On Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, the Commonwealth Supreme Court issued rulings in In re Buckingham, Aurelio v. Camacho, and Syed v. Mobil Oil Mariana Islands, Inc.
In an unpublished opinion, the Supreme Court denied former Commonwealth attorney general Edward T. Buckingham's petition for rehearing of the High Court's opinion denying his petition for writs of mandamus and prohibition. The High Court denied the petition because Buckingham failed to point to any facts or law that the court overlooked or misapprehended in its previous opinion.
Marites Aurelio and two other plaintiffs filed a complaint with the CNMI Department of Labor against Bienvendia Camacho alleging numerous violations of the Nonresident Worker Act and Alien Labor Rules & Regulations. The Department of Labor investigated and awarded Aurelio damages and attorney fees. When Camacho did not pay, the plaintiffs sought assistance from the Superior Court, which ultimately ordered Camacho to convey to the plaintiffs her townhouse in the Philippines. Camacho appealed, arguing that the court could not make transfer ownership of property situated outside the Commonwealth and, in any event, the property was exempted from this kind of order because she owned it solely in her own right.
The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court could order Camacho to transfer her Philippines townhouse because it had personal jurisdiction over her. A court has personal jurisdiction over someone when the person lives in the same jurisdiction as the court.
The High Court likewise concluded that Camacho's townhouse property was not exempt from being transferred to satisfy a judgment. Rejecting Camacho's reading of the exemption statute, the Supreme Court held that the statute exempted jointly owned land from attachment by a court, but permitted courts in some situations to attach property a person solely owns.
Rabby F. Syed, Jose P. Kiyoshi, and Felipe Q. Atalig appealed the Superior Court's dismissal of their lawsuit alleging that local gasoline retailers engaged in price fixing and other unlawful business practices. In dismissing the complaint, the Superior Court found that the plaintiffs' complaint failed to state any claim upon which relief could be granted.
On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed the trial court applied a federal standard to dismiss their case when it should have applied the local standard. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the trial court erred when it applied United States Supreme Court case law to interpret a local civil procedure rule.
The Supreme Court then analyzed the federal pleading standard to determine whether to adopt it. The High Court explained that the federal pleading standard, also known as the “plausibility” standard, requires plaintiffs to file more detailed complaints than the existing Commonwealth standard in order to survive a motion to dismiss. The High Court ultimately chose not to adopt the federal standard because of a concern that the stricter standard would “prematurely close the doors of justice” to plaintiffs with meritorious cases.
After declining to adopt the “plausibility” standard, the High Court reaffirmed and clarified the local pleading standard, holding that complaints must contain “direct allegations on every material point necessary to sustain a recover” or “allegations from which an inference fairly may be drawn that evidence on these material points will be introduced at trial.” The Supreme Court noted that this standard requires the pleading of enough direct and indirect allegations to give defendants fair notice of the nature of the case against them.
While it reaffirmed the local pleading standard, the High Court decided to modify part of the local standard, which allowed complaints to survive a motion to dismiss unless defendants could show that plaintiffs could prove “no set of facts” to prevail on a claim. The Court found this standard too lenient because it provides insufficient notice to defendants.
Applying the local pleading standard to plaintiffs' complaint, the High Court held that the plaintiffs satisfied the standard regarding their price fixing and unjust enrichment claims but did not satisfy the standard as to any of their other claims. The High Court also upheld the Superior Court's denial of the plaintiffs' request for leave to amend the claims that were dismissed.
The Supreme Court's opinions can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme_12.htm. (NMI Judiciary)