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Ninth Circuit Says District Court Erred In Denying Physician's Rule 60(b) Motion


HLD, v. 30, n. 4 (April 2002)

Ninth Circuit Says District Court Erred In Denying Physician's Rule 60(b) Motion

James Laurino, M.D. brought an action against Syringa General Hospital, among others (collectively defendants), in federal district court, challenging the termination of his hospital privileges. During ongoing settlement negotiations between July 2, 1999 and October 11, 1999, defendants granted Laurino's repeated requests for extensions to comply with their discovery requests. Following the break down of settlement negotiations, defendants, on October 12, 1999, asked Laurino to respond to their discovery requests. Subsequently, Laurino's attorney filed a motion to withdraw. The court granted the motion in a November 4, 1999 order instructing Laurino that his failure to appear before the court within twenty days could be grounds for dismissal. Laurino did not make an appearance and, on December 6, 1999, defendants moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion. Laurino, represented by new counsel, moved to set aside the dismissal order under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b), which allows a court to relieve a party from a final judgment on a finding of excusable neglect. In support of the motion, Laurino filed an affidavit citing difficulties in finding an attorney, a divorce, and a move for a new work position as explanations for his failure to appear. The district court denied Laurino's motion and he appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding the district court abused its discretion in denying Laurino's motion. In the court's view, Laurino's affidavit provided a nonfrivolous explanation for his failure to prosecute sufficient to overcome the presumption of prejudice that usually arises in such situations. The appeals court acknowledged that the lower court was better positioned to assess whether a period of delay is acceptable, but concluded that, in the instant action, the district court had committed "clear error" because the delay was not unreasonable, no evidence of bad faith existed, and Laurino offered a satisfactory explanation in his affidavit. Accordingly, the appeals court reversed the lower court's order dismissing the action.

A dissenting opinion argued "[t]he district court need not swallow a party's self exculpatory affidavit hook, line and sinker." On the contrary, the dissent said, "the court is entitled to be skeptical of self serving allegations, especially when they are wholly insubstantial and contradicted by the record."

Laurino v. Syringa Gen. Hosp., No. 00-35233 (9th Cir. Jan. 30, 2002) (5 pages).

Health Lawyers thanks Michael D. Roth, of the Law Offices of Michael Dundon Roth, in Los Angeles, California, for sending us a copy of this opinion.

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