Belanus v. Potter, 2017 MT 95 (April 26, 2017) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, aff’d)
Issue: (1) Whether the district court correctly concluded that Belanus’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations; (2) whether the district court correctly concluded that Belanus’s claim is barred by res judicata; and (3) whether the district court abused its discretion in finding Belanus to be a vexatious litigant and issuing a pre-filing order against him.
Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) yes; and (3) no.
Facts: Belanus was convicted in June 2009 of aggravated kidnapping and sexual intercourse without consent of his then-girlfriend, TC. A key piece of evidence was a taped telephone conversation that occurred a few months before the assault in which a drunken Belanus threatened TC with death and bodily injury. Belanus objected, the district court overruled the objection, Belanus was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. This Court affirmed the admission of the recording.
Subsequently, Belanus has sued everyone involved with this case, including the victim, both of his attorneys, and a judge. One of these cases was filed in May 2011 in federal court against TC, the county prosecutors, the county investigator, the DOC parole officer who conducted the presentence investigation of Belanus, and Judge Sherlock, all of whom participated in the criminal trial. Belanus claimed that TC unlawfully taped their conversation, and that the taping and subsequent use of the taped conversation violated his Fourth Amendment rights and the federal wiretapping statute. The magistrate dismissed Belanus’s claims with prejudice, Bealnus filed objections, and Judge Molloy affirmed after a de novo review.
In September 2013, Belanus filed this case in state court against many of the same defendants as in the federal case, making the same allegations as made in the federal case. Some defendants were not properly served and are not parties to the appeal; the remaining defendants moved to dismiss and sought a designation of Belanus as a vexatious litigant.
Procedural Posture & Holding: After converting the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, declared Belanus a vexatious litigant, and imposed a pre-filing order on him. Belanus appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.
Reasoning: (1) Belanus’s constitutional tort claims are subject to a three-year statute of limitations, which expired on June 12, 2012. This case was filed after that date. Section 27-2-407, MCA, provides an additional year to the statute of limitations only if an action is filed within the statutory period and is terminated in any manner other than a final judgment on the merits. Belanus’s federal case was terminated by a final judgment on the merits, which means he is not provided a one-year extension.
(2) Res judicata applies when: (1) the parties or their privies are the same; (2) the subject matter of the action is the same; (3) the issues related to the subject matter are the same; and (4) the capacities of the person are the same in reference to the subject matter and the issues between them. Belanus asserts that the subject matter and legal issues here are different from those in the federal case, but the Court disagrees. Belanus’s claims against the individual defendants who were also party to the federal action are barred by res judicata.
(3) The district court determined that Belanus’s multiple cases were all attempts to re-litigate his 2009 criminal conviction, which was upheld on appeal. The court referenced this Court and Judge Sherlock’s conclusions that Belanus’s motions and cases were frivolous and harassing. The district court noted Judge Molloy’s certification that any appeal of the federal decision that Belanus may attempt “would not be taken in good faith,” i.e., referencing one of the Motta factors for examining whether a pre-filing order is justified. While not expressly referenced in the district court’s order, the federal court’s order of a strike against Belanus for a frivolous filing supports the District Court’s determination that the nature of Belanus’s litigation is frivolous and harassing.