stacey (Sheriff Stacey) had commenced pursuit of Ervin in northern Utah and followed him for roughly sixty miles through Wyoming and into Idaho. Once the pursuit entered Bear Lake County, Idaho, it was joined by Bear Lake County Deputies Gregg Athay and Chad Ludwig who followed behind Sheriff Stacey. Athay had pulled off the highway and stopped to help at the scene of a deer-vehicle collision on the highway about three miles north of Montpelier. As he was pulling back onto the highway, the Mustang crashed into his car. Athay II, 146 Idaho at 410, 196 P.3d at 328.

On April 19, 2002, Athay filed this lawsuit against Sheriff Stacey and Rich County, against Bear Lake County Deputies Gregg Athay and Chad Ludwig, and against Bear Lake County and its Sheriff, Brent Bunn. The district court granted the Defendants' motions for summary judgment, and Athay appealed. This Court affirmed the dismissal as to Sheriff Brent Bunn and Deputy Chad Ludwig, vacated the summary judgments as to the remaining Defendants, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Athay I, 142 Idaho 360, 128 P.3d 897.

The issue again reached this Court in 2008 after the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. Athay II, 146 Idaho 407, 196 P.3d 325.

The district court held that the complaint must be dismissed as to all defendants for various reasons including that the plaintiff failed to comply with the notice of tort claim requirements of the Idaho Tort Claims Act, the plaintiff failed to post a bond as required by Idaho Code § 6-610, and the conduct of the defendants did not rise to the level of reckless disregard.

Id. at 410, 196 P.3d at 328. This Court affirmed the decision of the district court except as to Rich County. As to Rich County, this Court held that there were genuine issues of material fact in regards to whether Sheriff Stacey acted with reckless disregard. Id. at 422, 196 P.3d at 340.

The jury trial began on July 13, 2010, with Rich County as the sole remaining defendant. After nine days of testimony and argument, the jury returned a special verdict for Athay and awarded him $2,720,126.00 in economic damages and $1,000,000 in non-economic damages. In the verdict, the jury found that Sheriff Stacey, as an agent of Rich County, was 30% at fault, and that Ervin was 70% at fault.

Judge Brown, the presiding district judge, scheduled a status conference on September 16, 2010, to discuss post-trial issues. During the telephonic conference, Judge Brown disclosed that a member of the court staff engaged in communications with Athay. Judge Brown stated that his courtroom clerk, Brandy Peck (Peck), had multiple conversations with Athay in the form of conversations in the hallway and text messaging. Peck assured Judge Brown that no substantive information was exchanged in these communications.

On October 8, 2010, the district court entered a Judgment against Rich County in the amount of $1,126,843.01 in accordance with the jury verdict.

On October 1, 2010, Rich County filed a motion for new trial ("First Motion for New Trial") with a supporting memorandum. According to Rich County, the motion was based solely upon disclosed information regarding the communications between Athay and Peck. However, this motion was not immediately resolved because Rich County filed a motion for limited disqualification of Judge Brown on October 22, 2010.

In the motion for limited disqualification, Rich County alleged that Judge Brown had an interest in the disposition of the First Motion for New Trial and could not render an impartial decision. On November 4, 2010, the district court heard argument on and denied the motion for limited disqualification.

Rich County also filed a second Motion for New Trial ("Second Motion for New Trial") and a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) concurrent with the motion for limited disqualification. The court heard arguments and evidence on these motions on November 18, 2010.

The district court denied Rich County's First Motion for New Trial in a memorandum decision on February 1, 2011. In the decision, the district court ruled that the motion was procedurally defective under I.R.C.P. 59(a)(1), as it lacked an accompanying affidavit. In a separate memorandum decision issued on February 14, 2011, the district court denied Rich County's Second Motion for New Trial and Motion for JNOV. On the Second Motion for New Trial, the district court held that the motion was "fatally flawed because it does not set forth with particularity the factual basis for its claim for new trial pursuant to the requirements of I.R.C.P. 59(a)(7)." On the motion for JNOV, the district court found that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the jury's verdict that Sheriff Stacey's conduct rose to the level of reckless disregard as defined by this Court.

