Blaisdell v. State (HSC April 26, 2011)
Background. Richard Blaisdell was a prisoner in Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. Prison officials took audio cassette tapes from his cell. Blaisdell filed a pleading titled "Motion For Court to Order Saguaro Prison Officials to Give Blaisdell His Legal Material Forthwith" in the circuit court. The pleading requested the return of his tapes. No one was served with the pleading. The circuit court interpreted the pleading as a civil complaint and denied the request without prejudice on the grounds that it failed to comply with HRCP Rule 65(b), which pertains to injunctive relief. Blaisdell then filed an "Emergency Motion for a T.R.O. and/or Preliminary Injunction" again seeking the return of the tapes in order to prevent officials from destroying the tapes. Blaisdell argued the tapes were evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in the case that lead to his incarceration. The motion was denied.
Blaisdell immediately appealed. The ICA dismissed his appeal because no final judgment had been issued. Blaisdell on two occasions moved the circuit court to issue a final judgment, but the circuit court did not respond. After Blaisdell filed a writ of mandamus to the HSC and after the HSC ordered the circuit court to issue a final judgment, the circuit court issued a final judgment in favor of the prison officials and dismissing all with prejudice. The circuit court never explained why it dismissed with prejudice. Blaisdell appealed again and the ICA affirmed.
Incomplete Service and no Summons Indeed Authorizes Dismissal . . . A complaint and summons must be served together. HRCP Rule 4(d). The summons must contain the name of the parties, be directed at the defendant, "state the time within which these rules require the defendant to appear and defend[,]" and notify the defendant that failure to appear will result in a default judgment. HRCP Rule 4(b).
The HSC concluded that Blaisdell did not comply with the summons requirements in HRCP Rule 4 and that service was incomplete. This noncompliance authorized the circuit court to deny Blaisdell's pleading. However, the "dismissal may be set aside and the action or claim reinstated by order of the court for good cause shown upon motion duly filed not later than 10 days from the date of the order of dismissal." HRCP Rule 41(b)(2).
. . . But with Prejudice? The HSC pointed out that an involuntary dismissal of a complaint with prejudice are disfavored and the threshold for doing so is set high. Dismissal with prejudice "cannot be affirmed absent deliberate delay, contumacious conduct, or actual prejudice[.]" Shasteen, Inc. v. Hilton Hawaiian Village Joint Venture, 79 Hawai'i 103, 107, 899 P.2d 386, 390 (1995). Without evidence of any one of these three elements, the dismissal is an abuse of discretion. Id. Dismissal with prejudice should be one of last resort and should not be the sanction where lesser sanctions could serve the interest of justice.
No Undue Delay and Actual Prejudice to Defendants. According to the HSC, none of the elements were present here. The HSC held that there was no undue delay or any actual prejudice. In fact, the pleadings suggest that Blaisdell was acting with urgency rather than undue delay. Any delay in this case, according to the HSC, cannot be attributed to Blaisdell. The circuit court did not enter judgment against him until the HSC ordered it do so. Furthermore, even if there was evidence of undue delay, the HSC noted that "a dismissal could not be upheld without a showing of actual prejudice to the defendant." Here there were none. None of the defendants were served let alone named. According to the HSC, no defendants were burdened with prejudice.
No Contumacious Conduct Either. "Contumacious conduct" is "[w]illfully stubborn and disobedient conduct." Shasteen, 79 Hawai'i at 107 n. 7, 899 P.2d at 391 n. 7. Blaisdell did not disobey any orders of the court. He wasn't given any. His conduct, according to the HSC, cannot be considered contumacious.
And Finally, a Policy Statement. The HSC, in summing up the case, noted that the circuit court dismissed Blaisdell's pleading with prejudice but without an explanation. The HSC scolded the circuit court because it "should have considered and explained why a lesser sanction, such as a dismissal without prejudice was insufficient to serve the interests of justice." The HSC also turned to its "policy of affording litigants the opportunity to have their cases heard on the merits, where possible[.]" Housing Fin. & Dev. Corp. v. Ferguson, 91 Hawai'i 81, 85-86, 979 P.2d 1107, 1111-12 (1999).
When Disjunctions Become Conjunctions. The standard here quoted in Shasteen identifies three distinct "circumstances" warranting dismissal with prejudice: (1) undue delay, (2) contumacious conduct, and (3) actual prejudice. But here, the HSC glommed undue delay with actual prejudice and dealt with contumacious conduct separately. Now it seems that there are only two "circumstances" (1) undue delay and actual prejudice; and (2) contumacious conduct. Now it seems that undue delay is not enough for dismissal with prejudice. Prejudice must be shown in addition to the delay. This glomming makes sense in light of the policy to keep cases open.