January 20, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Terms of Settlement Offer were Valid and Enforceable When Accepted

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kovac v. Farmers Insurance Exchange on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Personal Injury—Underinsured Motorist—Statute of Limitations—Summary Judgment.

Kovac was seriously injured in a car accident with Filipelli. It was undisputed that Filipelli was at fault. Kovac’s medical expenses exceeded $1.4 million. Filipelli was covered by Shelter Insurance Company (Shelter) with a liability limit of $100,000. Kovac was insured under two different automobile policies with Farmers Insurance Exchange (Farmers).

Kovac settled with Shelter for its policy limits. Later, Farmers offered to settle Kovac’s remaining claims for $80,000, but the parties could not reach a settlement. Kovac sued Farmers on April 3, 2015 for recovery of UIM benefits, tortious bad faith breach of contract, and unreasonable delay and denial of insurance benefits. Farmers moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Shelter settlement check was tendered to Kovac’s attorney on April 2, 2013 and the statute of limitations therefore ran on April 2, 2015. The district court agreed and dismissed the suit.

On appeal, Kovac argued that although her attorney received the check and settlement offer on April 2, it was not accepted until April 5 when the release was signed and the check endorsed. Therefore, the statute of limitations ran on April 5, 2015 and her complaint was timely filed on April 3, 2015. C.R.S. § 13-80-107.5(b) provides that the statute of limitations runs two years from the date when the insured “received payment of the settlement” on the underlying bodily injury claim. The court of appeals determined that Kovac released her claims against Filipelli on April 5, 2013.  Therefore the statute of limitations had not run when she filed her complaint against Farmers.

The summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Time Frame for Appeal of Paternity Determination Arises from C.A.R. 4

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of N.S. on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Dependency and Neglect— Juvenile Court Jurisdiction—Paternity Adjudication.

The El Paso County Department of Human Services (the Department) filed a dependency and neglect petition on behalf of N.S. The mother’s boyfriend was listed as respondent-father, and the child was placed with him. At a pretrial conference, the juvenile court found that the boyfriend had not been adjudicated the child’s legal father and therefore ordered genetic paternity testing. The juvenile court adjudicated N.S. dependent and neglected. The Department subsequently amended the petition to list A.C. as respondent-father. A.C. was confirmed to be the biological father through genetic paternity testing. Following a paternity hearing, the juvenile court adjudicated A.C. as the child’s legal father.

Boyfriend appealed and the Colorado Court of Appeals issued an order to show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed pursuant to the time frames of C.A.R. 3.4(b)(1). Boyfriend responded that his appeal was governed by C.A.R. 4(a). The court ordered the parties to brief (1) whether the notice of appeal was due within 21 days of the date of the final, appealable order under C.A.R. 3.4; and (2) whether the juvenile court had jurisdiction to issue the judgment of paternity in a dependency and neglect proceeding.

The court first concluded that the plain language of C.A.R. 3.4 shows that the rule does not apply to paternity actions. C.A.R. 4 does not list specific orders that are appealable, and in the absence of any limiting language, its 49-day time frame applied.

The court then stated that the juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction in dependency and neglect proceedings to determine parentage. But when a paternity issue arises in these proceedings, the juvenile court must follow the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) procedures. Here, both presumptive fathers were parties to the proceeding, had actual notice that a legal finding of paternity was necessary, and did not object to the juvenile court deciding the matter. Accordingly, the juvenile court had subject matter jurisdiction under the UPA.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Denial of Attorney Fees Not Error in Close Case with No Vexatious, Groundless Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Estate of Fritzler on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Wills—Business Records Exception—Jury Instruction—Presumption of Undue Influence—Attorney Fees—Costs.

