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Doe v. Spartanburg County School District Three

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Spartanburg Division

January 8, 2016

Jane Doe, Mother Doe, and Father Doe, Plaintiffs,
v.
Spartanburg County School District Three, Jim Ray, and Todd E. Hardy, Sr., Defendants

          For Jane Doe, Mother Doe, Father Doe, Plaintiffs: Scott F Talley, LEAD ATTORNEY, Talley Law Firm, Spartanburg, SC USA; Shane William Rogers, William Douglas Smith, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Johnson Smith Hibbard and Wildman, Spartanburg, SC USA.

         For Spartanburg County School District Three, Jim Ray, Todd E Hardy, SR, Defendants: Andrea E White, LEAD ATTORNEY, Duff Turner White and Boykin, Columbia, SC USA; Jeffrey C Kull, LEAD ATTORNEY, Murphy and Grantland, Columbia, SC USA.

         OPINION & ORDER

         Henry M. Herlong, Jr., Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on Jane Doe, Mother Doe, and Father Doe's (collectively, the " Does" ) motion to alter or amend, or in the alternative, reconsider judgment pursuant to Rules 59(e) or 60(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After a thorough review, the Does' motion is denied.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts of this action are fully set forth in the court's previous order on August 19, 2015, and are incorporated herein. (Aug. 19, 2015 Order, ECF No. 10.) The instant motion concerns an offer of judgment by Spartanburg County School District Three (the " District" ) that was subsequently accepted by the Does and entered into the record by the court. By letter dated September 3, 2015, counsel for the Defendants presented the Does with an offer of judgment pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Pl. Notice of Acceptance Ex. 1 (Offer of Judgment), ECF No. 16-1.) On September 21, 2015, the Does filed a notice of acceptance of this offer of judgment. (Id., ECF No. 16.) The next day, the court entered an amended judgment in favor of the Does having " accepted Defendant Spartanburg County School District Three's Offer of Judgment." (Am. Judg., ECF No. 19.) Three motions were filed concerning this entry of judgment. First, the Does filed a motion for attorneys' fees on September 21, 2015. (Pl. Mot. Attorneys' Fees, ECF No. 17.) Second, counsel for the Defendants filed a motion to bifurcate regarding the Does' motion for attorneys' fees on September 30, 2015. (Def. Mot. Bifurcate, ECF No. 21.) Third and finally, counsel for the Defendants also filed a motion to vacate or, in the alternative, alter or amend judgment on October 8, 2015. (Def. Mot. Vacate, ECF No. 24.) On November 10, 2015, a hearing was held on all three motions, and the motion to vacate was denied and the motion for attorneys' fees and motion to bifurcate were dismissed as moot. The court found that the offer was not ambiguous and was a valid and enforceable offer of judgment. The instant motion to alter or amend, or in the alternative, reconsider judgment on the motion for attorneys' fees was filed on December 8, 2015. (Pl. Mot. Alter/Amend, ECF No. 33.) The Defendants filed a response on December 23, 2015. (Def. Resp. Opp'n Mot. Alter/Amend, ECF No. 34.) On January 4, 2016, the Does replied. (Pl. Reply, ECF No. 35.) This matter is now ripe for review.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Fourth Circuit has recognized that there are three grounds for amending an earlier judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: " (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." P. Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat. Fire Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998). " In general reconsideration of a judgment after its entry is an extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly." Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Alternatively, Rule 60(b)(1) provides grounds for relief from an order for the following reasons: " mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(1).

         III. Discussion of Law

         The Does request that the court alter or amend its judgment on their motion for attorneys' fees in order to correct a clear " error of law." (Pl. Mot. Alter/Amend 2, ECF No. 33.) The Does contend an error of law was committed in the court's interpretation of the offer of judgment based on two separate grounds, which will be addressed in turn. Offers of judgment are governed by Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides in relevant part:

[(a)] At least 14 days before the date set for trial, a party defending against a claim may serve on an opposing party an offer to allow judgment on specified terms, with the costs then accrued. . . . [(d)] If the judgment that the offeree finally obtains is not more favorable than the unaccepted offer, the offeree must pay the costs incurred after the offer was made.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 68(a), (d).[1]

         A. Ambiguity

         The Does first argue that the offer of judgment is ambiguous, and therefore the ambiguity should be construed against the offeror. (Pl. Mot. Alter/Amend 6, ECF No. 33.) As a general proposition, an ambiguous Rule 68 offer of judgment should be construed against the offeror. Bosley v. Mineral Cty. Comm'n,650 F.3d 408, 414 (4th Cir. 2011) (" Because the Rule 68 offeree does not have the luxury of refusing the offer to assure that she has not bound herself to any terms that may later become unfavorable, she may construe the offer's terms strictly, and ambiguities in the offer are to be resolved against the offeror." ) (internal citations omitted); First Fin. Ins. Co. v. Hammons,58 Fed.Appx. 31, 2003 WL 264700, at *2 ...


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