February 19, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Lessee of Real Property Lacks Standing to Challenge Property Tax Determination

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Traer Creek-EXWMT LLC v. Eagle County Board of Equalization on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Traer Creek-EXWMT (Traer) has been a lessee of property in Eagle County since 2002. Traer has reimbursed the property owner for property taxes each year since assuming the lease. On May 1, 2015, the Eagle County Assessor mailed a notice of valuation to the property owner. Traer initiated the statutory protest and adjustment process to challenge the 2015 valuation. The assessor declined to adjust the valuation, and Traer appealed to the Board, which also upheld the valuation. Traer appealed to district court.

The Board moved to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) on the theory that a mere lessee does not have standing to challenge a property tax valuation of the sort issued by the assessor. The district court agreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, Traer argued that because it “owns” a leasehold interest in the subject property, it has standing to protest the valuation. The Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the relevant statutes convey standing only to the property owner/taxpayer. The court similarly rejected Traer’s argument that C.R.S. §§ 39-1-102(16) and (14) could be read to grant authority to a lessee to challenge a property valuation. The court concluded that the county assessor did not value Traer’s “property” — i.e., its leasehold interest — instead, the assessor valued the fee interest in the property. Therefore, Traer was not a “person” whose “property has been valued too high.”

Traer also argued it had common law standing because it pays taxes on the property and because the owner had granted it agency authority to challenge the valuation. The court noted that Traer’s argument failed at the outset because when a statute limits standing, the court may not disregard the statute by employing common law notions.

The district court judgment was affirmed.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 2/15/2017

On Wednesday, February 15, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and 39 unpublished opinions.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions.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: Hail in Window Wells Retained Character as Surface Water for Insurance Purposes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Martinez v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co. on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Michael Martinez owned a home in Erie, Colorado. On August 3, 2013, a heavy rain and hail storm caused hail to collect in the window wells for his basement windows, and eventually the rain and hail overflowed into his basement windows, causing extensive damage. Martinez filed a claim with American Family, but the insurance company denied his claim after investigation, finding that the damage was caused by “flooding” or “surface water,” both of which were excluded under the insurance policy.

Martinez filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment on the issue of coverage and asserting claims for contractual and extra-contractual damages. American Family moved for summary judgment on the issue of coverage, arguing that the insurance policy’s water damage exclusions for “flood” and “surface water” applied as a matter of law. The district court granted American Family’s motion, and Martinez appealed.

On appeal, Martinez raised two contentions: (1) the damage to his basement was not caused by “surface water” because the water that collected on his roof and melted hail did not fit the definition of surface water; and (2) even if the water was surface water, it lost that characteristic when it entered his window wells. The court of appeals disagreed on both counts. The court of appeals first evaluated the Colorado Supreme Court opinion in Heller v. Fire Insurance Exchange, 800 P.2d 1006 (Colo. 1990). The court found that the supreme court’s definition of surface water in Heller fit squarely with the issues raised by Martinez, although the facts in Heller differed significantly from those alleged by Martinez.

The court of appeals determined that the water on Martinez’s roof was unquestionably surface water, noting that dwellings were reasonably considered extensions of the earth’s surface. Likewise, melted hail was well within the definition of surface water. The court next evaluated Martinez’s claim that the water in his window wells lost its characteristic as surface water, and disagreed. The window wells were designed to retain the surrounding soil and allow water to drain, therefore they were reasonably considered extensions of the surface and did not transform the collected water into a different type of body of water.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of American Family.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Essential Element of Abuse of Process Claim is Improper Use of Courts

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Active Release Techniques, LLC v. Xtomic, LLC on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Active Release Techniques (ART) is a provider of training, seminars, and business support software for chiropractors and other health care providers. ART contracted with Xtomic to manage ART’s IT services and provide support. When one of ART’s employees started a new business, Select Seminar Services, LLC (S3), with a co-owner of Xtomic, ART petitioned for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. It also initiated the current litigation, asserting claims for misappropriation of trade secrets. Xtomic responded by asserting numerous counterclaims, including a claim for abuse of process. A jury ultimately decided all claims in Xtomic’s favor.

ART appealed, arguing the trial court erred by denying its motion for a directed verdict on Xtomic’s abuse of process claim. The court of appeals noted that “a valid abuse of process claim must allege ‘(1) an ulterior purpose for the use of a judicial proceeding; (2) willful action in the use of that process which is not proper in the regular course of the proceedings, i.e., use of a legal proceeding in an improper manner; and (3) resulting damage.'” In this case, ART moved for a directed verdict on the abuse of process claim at the close of evidence on the counterclaims. Xtomic argued that ART knew from the outset that it had no legitimate claims against Xtomic and the overly aggressive manner in which it pursued its claims against Xtomic was evidence of ART’s ulterior motive to use the lawsuit as a means to harass Xtomic and run it out of business. In denying ART’s motion for directed verdict, the court relied on ART’s pretrial settlement with Xtomic, ART’s reputation for filing lawsuits to control the behavior of former 5 associates and business partners, and the nature and number of preservation letters that ART sent to numerous individuals.