Fritzler and his wife executed numerous wills during the last 10 years of their lives. The last will was drafted just a few years before they each passed away. In all of the wills, the Fritzlers sought to distribute their farm in a generally equitable manner among their five children, but the last will increased son Glen’s portion over son Steven’s portion. Steven contested the will, contending that Glen unduly influenced Fritzler. After a lengthy trial, a jury concluded that the will was valid. Following the verdict, the estate and the personal representative (PR) sought attorney fees and costs. The court denied the award of fees, finding that the case was “close” and Steven did not lack substantial justification. The court partially denied costs, concluding that it lacked equitable authority to grant fees without concurrent statutory authority.

On appeal, Steven contended that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding Fritzler’s hospital medical records because they were admissible under the business records exception. Although the exclusion was an abuse of discretion, any error was harmless because the records were cumulative of other admitted evidence.

Steven also contended that the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the presumption of undue influence. However, the PR offered sufficient evidence to rebut this presumption. Thus it would have been improper for the court to instruct the jury thereon.

The PR contended that the trial court erred by denying her request for attorney fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-102 and by denying her certain costs as the prevailing party under C.R.C.P. 54(d). The trial court noted that this was a close case and found that even though Steven did not prevail, his claims were not groundless, frivolous, or vexatious. Therefore, the court did not err by denying the request for fees. As to the costs, the trial court awarded most of the requested costs to the PR after a hearing, denying only some that it found to be unreasonable. Therefore, the court did not err in its award of costs.

The judgment and orders were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Collective Bargaining Agreement Provided for Payment for ELA Classes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Denver Classroom Teachers Association v. School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Collective Bargaining Agreements—Damages—Statute of Limitations—Administrative Remedies.

School District No. 1 and the Board of Education of School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado (collectively, the District) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) entered into several collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and extensions from 2005 to 2015. From the mid-1990s until the 2006–07 school year, the District compensated teachers for attending English Language Acquisition (ELA) training. ELA is a program to train teachers to work more effectively with students who have limited English language proficiency. A federal consent order requires the District to have teachers who are trained to teach such students. After the 2006–07 school year, the District stopped paying teachers for attending the training. DCTA filed a grievance against the District alleging violations of the 2005–08 CBA. DCTA subsequently filed suit for breach of the 2005–08 and 2008–11 CBAs and the extensions, and a jury returned verdicts in favor of DCTA for breach of contract, but it held the District not liable in special interrogatories regarding breach for teachers in the Professional Compensation (ProComp) system.

On appeal, the District first contended that the CBAs and extensions were unambiguous and that they did not require the district to pay teachers for ELA training. Because the articles provide for payment for work beyond the 40-hour week, and because the ELA training may fall into that category, the contract was fairly susceptible to being interpreted to require payment for such work. Therefore, the CBAs were ambiguous, and the trial court properly let the interpretation go to the jury as a question of fact.

The District next contended that additional evidence showed unambiguously that it was not required to compensate teachers for ELA training beyond that year because (1) ELA training was a special condition of employment and (2) the parties’ bargaining history indicates that any requirement to compensate teachers for ELA training was purposely excluded from the CBAs. First, the CBAs were ambiguous regarding whether ELA training is a “special condition” regarding assignment of the teacher, requiring the teachers, not the District to pay for the training. Second, the District’s past practice of paying teachers for ELA training supported DCTA’s position that the CBAs entitled teachers to receive pay for ELA training.Therefore, the question was properly given to the jury.

The District also asserted that the trial court erred in not precluding recovery of damages that accrued before October 24, 2007, which was six years before the case was filed. The statute of limitations for breaching a CBA is six years. The District stopped paying teachers for ELA training starting with the 2007–08 school year, which began on August 13, 2007. DCTA filed its complaint on October 24, 2013. The trial court did not commit reversible error in deciding to award damages for the complete Fall 2007 semester.

Finally, the District contended that DCTA should have been barred from any relief for the 2008–09 school year and beyond because it failed to exhaust administrative remedies for those years. DCTA filed a grievance only for the 2007–08 school year, which was under the 2005–08 CBA. Further efforts by DCTA to achieve payment for ELA training through administrative remedies would have been futile, and the trial court did not err in this finding.

