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Molen v. Christian

Supreme Court of Idaho

January 24, 2017

MICHAEL SCOTT MOLEN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
RONALD D. CHRISTIAN, Defendant-Respondent.

         2017 Opinion No. 6.

         Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Lynn G. Norton, District Judge.

         The district court's summary judgment order is vacated and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. Costs on appeal are awarded to appellant.

          Dartanyon Burrows, Payette, attorney for appellant.

          Points Law, PLLC, Boise, attorneys for respondent. Michelle R. Points argued.

          W. JONES, Justice

         I. Nature of the Case

         Appellant, Michael Scott Molen ("Molen"), appeals the district court's summary judgment dismissal of his legal malpractice action. The malpractice action stems from Respondent, Ronald Christian's ("Christian"), representation of Molen in a criminal case. The crux of this appeal is whether the statute of limitations on Molen's malpractice cause of action accrued upon Molen's initial criminal conviction or when Molen was later exonerated.

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 19, 2005, Molen was charged with lewd conduct with a minor child, S.Z. Molen pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. On the morning of trial, Christian arrived at the courthouse under the influence of alcohol. His blood alcohol content was measured at .329 and .344. The trial was vacated. An amended information was filed on May 11, 2007, and the case proceeded to jury trial on June 18, 2007.

         At trial, S.Z. testified as to Molen's sexual contact with her during the summers of 2004 and 2005. Alisa Ortega, a pediatric nurse practitioner employed by St. Luke's Regional Medical Center CARES[1] unit, testified that her examination of S.Z. was consistent with the sexual abuse disclosed by S.Z. On cross-examination, Nurse Ortega disclosed for the first time that there were photographs of a colposcopic genital examination of S.Z. that had not been previously provided to either the State or the defense. Doctor Edward Robert Friedlander was the defense's medical expert. Consulting on sex abuse cases was not a major part of his practice. He did not see the photographs disclosed by Nurse Ortega until about 90 minutes before he testified. He testified that the photographs from the colposcopic genital examination did not support a finding of sexual abuse.

         On June 22, 2007, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Molen moved for a new trial arguing that the disclosure of the photographs of the colposcopic examination was unfair. The district court denied Molen's motion. On June 4, 2008, Molen was sentenced to twenty years consisting of eight years fixed and twelve years indeterminate. Molen appealed his conviction, but the conviction was affirmed by the Idaho Court of Appeals.

         On May 23, 2011, Molen filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief asserting that his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective and that prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fair trial. On January 23, 2012, the State filed a motion for summary dismissal of the amended petition. On April 1, 2013, Molen, through court appointed counsel, filed a second amended petition for post-conviction relief, which alleged ineffective assistance of counsel.

         On December 26, 2013, Molen and the State filed a statement of stipulated reasons to resolve the post-conviction case. Therein, the parties agreed that post-conviction relief was warranted. In a chambers conference with counsel, the district court advised that it would not grant the stipulated resolution; however, it scheduled an evidentiary hearing to be held on April 28 and 29, 2014. Around April 7, 2014, at a status conference, counsel disclosed that they had recently learned of an additional CARES interview of S.Z., which would require granting post-conviction relief. According to counsel, S.Z. made statements to Nurse Ortega that contradicted S.Z.'s previous statements. Counsel asserted that those statements were subject to Brady v. Maryland, even if unknown to the State, because of the role the CARES unit has in criminal investigations of child sexual abuse. 373 U.S. 83 (1963) (holding that the prosecution must disclose to the defense all exculpatory evidence known to the state or in its possession).

         On April 23, 2014, Molen and the State filed a joint stipulation of facts and points of authority related to the Brady material and a joint motion for summary judgment in favor of Molen. The parties jointly stipulated that Molen was entitled to post-conviction relief due to the contents of the newly discovered CARES interview.

         On June 17, 2014, the district court granted the petition for post-conviction relief, but denied the stipulated motion for summary judgment.[2] The district court's grant of post-conviction relief was premised on the conclusion that Molen's trial counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness in: (1) failing to consult with and/or retain an expert in pediatric sexual abuse; (2) failing to discover the existence of the colposcopic photographs prior to trial; and (3) failing to request either a continuance of the trial or a mistrial so that the new evidence could be reviewed by an expert in pediatric sexual abuse. The district court vacated the judgment of conviction entered on January 7, 2008, granted Molen a new trial, and ordered the Idaho Department of Corrections to release Molen from custody. In a hearing on July 10, 2014, the district court granted the State's motion to dismiss the case.

         On February 17, 2015, Molen filed suit against Christian asserting legal malpractice and breach of contract arising from the criminal lawsuit in which Christian represented Molen. On March 10, 2015, Christian filed a motion to dismiss wherein he argued that Molen's cause of action was barred by the two year statute of limitations. Molen filed responsive briefing on April 2, 2015. Therein, he argued that his claims were not barred by the statute of limitations because his cause of action against Christian did not accrue until June 17, 2014, when he was granted post-conviction relief. The district court denied Christian's motion to dismiss because there were questions of fact as to when there ...

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