Rich County timely filed a notice of appeal with this Court, alleging that the district court erred in denying the motion for limited disqualification, the motion for JNOV, and the two motions for new trial.

II. ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Whether the district court judge erred by denying Rich County's Motion for Limited Disqualification of Judge and by declining to voluntarily disqualify himself from deciding Rich County's Motion for a New Trial.

2. Whether the district court erred in denying Rich County's First Motion for New Trial.

3. Whether the district court erred when it struck Rich County's Second Motion for New Trial as untimely.

4. Whether the district court erred in denying Rich County's Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict.

5. Whether Athay is entitled to attorney fees and costs on appeal.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The district judge did not err by denying Rich County's Motion for Limited Disqualification of Judge and by declining to voluntarily disqualify himself from deciding Rich County's Motion for a New Trial.

Rich County filed a motion for limited disqualification on October 22, 2010, and argument on the motion was heard on November 4, 2010. The motion was filed pursuant to I.R.C.P. 40(d)(2) and alleged that Judge Brown had an interest in the disposition of the First Motion for New Trial and could not render an impartial decision. After acknowledging that this matter is one of discretion, the district court stated its belief in its ability to remain impartial.

On appeal, Rich County argues that Judge Brown should be disqualified from presiding over the First Motion for a New Trial based on his involvement in the facts which form the basis for the motion. Additionally, Rich County alleges that Judge Brown has a biased interest in the resolution of the motion.

1. Standard of Review

"Whether a judge's involvement in a case reaches a point where disqualification from further participation in a defendant's case becomes necessary is left to the sound discretion of the judge himself." Sivak v. State, 112 Idaho 197, 206, 731 P.2d 192, 201 (1986).

To determine whether there is an abuse of discretion this Court considers whether

(1) the court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) the court acted within the boundaries of such discretion and consistently with legal standards applicable to specific choices; and (3) the court reached its decision by an exercise of reason.

Lee v. Nickerson, 146 Idaho 5, 9, 189 P.3d 467, 471 (2008).

2. Whether the district judge erred by denying Rich County's Motion for Limited Disqualification of Judge and by declining to voluntarily disqualify himself from deciding Rich County's Motion for a New Trial.

On appeal, Rich County argues that in order for Judge Brown to rule on the merits of the First Motion for New Trial, the Judge would have to decide whether his staff member's testimony was to be believed and whether the conduct unfairly impacted the trial proceedings:

In other words, to grant Rich County's Motion, Judge Brown would have to admit that his own actions directly or indirectly necessitated a new trial. There is no doubt that despite his assertions to the contrary, Judge Brown could not possibly make a fair determination on this issue and should have granted Rich County's Motion for Disqualification.

In response, Athay argues that Rich County failed to demonstrate that Judge Brown had any bias which prevented him from acting properly on the First Motion for New Trial. Since there was no showing of bias, Athay argues that Judge Brown properly exercised his discretion in deciding not to disqualify himself.

This Court previously held in Bach v. Bagley that "the standard for recusal of a judge, based simply on information that he has learned in the course of judicial proceedings, is extremely high." 148 Idaho 784, 792, 229 P.3d 1146, 1154 (2010). The decision in Bach adopted a standard from the United States Supreme Court opinion in Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540 (1994). In Liteky, the Court noted that:

[O]pinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings, or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible.

Id., at 555-56. In Bach, the moving party provided no specific evidence of bias or prejudice by the trial judge and failed to meet the Liteky standard. 148 Idaho at 792, 229 P.3d at 1154.

"[U]nless there is a demonstration of 'pervasive bias' derived either from an extra-judicial source or facts and events occurring at trial, there is no basis for ...


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