DCTA, in its cross-appeal, contended that the trial court erred in giving the jury special interrogatories to decide whether teachers under the ProComp system were exempt from receiving extra pay for ELA training. Because competent evidence supported the assertion, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the jury to determine whether teachers under the ProComp agreement forfeited their entitlement to compensation for ELA training.

The final judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attorney’s Prelitigation Statements Must Be Made in Good Faith to Qualify as Privileged

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Begley v. Ireson on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Belinda Begley and Robert Hirsch, and their joint revocable trust (collectively, plaintiffs), purchased a property in Denver with the intent of demolishing the existing house and building a new house. Their architect’s plans were approved by the City & County of Denver, and plaintiffs contracted with a builder to begin demolition in anticipation of construction. The builder demolished the old house and began the shoring work for the new house. The neighbors, Ireson and Hoeckele, along with their attorney, Gibbs (collectively, defendants), made several threatening statements to the builder, which caused him to cease work and breach his contract with plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint against defendants, alleging intentional interference with a contract and intentional interference with prospective contractual relations. Several days later, defendants filed suit against plaintiffs, and moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) for failure to state a claim, arguing that their allegedly tortious statements were made in anticipation of litigation and were therefore protected. The district court apparently took judicial notice of defendants’ suit and granted their C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) motion. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Colorado Court of Appeals first noted that motions to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) are viewed with disfavor. The district court had ruled that the plaintiffs’ complaint failed to state a claim because there was no allegation that the statements by Hoeckele, Ireson, and Gibbs caused the builder to breach his contract. The court of appeals found this was error. The complaint alleged with specificity several incidents in which Ireson, Hoeckele, and Gibbs interfered with the construction contract, and the court held that nothing more was required to survive the motion to dismiss. The court reversed the district court’s grant of defendants’ motion.

The district court next ruled that because Gibbs’ statements and communications to the builder were made while he was representing Ireson and Hoeckele and were “in anticipation and in furtherance of litigation,” they were absolutely privileged against the torts that plaintiffs alleged. The court of appeals again found that this ruling was in error. The court analyzed several state appellate court decisions, as well as section 586 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and determined that prelitigation statements must be made in good faith to be privileged. Because the district court made no finding as to whether Gibbs’ statements were made in good faith, the court of appeals reversed and remanded.

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s rulings and remanded for further proceedings.

Colorado Court of Appeals: “Knowingly” Element Should Have Been Offset but Error Harmless

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Garcia on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Juvenal Onel Garcia was married to the victim, but in August 2010 a protective order issued against Garcia concerning the victim. However, on occasion in April 2012, he would go to the victim’s house to watch their children at her request. One night, he was late, and when he arrived the victim told him to leave because he had been drinking. He took her car keys and left. The victim eventually reported her car stolen after he did not return. When he came back, they physically struggled. According to the victim, Garcia then tried to take her clothes off and force intercourse, but she fought him off and he immediately masturbated. They resumed struggling, he prevented her from calling 911, and he left, again taking her car. The victim called police and was taken to the hospital.

Garcia was charged with first degree burglary, attempted sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, third degree assault, violation of a protection order, and obstruction of telephone service, as well as attempted sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. He was designated a sexually violent predator (SVP). Garcia appealed, arguing first that the trial court erred in not applying “knowingly” to every element of the offense of sexual assault, including the “caused submission” element. The court of appeals found no error. The jury instruction in this case was based on the model jury instruction then in effect, and although the model jury instruction was later amended to offset the word “knowingly,” the court concluded any error in the failure to offset “knowingly” was not obvious. The court of appeals found the trial court did not commit plain error and affirmed.

Garcia next contended his sentences for class 4 attempted sexual assault and class 4 unlawful sexual contact should be vacated because the jury was not instructed and therefore did not find that Garcia knowingly used force or submission, so elevation of the offenses to a higher class of felony was not warranted. After evaluating the instructions under a plain error standard, the court of appeals found none. The court found that a published opinion directly addressed and refuted Garcia’s contention, so there was no error in the trial court’s instructions.