The court of appeals disagreed with the trial court that the settlement could be evidence of ART’s willful misuse of judicial process, because settlement does not imply that the originally filed suit was improper. The court also disregarded the evidence of ART’s other lawsuits, finding that it was only proper to focus on the instant case. Finally, the court found that the preservation letters were not directly related to any litigation but rather were issued in response to ART’s concern that Xtomic was destroying emails.

The court of appeals denied Xtomic’s motion for appellate attorney fees, since it was not the prevailing party. The court reversed the trial court’s denial of ART’s motion for directed verdict and remanded.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Innocent Investor May Keep Some Funds Exceeding Principal Investment in Ponzi Scheme

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Lewis v. Taylor on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Steve Taylor invested $3 million in a hedge fund run by Sean Mueller, a licensed securities broker, and after about a year of investing, he withdrew all his money and received a profit of over $487,000. In 2010, the Colorado Securities Commissioner determined the hedge fund was a Ponzi scheme, and Mueller was convicted of several criminal offenses. C. Randel Lewis was appointed as receiver and tasked with collecting and distributing Mueller’s assets to the creditors and investors he defrauded through the Ponzi scheme. Lewis filed a claim under CUFTA seeking to void the transfer of the over $487,000 in net profits that Taylor received from Mueller’s fund.

In the district court, both Lewis and Taylor moved for summary judgment. Taylor argued that (1) the CUFTA claim was filed outside the statutory time period, and (2) even if the claim was timely, his net profits were not recoverable under CUFTA because he was an innocent investor. Lewis argued that the claim was timely filed and that CUFTA required Taylor to return his net profits. The district court agreed with Lewis on both issues and granted him summary judgment. On appeal, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals held the district court erred in finding the claim was timely and reversed. The court of appeals did not reach the innocent investor issue. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the claim was timely and remanded to the court of appeals for determination of the innocent investor issue.

On remand from the supreme court, Taylor argued that the district court erred by ruling that even though he was an innocent investor in Mueller’s fund, CUFTA nevertheless required him to return all of the payments from the fund in excess of his principal investment. The court noted that CUFTA provides that “[a] transfer . . . is not voidable under section 38-8-105(1)(a) against a person who took in good faith and for a reasonably equivalent value.” The parties agreed that Taylor was an innocent investor who withdrew his profits in good faith, but disagreed about whether he gave reasonably equivalent value for his $487,000 profits.

The court of appeals evaluated the term “reasonably equivalent value,” noting that two lines of opinions had developed among courts in jurisdictions with versions of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act. The court of appeals evaluated the line of cases promoted by Lewis, particularly the leading Ninth Circuit case. The court of appeals found the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning illogical because all transfers “deplete the assets of the scheme operator for the purpose of creating the appearance of a profitable business venture.” The court similarly disagreed with other cases cited by Lewis. The Colorado Court of Appeals instead held that the value an investor gives by investing is not limited to the precise dollar amount of the principal investment, but includes the use of that money for however long it was available for investment or any other use.

The court of appeals evaluated the plain statutory language to determine whether the transfers to Taylor were voidable. The court noted that the General Assembly may wish to revisit the issue and craft a better remedy to more fairly address the circumstances while considering equitable principles embodied in doctrines such as the clean hands doctrine. The court of appeals applied the plain language to determine the district court erred in failing to account for the time value of Taylor’s principal investment in determining whether he gave reasonably equivalent value.

The court of appeals remanded for determination of the fact question of whether Taylor gave “reasonably equivalent value.” The court further directed the district court to determine based on its “reasonably equivalent value” finding whether Lewis’s and Taylor’s summary judgment motions had merit.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 2/9/2017

On Thursday, February 9, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued four published opinions and 28 unpublished opinions.

Lewis v. Taylor

Active Release Techniques, LLC v. Xtomic, LLC

Martinez v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co.

Traer Creek-EXWMT LLC v. Eagle County Board of Equalization

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: Announcement Sheet, 2/2/2017

On Thursday, February 2, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and 26 unpublished opinions.

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: Victim Intimidation Statute Applies only to Criminal Cases, not Civil Actions

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Johnson on Thursday, January 26, 2017.

RetaliationWitnessCivilOther Bad ActsJury DeliberationsLimiting Instruction.

The Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS) took custody of Johnson’s two children based on information from Ranals. Later, Johnson and his girlfriend drove to a DHS office, but the office was closed. Before leaving, Johnson fired shots into a vehicle in the parking lot that appeared similar to the vehicle driven by the DHS employees who had removed the children. Johnson then drove to Ranals’s home and fired several shots into her house.

At trial, Johnson moved for a mistrial and later a new trial, based on Ranals’s testimony. Both motions were denied. A jury convicted Johnson of several counts, including retaliation against a witness or victim. The prosecution’s theory in support of the witness retaliation charge was that Johnson shot into Ranals’s home because she had reported him to DHS and he believed she might be a witness in the dependency and neglect proceedings against him.

On appeal, Johnson contended that the C.R.S. § 18-8-706 offense of retaliation against a witness applies only to retaliation against a witness because of the witness’s relationship to a criminal proceeding. The Colorado Court of Appeals examined the statute and its legislative history and concluded that C.R.S. § 18-8-706 applies only to retaliation against witnesses or victims because of their relationship to criminal, and not civil, proceedings. Because the prosecution only presented evidence regarding Ranals’s perceived involvement in a dependency and neglect proceeding, Johnson’s conduct could not have constituted witness retaliation under this statute.

Johnson also contended that the trial court erroneously denied his motion for a mistrial and erroneously denied his post-verdict motion for a new trial. At trial, Ranals made a statement referencing Johnson’s acts of domestic violence, despite the trial court’s prior ruling that evidence of Johnson’s other bad acts was inadmissible. The court properly exercised its discretion by directing the jury to disregard Ranals’s statement to ensure that Johnson would not be unfairly prejudiced. Further, Ranals’s statement was part of her trial testimony; the jury was not exposed to information or influences outside of the trial process. Thus, it was not extraneous information as contemplated by CRE 606(b).

The witness retaliation conviction was vacated and the judgment of conviction on the remaining convictions was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Denial of Crim. P. 35 Motion Without Hearing was In Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Smith on Thursday, January 27, 2017.

Crim. P. 35(c)Post-Conviction ReliefPlea AgreementIneffective Assistance of CounselHearing—Sentencing.

Smith was charged with three sexual offenses. As the result of an unwritten plea agreement, Smith pleaded guilty to added counts of first degree assault with a deadly weapon and attempted sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust. The original charges were dismissed, and Smith was sentenced to a determinate 28-year term in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

Acting pro se, Smith timely moved for post-conviction relief under Crim. P. 35(c). The district court appointed counsel to expound on Smith’s claims in a supplemental motion. The court sought and received a response from the prosecution, which attached a report authored by the prosecution’s investigator. Smith filed a reply that did not specifically challenge the investigator’s report but rather identified contested issues of fact and requested an evidentiary hearing. In a written order, the district court denied Smith’s motion without holding a hearing.

On appeal, Smith contended that the district court erred in denying his motion without a hearing because he asserted sufficient facts to support his claim that plea counsel was ineffective. Under certain circumstances, a trial court may deny a post-conviction motion without conducting an evidentiary hearing if the motion, the files, and the record show the defendant is not entitled to relief, and where the court refers the matter for additional briefing, as it did here, it may enter a ruling based on the pleadings if it finds it appropriate to do so. Here, the district court relied, in part, on the report authored by the prosecution’s investigator in determining that Smith was not entitled to relief. Because the attachment was not part of the file and record of the case, and did not qualify as a pleading, the district court’s reliance on that document was error. It was also error for the court to rely on Smith’s plea colloquy in denying his claims related to that phase of the proceedings because Smith alleged sufficient facts to warrant a hearing on his claim of ineffective assistance related to his plea.

Smith also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing. The Colorado Court of Appeals determined that this claim was conclusory, vague, and lacking in detail, and that it failed to adequately allege the required prejudice.

The district court’s order on Smith’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing was affirmed. The district court’s order on Smith’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel related to his plea was reversed and the case was remanded for a hearing solely on that claim.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Sentence Enhancement Based on Victims’ Ages Not Structural Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Ewing on Thursday, January 26, 2017.

Leon Ewing was accused in March 2013 of sexually assaulting two brothers, M.B. and J.B., during the summer of 2008 while he was living in their family’s home. The boys were around 11 and 13 at the time of the assaults. The allegations arose in May 2011, and although they were investigated, Detective Nicholas Kundert could not locate Ewing until December 2012. After Ewing was located, he was charged with nine class 3 felony counts of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust—eight pertaining to the crimes against J.B. and one pertaining to the crimes against M.B. For the eight charges concerning J.B., Ewing was charged with one count of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust (pattern of abuse), and one count of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust (victim under 15 years old) for each of four separate incidents. The charge pertaining to M.B. was one count of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust (victim under fifteen 15 old). The complaint also included three crime of violence counts.

