ON UNPAID COURT JUDGMENTS ISSUE:
Attorney Michael W. Dotts has stated that the current state of affairs in the CNMI is that there is no system in place to fairly satisfy court judgments.
Dotts said those who are well connected are more likely to get their court judgments paid than those who are not.
This violates the equal protection mandate, which requires that “all persons similarly situated should be treated alike,” said the lawyer in support of his clients’ motion to declare the CNMI’s 2016 Budget Act unconstitutional.
Dotts is counsel for plaintiffs Jotonia B. Aguon, Timothy Cruz, and Gorgonny Camacho.
Aguon and Cruz are holding a $35,000 judgment against the government in connection with their lawsuit over the death of their child at the Commonwealth Health Center.
Gorgonny Camacho is holding a $10,000 judgment against the government in connection with his medical malpractice lawsuit against CHC.
To collect payment of the two judgments that were entered in 2013, Dotts filed motions for orders in aid of judgment. He asked the Superior Court to declare the 2016 Budget Act unconstitutional. The two cases were consolidated.
In plaintiffs’ reply on Friday in support of their motion to declare the 2016 Budget Act unconstitutional, Dotts said the unbalanced budget combined with the lack of any system to fairly satisfy judgments violates Equal Protection clause of the CNMI or U.S. Constitutions.
Dotts said the government argues that the current state of affairs does not violate the Equal Protection clause because it is reasonable for the Commonwealth to settle its claims rather than proceeding to litigation.
“The elephant in the room is that the Commonwealth’s method of encouraging settlement is to refuse to pay judgments,” he said.
So, the lawyer said, the Commonwealth places tort victims in the position not of choosing between settlement or litigation, but of choosing between receiving nothing or accepting an unconscionably low settlement offer.
Meanwhile, Dotts said, those who have already received judgments finding government actors liable for their injuries, are left unpaid as part of this system.
Dotts said a judgment is a legal entitlement and due process is violated where the holder is indefinitely deprived.
The lawyer cited the 2014 Financial Audit that shows there are $58,682,325 in unpaid claims and judgments.
Dotts said using the $58.7 million numbers and assuming no new judgments are entered, at the rate of $8,000 per year, it will take over 7,000 years to satisfy the judgments.
“That is effectively the same as never paying the judgments, in other words, permanently depriving judgment-holding tort victims of a property entitlement without any procedural protections, and without any legitimate reason,” he pointed out.
The 2016 Budget Act only appropriates $8,000 for judgments against the CNMI.
This permanent deprivation, Dotts said, violates Article 1, section 5 of the CNMI Constitution and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Dotts said the Superior Court has jurisdiction over questions of CNMI constitutional law.
He said the unconstitutionality of the 2016 Budget Act affects all victims of the Commonwealth Health Center Corp. medical malpractice who hold judgments against the government.
Dotts said the government’s argument that plaintiffs’ injuries are self-inflicted is misplaced.
He said the government’s argument is particularly “heartless and far-fetched.”
Dotts said this statement addresses individuals who lost a child and who underwent a second surgery due to the negligence of Commonwealth employees.
The Office of the Attorney General recently requested Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho to stop further proceedings pertaining to the motion to declare the 2016 Budget Act unconstitutional.
Assistant attorney general David Lochabay, counsel for the government, asserted that Camacho should stay further proceedings pending the CNMI Supreme Court’s decision on the government’s petition to prohibit the judge from hearing on the budget issue.
Lochabay said they have shown that Camacho lacks jurisdiction to hear the motion to declare the 2016 Budget Act unconstitutional.
He said the government has also shown that it should be granted a stay of the proceedings under either of the formulations for considering a motion to stay.
Camacho set a hearing of the motion to stay for April 29, 2016 to allow the opposing attorney to file opposition.