Garcia also argued that the trial court erred in its interrogatory on force related to sexual assault because the trial court did not define “force,” “threat,” or “intimidation,” which are narrower in the legislative context than in ordinary use. The court of appeals again rejected his argument. The court again looked to prior case law that had addressed the issue, and affirmed Garcia’s convictions and sentences.

Garcia argued that the mens rea element for violation of a protection order was not proved. The court of appeals disagreed, finding there was plenty of evidence to show that Garcia knew the protective order was still in place and he was not supposed to contact the victim. The court affirmed this sentence and conviction also.

Finally, Garcia contended the trial court erred in designating him a sexually violent predator (SVP) because he neither established nor promoted his relationship with the victim for purposes of sexual victimization, as required by the statute. The court evaluated two supreme court cases that had not been decided at the time of Garcia’s conviction and remanded for reconsideration in light of the two cases.

Garcia’s sentences and convictions were affirmed, and the court of appeals remanded for consideration of the SVP designation in light of new precedent.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 1/12/2017

On Thursday, January 12, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued eight published opinions and 26 unpublished opinions.

People v. Garcia

Denver Classroom Teachers Association v. School District No. 1

Begley v. Ireson

In re Estate of Fritzler

People in Interest of L.B.

Smith v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co.

Kovac v. Farmers Insurance Exchange

People in Interest of N.S.

Summaries of these cases are forthcoming.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions. The case announcement sheet is available here.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Posting Bond is Necessary but Insufficient Condition to Stay Dissolution Proceedings

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Finn on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Post-Dissolution Marriage Proceeding—Request for Stay—Romero v. City of Fountain.

Husband and wife had entered into a marital agreement. Wife later filed for dissolution of the marriage, and the trial court subsequently issued a detailed order directing husband to make certain payments to wife within 20 days. Husband filed a motion for post-trial relief pursuant to C.R.C.P. 59 and 60, which was denied. Husband appealed and also filed a motion for stay with the trial court and requested approval of his supersedeas bond; both requests were denied.

Pursuant to C.A.R. 8, husband sought a stay of the trial court’s orders requiring him to pay wife certain sums of money and to return her artwork and other personal property. Husband presented a redacted copy of a cashier’s check in the amount necessary for a supersedeas bond and represented that his counsel would deposit the check if his motion were granted.

Stays pending appeal are controlled by C.A.R. 8(a). Romero v. City of Fountain adopted a four-part test for determining whether a stay should be issued under CAR 8: (1) whether the moving party has made a strong showing that it is likely to prevail on the merits, (2) whether the moving party will suffer irreparable harm if a stay is not granted, (3) whether other interested parties would be harmed by granting the stay, and (4) whether the public interest will be harmed by granting the stay. Romero involved a motion to stay an order denying an injunction. Husband argued that Romero does not apply here.

A stay is an exercise of judicial discretion and not a matter of right. The Colorado Court of Appeals first concluded that posting a supersedeas bond alone is insufficient to mandate a stay in a family law case. As to both the monetary and nonmonetary orders, the court then determined that a court considering a stay of that part of a judgment involving marital and separate property must consider the first three Romero factors; the fourth factor, harm to the public interest, is ordinarily not relevant in the context of a dissolution of marriage. The court found that (1) husband had not made even a cursory showing as to why his appeal was likely to succeed on the merits; (2) husband’s contention that he faces “clear” irreparable harm if a stay is not granted was unpersuasive; and (3) wife would be harmed by the issuance of a stay, because she would be denied benefits she negotiated in the marital agreement.

The motion for stay was denied.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: “Newsletter Exclusion” Did Not Apply to Unlicensed Securities Advisor

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Mandel v. Rome on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Colorado Securities Act—Licensure—Summary Judgment—Investment Adviser—First Amendment—Restitution—Permanent Injunction.

