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Nelson v. City of Albuquerque

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

April 16, 2019

TONY NELSON, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE, a political subdivision of the State of New Mexico; R.T. JOHNSTON, an Officer of the Albuquerque Police Department, individually; D. HUGHS, an Officer of the Albuquerque Police Department, individually; A. LIMON, an Officer of the Albuquerque Police Department, individually; S. WEIMERSKIRCH, an Officer of the Albuquerque Police Department, individually, Defendants - Appellees, and BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF THE COUNTY OF BERNALILLO, a political subdivision of the State of New Mexico; JOHN AND JANE DOES, Officers of the Albuquerque Police Department, individually; DERRICK WULFF, Detective of the Albuquerque Police Department, in his individual capacity as a state actor of the City of Albuquerque; J. SATHER, Sergeant of the Albuquerque Police Department, in his individual capacity as a state actor of the City of Albuquerque, Defendants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico (D.C. No. 1:10-CV-00553-JB-DJS)

          Ryan J. Villa, The Law Office of Ryan J. Villa, Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Plaintiff-Appellant.

          David A. Roman, Robles, Rael & Anaya, P.C., Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Defendants-Appellees.

          Before BRISCOE, MATHESON, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges.

          BACHARACH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal grew out of a dilemma for the district court: How was it to resolve the tension between the desire to correct what it saw as a prior error and constraints on the court's power to rule on repetitive motions? The dilemma arose from a second motion to alter or amend a civil judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e).

         The defendants ultimately filed two motions based on this rule, but they were decided by different judges. After the first judge denied the first motion, he retired and the court reassigned the case to another judge. The defendants then filed their second motion, reurging or elaborating on what they had argued in their prior motion. This time, the second judge granted the motion. But the motion as presented was an improper Rule 59(e) motion because it had simply rehashed arguments from the first motion. Because the motion was improper, the district court erred in granting it. We therefore reverse.

         1. The district court denies the defendants' first motion under Rule 59(e).

         The case involved excessive force claims brought by Mr. Tony Nelson. The case went to trial, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Mr. Nelson then moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b). The district court granted this motion, concluding that no reasonable jury could find for the defendants.

         The defendants responded with a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e), arguing that (1) the trial evidence supported a defense verdict and (2) the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court rejected both arguments, concluding that the defendants were not entitled to relief under Rule 59(e). So the court entered judgment for Mr. Nelson.

         Following the entry of this judgment, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), seeking reinstatement of the verdict. The defendants again argued that (1) the verdict was supported by sufficient evidence and (2) the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

         2. The case is reassigned, and the newly assigned judge grants the defendants' second motion under Rule 59(e).

         Before the district court issued a decision, the case was reassigned to another judge. This judge denied the defendants' Rule 50(b) motion based on two conclusions:

1. Rule 50(b) did not allow the court to undo the grant of judgment to Mr. Nelson.
2. The officers had failed to preserve their arguments for ...

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