United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division
TRACEY McCALL, as administratrix of the estate of Jonathan McCall, Plaintiff,
KEITH REED, et al., Defendants.
OPINION AND ORDER
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
As the administratrix of the estate of Jonathan McCall, the plaintiff brought this lawsuit against defendants Houston County Jail Administrator Keith Reed, Corrections Deputy James West, and Licensed Practical Nurse Ashley Kennedy. The plaintiff asserted both a federal claim (that the defendants' deliberate indifference to Jonathan McCall's serious medical needs caused his death in the Houston County Jail, in violation of the United States Constitution) and a state wrongful-death claim. Subject-matter jurisdiction was proper under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question), 1343(a)(3) (civil rights), and 1367 (supplemental). After the parties settled, the case was closed.
The case is again before this court, this time on (1) the plaintiff's motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for leave to file a motion for a pro ami hearing and (2) the plaintiff's motion for a pro ami hearing. The court held an on-the-record conference call on how to proceed on the two motions.
I. THE RULE 60(b) MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE A MOTION FOR A PRO AMI HEARING
A. Legal Standard
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) is a procedural vehicle for obtaining relief from a final judgment. The Rule lists five defined circumstances for obtaining relief and then, as relevant to this case, provides a catch-all provision. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). This catch-all, subpart (6) of Rule 60(b), allows the reopening of a federal case for "any other reason [in addition to the five listed] that justifies relief." "While the movant must demonstrate that the circumstances are sufficiently extraordinary to warrant relief, Toole v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 235 F.3d 1307, 1317 (11th Cir. 2000), this catch-all provision creates a grand reservoir of equitable power to do justice in a particular case.' Nisson v. Lundy, 975 F.2d 802, 806 (11th Cir. 1992)." Daniel v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 2008 WL 3876764, at *2 (M.D. Ala. 2008) (Thompson, J.). A motion under this provision "must be made within a reasonable time." Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(c)(1).
This case arises out of Jonathan McCall's death in the Houston County Jail. As relevant here, after the court granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motion for summary judgment, McCall v. Houston Cnty., 2014 WL 3045552 (M.D. Ala. 2014) (Thompson, J.), the parties reached a settlement in August 2014, and, in September of that year, the court entered a judgment dismissing this case. While plaintiff has brought this lawsuit as the administratrix of the estate of Jonathan McCall, the beneficiary of that settlement is actually McCall's child, who is a minor and not a party to this litigation.
Following the settlement, the parties intended to ask the Houston County Probate Court to conduct a pro ami, or fairness, hearing to ensure the minor was protected in the settlement. They housed the settlement proceeds in the probate court, and the probate court appointed a guardian ad litem for the minor. However, in October 2014, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that probate courts do not have jurisdiction in the distribution of settlements from wrongful-death cases. Kirksey v. Johnson, ___ So.3d ___, 2014 WL 5311315, at *10 (Ala. 2014). Closed off from the probate court, the plaintiff, joined by defendants, now asks this federal court to reopen the case so that it can conduct the pro ami hearing.
Under Alabama law, "a minor is not liable on any contract he makes and... he may disaffirm the same." S.B. v. Saint James Sch., 959 So.2d 72, 96 (Ala. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). A settlement agreement, as a type of contract, is subject to the same rule. Hines v. Seibels, 86 So. 43, 44 (Ala. 1920); see also William E. Shreve, Jr., Settling the Claims of a Minor, 72 Ala. Law. 308, 309 (2011). Moreover, because 1975 Ala. Code § 6-2-8 tolls the statute of limitations during minority and allows the minor a period of time after reaching majority to file suit, the minor may disaffirm a settlement and reassert the "settled" claim long after the statute would have otherwise expired. Id.
However, a settlement involving a minor may still be binding under Alabama law, but only if a judge holds a hearing "with an extensive examination of the facts, to determine whether the settlement is in the best interest of the minor." Large v. Hayes By & Through Nesbitt, 534 So.2d 1101, 1105 (Ala. 1988). This hearing-called a pro ami, or fairness, hearing-ensures that the judge protects the minor's interest and provides the needed finality for the parties to agree to a settlement.
There is some question about whether a pro ami hearing is necessary where a minor is a beneficiary of a settlement under Alabama's wrongful-death statute. Compare Shreve, Jr., Settling the Claims of a Minor, supra, at 315-316 (arguing that a pro ami hearing is not necessary because a minor is not a party in a wrongful-death case under Alabama law and because an administratrix may recover only punitive damages for deterrence and not compensatory damages for the minor) with Roby v. Benton Exp., Inc., 2006 WL 1375949, at *1 (M.D. Ala. 2006) (Thompson, J.) (before entering a final judgment based on a settlement and without reaching the issue of whether a pro ami hearing was required, court held hearing in wrongful-death action under Alabama law even where minor was not a party). This is further complicated when the settlement also includes claims made under federal constitutional law pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in which compensatory damages, in addition to punitive damages, might also be available. Contrast City of Tarrant v. Jefferson, 682 So.2d 29, 30 (Ala. 1996) (finding that compensatory damages are not available under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, when such a claim is based on Alabama's wrongful-death statute) with Gilmere v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 864 F.2d 734, 740 n. 7 (11th Cir. 1989) ("The Alabama wrongful death statute, Ala. Code § 6-5-410, provides only for assessment of punitive damages. Because the statute is inconsistent with the rule that damages in § 1983 actions are to be compensatory, reliance on the Alabama wrongful death statute would not be proper under § 1988.") (citations omitted); Lewis v. City of Montgomery, 2006 WL 1761673, at *4 (M.D. Ala. 2006) (Watkins, J.) (finding Alabama's wrongful-death statute inconsistent with § 1983 and allowing for compensatory damages under a § 1983 action).
Given this uncertainty, it is reasonably arguable that it would have been prudent, prior to the dismissal of this case based on the purported settlement, to have addressed the fairness of the settlement "out of an abundance of caution." ...