Defendants Mandel and Wall Street Radio, Inc. hosted a radio show devoted to security investments, Wall Street Radio (WSR). They also offered through a website a variety of investment related services under two plans. The Master Membership Plan, with a $500 annual fee, provided newsletters, seminars, and the opportunity to email or call defendant Mandel twice a week with questions about specific stocks (crystal ball readings). The Lead Trader Membership Plan, under which subscribers paid between $1000 and $2000 annually, provided the same services as Master Membership and also offered the opportunity to mimic Mandel’s own security trades through an investment vehicle known as auto-trading. In auto-trading, trades are automatically made that mimic the lead trader’s trades without the need for approval. Followers are often not aware of the trades until after they have occurred.

The auto-trading was done through a company called Ditto Trade, in which Mandel owned an interest. Ditto Trade requires its lead traders to attest that they are either registered investment advisers or exempt from registration. Neither Mandel nor WSR were licensed in Colorado as investment advisers or investment adviser representatives. In 2008, Mandel had applied for a license, but his application was denied in an administrative action. A stipulated consent order denying the application precluded him from reapplying for 10 years and barred him from acting as a solicitor or otherwise associating with any Colorado licensed investment adviser or “federally covered” adviser. Mandel attested to operating within an exemption.

This action was commenced by the Securities Commissioner of Colorado, Rome, against Mandel and WSR, alleging they had acted as unlicensed investment advisers or investment adviser representatives under the Colorado Securities Act (CSA). Defendants claimed that pursuant to the CRS § 11-51-201(9.5)(b)(III) “newsletter exclusion” they were exempt from licensure. The trial court granted summary judgment against defendants. It entered a permanent injunction and directed them to pay $80,000 in restitution ($1000 for each auto-trading subscriber).

On appeal, defendants argued that the trial court erroneously entered summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether they acted as investment advisers or investment adviser representatives. The Colorado Court of Appeals found that the Commissioner presented undisputed facts sufficient to resolve the case. It therefore turned to whether judgment was appropriate as a matter of law.

There was no dispute to the evidence presented by the Commissioner that defendants met the basic definition of investment adviser or investment adviser representative. To avoid the licensing requirement, defendants had to meet the “newsletter exclusion” from the definition of investment adviser, which required their services to qualify as bona fide publications or newsletters with a regular circulation. The court found that the lead trader services were not “publications” generally disseminated to subscribers. It rejected defendants’ argument that because they disseminated a newsletter, all of their other activities fell within the exclusion. Also, the lead trader service was not bona fide because it did not consist of disinterested commentary or analysis; instead, each follower’s investment decision was directly linked to Mandel’s investment account. Thus Mandel could personally benefit from the trades. Finally, the service was not “regular.” It did not follow a routine schedule but occurred when Mandel decided to make trades. Similarly, the crystal ball readings were not regular and addressed specific investment situations. Because defendants provided both services for compensation without a license they violated the CSA.

Defendants further argued that the summary judgment was inappropriate because the Commissioner failed to controvert their affirmative defense that the First Amendment of the federal constitution and Colorado Constitution art. II, § 10 barred the enforcement action. Because the services provided were sufficiently personal to treat defendants as investment advisors or investment representatives, requiring them to obtain a license as a condition of providing these services is constitutional.

Defendants also argued that the trial court erred in imposing restitution, contending that only damages could be awarded under the CSA. The court did not need to address this argument because it held that the record and the law support the award under a common law restitution theory.

Lastly, defendants challenged both parts of the permanent injunction. Defendants argued that the first part of the injunction improperly enjoins them from engaging in lawful activity. Defendants contended that the court abused its discretion and exceeded its statutory authority by enjoining them from “associating in any capacity” with securities professionals engaged in business in Colorado. The court found that the trial court had statutory authority to enjoin defendants from associating with securities professionals to ensure compliance with the CSA. However, the court found that the first part of the injunction was overly broad and subject to different interpretations.

