This opinion was issued yesterday. I normally post cases the same day, but I had a big deadline in my Texas capital habeas case.
Mullin v. Administrator — civil rights — partial reversal — Fuentes
The compelling introduction to yesterday’s opinion:
A little over two years into the civil-rights suit brought by Joan Mullin (“Mullin”) over the tragic prison suicide of her son, Robert Mullin (“Robert”), Mullin’s attorney received a discovery document with the potential to reshape the case. A previously undisclosed investigative report about the night Robert died contained statements by fellow New Jersey inmates about a prison guard who allegedly refused Robert’s requests for psychiatric assistance—and urged Robert to kill himself instead. But while Mullin’s attorney received this report mid-case, it was not reviewed in a timely fashion. Instead, due to a clerical error, the disc containing the relevant disclosures was misfiled, and not fully accessed until about ten months later. By that time, Mullin’s operative complaint—premised on a less direct knew-or-should-have-known theory of Robert’s vulnerability to suicide—had already been dismissed in large part. The District Court denied Mullin’s request for leave to amend her complaint, due in part to the delay caused by counsel’s error and, after additional motion practice, granted summary judgment in favor of the one remaining defendant, bringing the litigation to a close.
Mullin’s appeal encompasses both the dismissal of her operative complaint and the order denying further leave to amend. The latter is the focus of this opinion. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the decision denying leave to amend amounted to an impermissible exercise of discretion. Some of the factors relied upon to deny leave are not supported by the record or are at odds with our case law. And while we do not intend to minimize counsel’s mistake, it does not, standing alone, support denying leave to amend. Accordingly, we will vacate the order denying leave to amend and will remand for further proceedings.
I think most lawyers who’ve handled complex cases would (nervously) agree with the opinion’s later observation that the lawyers’ error was “the kind that could affect any law firm no matter how well run.”
It’s an interesting case, an engaging opinion, and a significant ruling on amending civil complaints (and habeas petitions) under Rule 15.
Joining Fuentes were Chagares and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Shelley Stangler for the appellant and Gregory Bueno of the NJ AG’s office for the appellees.