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Rios-Campbell v. U.S. Department of Commerce

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 13, 2019

LYNN R. RÍOS-CAMPBELL, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE et al., Defendants, Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Carmen Consuelo Cerezo, U.S. District Judge]

          Israel Roldán-González on brief for appellant.

          Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, and Antonio L. Perez-Alonso, Assistant United States Attorney, on brief for appellees.

          Before Torruella, Selya, and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          Selya, Circuit Judge.

         It is written that "[t]o every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose." Ecclesiastes 3:1. This proverb may ring as true in federal civil procedure as in nature: because the court below, acting on a fully developed motion for summary judgment, employed a legal standard meant for use at an earlier stage of the case, its judgment must be vacated. The tale follows.

         We briefly rehearse the relevant facts and procedural history. On March 5, 2015, plaintiff-appellant Lynn R. Ríos-Campbell commenced a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. In his complaint, the plaintiff - a native of Puerto Rico - alleged that his employer, the United States Department of Commerce, along with several federal functionaries, had discriminated against him on the basis of his national origin and, in the bargain, had subjected him to retaliation when he raised the issue. The plaintiff filed an amended complaint, not relevant here, and then filed a second amended complaint on December 23, 2015. After the defendants filed an answer and the district court entered a scheduling order, the parties engaged in pretrial discovery. The discovery period closed on March 31, 2016.

         Soon thereafter, the defendants moved for summary judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Their motion papers included over 1, 200 pages of exhibits. The plaintiff opposed the motion, and the defendants replied to his opposition.

         The matter lay relatively fallow for over a year. On March 29, 2018, the district court entered an order stating in pertinent part: "[h]aving considered the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by defendants . . . as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a plausible claim, said Motion for Summary judgment is GRANTED." The court advised that a "[s]tatement of reasons" would follow.

         On May 2, the court amended its March 29 order nunc pro tunc. The amended order confirmed that the court, sua sponte, had treated the defendants' motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss "pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)" and had granted the motion on that understanding. Its accompanying statement of reasons memorialized the court's view that the plaintiff's second amended complaint failed to state a plausible claim upon which relief could be granted.[1] This timely appeal followed.

         Despite the fact that the parties do not quarrel with the district court's treatment of the defendants' motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss, that issue casts a large shadow over any attempt to review the ruling below. In our view, the orderly administration of justice counsels in favor of addressing the issue here and now. Our consideration of the appeal begins - and ends - there.

         We review the district court's decision to treat the defendants' motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss for abuse of discretion. See Vélez v. Awning Windows, Inc., 375 F.3d 35, 41 (1st Cir. 2004) (holding that "[a]ppellate review of a district court's case-management decisions is solely for abuse of discretion"); cf. Rubert-Torres v. Hosp. San Pablo, Inc., 205 F.3d 472, 475 (1st Cir. 2000) (explaining that review of district court's conversion of "Rule 12 motion into motion for summary judgment [is] for abuse of discretion"). The dispositive question is whether, in the absence of special circumstances or persuasive reasons, the district court abused its discretion in transmogrifying a fully developed motion for summary judgment, replete with exhibits gleaned partially through discovery, into a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. We think that it did.

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure offer litigants a number of avenues through which they may attempt to terminate civil actions short of trial. The earliest available option is a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b), which "must be made before pleading if a responsive pleading is allowed." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b). The rule itself lists several grounds upon which such a motion may rest, including (as relevant here) "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must "contain sufficient factual matter . . . to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

         By its very nature, the plausibility standard is time-sensitive. Refined to bare essence, it "is a screening mechanism designed to weed out cases that do not warrant either discovery or trial." Atieh v. Riordan, 727 F.3d 73, 76 (1st Cir. 2013). This screening comprises a "threshold inquiry." Grajales v. P.R. Ports Auth., 682 F.3d 40, 46 (1st Cir. 2012). ...


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