Defendants argued that the second part of the injunction is simply an edict to obey the law and is thus overly broad and vague. The court agreed.

The summary judgment and restitution orders were affirmed. The injunction was vacated in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trustee’s Loss in Recall Election Did Not Arise from Town’s Misconduct

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Jones v. Samora on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Summary Judgment—Identity of Persons Casting Votes—Colo. Const. Art. VII, § 8—Standing—§ 1983 Claim—Law of the Case—Issue Preclusion.

Residents of the Town of Center (Town) organized a recall election to oust the trustees, including Jones, from their positions. Voters either turned in mail ballots or voted in person. All of the ballots had numbered stubs and, based on these stubs, the town clerk, Samora, had a list that showed which voter had received which ballot. He used the list to ensure that each voter had voted only once. To ensure voter secrecy, the stubs were removed before they were tallied. These procedures were used for all in-person ballots that were cast. But the procedures were not followed at all times for the mail-in ballots. At some point, the election judges realized that they had not removed the stubs from some ballots, but decided to continue tallying the ballots before removing the stubs. Because they could see the identifying numbers on the stubs when tallying the votes, the judges could have determined the identity of the voters by consulting the voter list.

Jones and Citizen Center, a nonprofit, filed this lawsuit including five state law claims and a § 1983 claim. The state law claims were severed from the § 1983 claim. A bench trial was held on the state law claims. The court found that the procedural errors were unintentional, that no voter identity had been disclosed when tallying the ballots, and that the election was fundamentally untainted by any substantive intentional error of procedure. However, the court concluded that tallying the mail-in ballots had violated Article VII, § 8 of the Colorado Constitution. Even though no voter identities had been revealed, the opportunity to discover them had been available and this violated Colorado’s constitutional and statutory guarantee of a secret ballot. The court voided the results of the recall election and ordered the Town to hold a new recall election within 30 to 90 days.

The Town appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the recall election results, concluding that the stubs were on the ballots because a statute required them to be there; there was no violation of the Colorado Constitution; and the trial court erred in concluding that the election had been void.

The § 1983 claim was still at issue. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, both sides moved for summary judgment. The court granted the Town’s motion and denied plaintiffs’ motion.

On appeal, the Town asserted that plaintiffs did not have standing to file the case. As to the trustee, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that because the loss of the trustee’s position did not arise from the Town’s conduct, the trustee could not satisfy the injury requirement. In addition, because the trustee suffered no injury, he did not have third-party standing, and because he failed to allege his tax dollars were used in an unconstitutional manner, he did not have taxpayer standing.

Although the trustee lacked standing, the court found that Citizen Center had organizational standing because one or more of its members had voted in the recall election by mail-in ballot, and therefore their right to cast a secret ballot had allegedly been violated; the interests Citizen Center sought to protect were germane to its purpose; and the claim asserted and relief requested did not require that individual members of the organization participate in the case.

Regarding its summary judgment motion, the Town asserted that the law of the case barred Citizen Center’s claim. Here, the state law claims proceeding and the § 1983 proceeding were severed and were not the same case. In addition, the law of the case doctrine applies only to a court’s decisions of law, not to its resolution of factual questions. Whether the Town actually violated voter secrecy rights is a question of fact. Thus the law of the case doctrine does not apply.

The Town also asserted that issue preclusion barred Citizen Center’s claim. Issue preclusion bars relitigating factual matters that a court has previously litigated and decided. Here, the factual issue in the state proceeding was identical to the § 1983 factual issue: whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were actually violated. Citizen Center was involved in the state claims case and that case ended in a final judgment. Citizen Center also had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the factual issue of whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were violated. Therefore, issue preclusion barred Citizen Center from relitigating whether the mail-in voters’ secrecy rights were violated.

On the § 1983 claim, the court concluded that there was no genuine issue as to any material fact and the trial court properly granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment. Further, applying the issue preclusion doctrine, the election judges did not infringe on Citizen Center’s members rights, and the Town did not deprive those members of their constitutional rights.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Did Not Err in Summarily Denying Defendant’s Petition for Postconviction Relief

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Phipps on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Sexual Assault on a Child—Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.

