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Waetzig v. Halliburton Energy Services, Inc.

No. 22-1252. 9/11/2023. D.Colo. Judge Tymkovich. Jurisdiction to Reopen Case—Vacatur of Arbitration Award—Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 41(a)—Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 60(b).

September 11, 2023

Waetzig filed an age discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Halliburton Energy Services, Inc. (Halliburton). He was contractually bound to arbitrate his claim, so he voluntarily dismissed his suit without prejudice under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 41(a). The case was administratively closed, and the parties proceeded to arbitration, where the arbitrator granted summary judgment to Halliburton. Rather than file a new complaint challenging the arbitration order under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), Waetzig moved to reopen his age discrimination case under Rule 60(b) and vacate the arbitration award. The district court determined it had jurisdiction to consider Waetzig’s motion under Rule 60(b), and it reopened the case. The court concluded that the arbitrator exceeded her powers by not providing adequate notice of the summary judgment hearing and not sufficiently explaining her decision. The court vacated the arbitration award and remanded for further proceedings before a new arbitrator, and Halliburton appealed.

As an initial matter on appeal, Waetzig argued that because his motion for vacatur contained the information that would be required under FAA § 10 for a new case, it should be deemed a new complaint to set aside the arbitrator’s order, and the Tenth Circuit should simply determine whether the district court erroneously vacated the order. However, Waetzig did not raise this before the district court. Further, other issues would arise if the Tenth Circuit granted his request because Halliburton lacked notice that there was a new case, so it did not, for example, respond to Waetzig’s motion as it would to a complaint by formally answering the allegations, raising affirmative defenses, and potentially moving to dismiss. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit declined to treat Waetzig’s motion as a new complaint in a new case.

On the merits, Halliburton argued that the district court erred in reopening the case and vacating the arbitration award. Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(i) allows a plaintiff to dismiss a suit before the defendant answers by filing a notice of dismissal. Such dismissal is automatic and immediately divests the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. Rule 60(b) allows the court to relieve a party from a final judgment, order, or proceeding in certain circumstances. The Tenth Circuit determined that under Rules 41(a) and 60(b), a court cannot set aside a voluntary dismissal without prejudice because a voluntary dismissal is not a final judgment, order, or proceeding. Therefore, the district court erred in concluding that Rule 60(b) applied.

The order was reversed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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