Police discovered child pornography on Phipps’s computer by using LimeWire, a peer-to-peer file sharing application. Phipps pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a child and was sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of 17 years to life. He sought postconviction relief under Crim. P. 35(c), claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied the motion without a hearing.

On appeal, Phipps asserted that the district court was required to hold a hearing on his motion and erred in rejecting his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. A district court may deny a post-conviction motion without a hearing where allegations are bare and conclusory, directly refuted by the record, or, even if proven true, would fail to establish one of the prongs of the Strickland test to determine whether there has been ineffective assistance of counsel. To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must establish that (1) counsel’s performance was constitutionally deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant. To satisfy the prejudice prong, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that “but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.”

Phipps argued that his counsel should have challenged the validity of the initial, remote search of his computer. Phipps claimed that he did not know that the files stored on his computer were publicly accessible through LimeWire. Consistent with other courts that have considered the matter, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that Phipps had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the files he made available for public viewing through LimeWire. Thus his counsel’s failure to challenge the search on Fourth Amendment grounds, even if deficient, could not have constituted Strickland prejudice.

Phipps also argued that his counsel was ineffective when he waived the preliminary hearing. This decision was a matter of strategy. In addition, the evidence of Phipps’s guilt was overwhelming. The waiver of the preliminary hearing could not have constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

Phipps further argued that his counsel failed to investigate several aspects of his case. Even if this claim were true, it fails the prejudice test. Phipps admitted to possessing child pornography on his computer and he produced a video of him sexually assaulting his underage stepdaughter.

Phipps next contended that his counsel misadvised or failed to advise him of the consequences of his guilty plea. The court carefully examined each of Phipps’s contentions in this regard and found them all without merit.

Lastly, Phipps argued that the district court “redacted” his Crim. P. 35(c) motion and the transcript of his sentencing hearing was falsified. The court found no evidence to support these arguments.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Exculpatory Clauses in Fitness Agreement Did Not Bar PLA Claim

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc. on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Summary Judgment—Negligence—Premises Liability Act—Liability Release—Assumption of Risk.

Stone was a member of a fitness club owned by defendants (collectively, Life Time). She fell and fractured her ankle in the club’s women’s locker room after a workout. Stone asserted a general negligence claim and a claim under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (PLA), alleging that Life Time allowed a trip hazard and dangerous condition to exist and thus failed to exercise reasonable care.

Life Time moved for summary judgment, relying on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in the agreement Stone signed when she joined the club. The district court granted the motion, without distinguishing between the negligence and PLA claims, finding that the agreement was valid and enforceable and that Stone had released Life Time from all the claims asserted in the complaint.

On appeal, Stone contended that the district court erred in entering summary judgment and dismissing her action. As to the negligence claim, the Court of Appeals determined that the PLA provides the sole remedy for injuries against landowners on their property and abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners. Thus Stone could not bring a common law negligence claim against Life Time.

Stone also argued that the exculpatory clauses in the agreement, while applying to the workout areas, did not clearly and unambiguously apply to injuries incurred in the women’s locker room. Exculpatory agreements are generally disfavored. A court must consider four factors to determine whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. As to the first factor, the Colorado Supreme Court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services. On the second factor, courts have consistently held that recreational services are neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. With respect to the third factor, recreational service contracts of this type are generally considered to be fairly entered into. These three factors weighed in favor of the enforceability of the agreement. On the fourth prong, however, in waiving future negligence claims, the intention of the parties must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language. After scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, the court of appeals concluded that the agreement used excessive legal jargon, was unnecessarily complex, and created a likelihood of confusion. Thus, the agreement did not bar Stone’s PLA claim.

The judgment on the negligence claim was affirmed, the judgment on the PLA claim was reversed, and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.