The jury convicted Ewing of two counts of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust — one against J.B. and one against M.B. It specifically found that the assault against J.B. was not committed as part of a pattern of abuse. The jury made no findings regarding J.B.’s and M.B.’s ages at the time of the assaults. At sentencing, the court entered convictions and sentences for two counts of class 3 felony sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust (victim under 15 years old). Sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust is typically a class 4 felony. However, the offense is elevated to a class 3 felony if the victim is less than 15 years of age.

On appeal, Ewing contended that because the jury made no finding as to the ages of the victims at the time of the assaults, the district court erred in entering convictions and sentences for a class 3 felony. The court of appeals characterized the elevation of the offense to a class 3 felony as a sentence enhancer. The court held that although the district court erred in enhancing Ewing’s sentence without submitting the question to the jury, the error was harmless. The court found no reasonable possibility that the jury could have concluded that the victims were 15 or older at the time of the offenses. The information alleged that the offenses occurred between May 1, 2008, and August 31, 2008. Because each victim testified to his birthday, the jury was presented with undisputed evidence that the boys were not yet 15 years old at the time of the assaults. The Colorado Court of Appeals found no plain error in the district court’s sentence enhancement.

Ewing also argued that his recross-examination of Detective Kundert was impermissibly limited by the trial court. During Detective Kundert’s testimony, defense counsel asked to recross the detective “on biases,” arguing that the prosecution brought up “witness bias and/or interviewer/interrogative bias,” which had not been previously raised on direct or cross-examination. Defense counsel did not, however, raise a Confrontation Clause issue. The court denied the request, stating that the issue was extrinsic and had already been addressed. Because Ewing did not raise the Confrontation Clause issue in the trial court, the court of appeals reviewed for plain error and found none. The court found that the trial court’s decision to deny the recross was not in error because any information that could potentially have been elicited was only marginally relevant. Even assuming error, the court of appeals did not find that it rose to the level of plain error.

The court of appeals affirmed Ewing’s convictions and sentences.

Colorado Court of Appeals: “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Doctrine Did Not Apply to Statements

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Archuleta on Thursday, January 26, 2017.

On December 5, 2012, Roger Louis Archuleta and his roommate in the housing facility left Archuleta’s apartment around 7 a.m., as captured by surveillance video. The roommate returned home around noon, and Archuleta returned later, remaining home the rest of the night. That night, other residents of the housing facility reported hearing loud noises. Around 4 a.m. on December 6, the surveillance video showed Archuleta dragging his roommate’s body down the hall, then back to his room. Archuleta then informed a residential aide at the housing facility that he had a body in his apartment that needed to be removed.

When the police arrived at defendant’s apartment, they found the deceased victim lying just inside the door, covered by a blanket. The police observed the victim had blood on him and appeared to have been beaten. They also found defendant seated on a mattress in the living room, apparently highly intoxicated and with a substantial amount of dried blood on his face and hands. There was blood spattered on all four walls in the apartment bedroom, which the prosecution’s expert testified was consistent with an altercation between two people.

The police took defendant to the police station; advised him of his Miranda rights under and interviewed him. They also took pictures of him, collected his clothing, and took swabs of suspected blood. Defendant ended the interview at the police station by indicating he wanted to speak to an attorney. Without obtaining a court order or defendant’s consent, police took defendant to the hospital, where three samples of his blood were drawn at one hour intervals. The court later held that the blood draw was unconstitutional; that holding was not challenged on appeal. Defendant was charged with second degree murder and first degree assault, and the jury found him guilty as charged.

Defendant appealed, arguing his convictions must be reversed because under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, the trial court erred by failing to suppress statements he made in the course of his transport to and detention at the hospital for his blood draws, and also because there were errors in the jury instructions and the trial court improperly elicited and admitted testimony from the prosecution’s blood spatter analysis expert that his conclusions were independently verified. The court of appeals addressed the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine argument first.

The court found no error in the trial court’s admission of defendant’s statements to police officers while at the hospital and in transit. Defendant had made numerous rambling statements to the police while at the hospital, including several comments that seemed to relate to the victim’s death. At one point, the officer left but a recorder was left on in the room. Defendant was heard saying, “Shit. [Victim’s name]. You’re dead, you’re dead brother. I killed you.” The trial court held that the fruit of the poisonous tree was the result of the blood draw, not the statements. The court noted that it was entirely speculative whether defendant would have continued to make statements while at the police station, and the vast majority of his statements were spontaneous. The court of appeals agreed, noting that the exclusionary rule was properly applied to the blood draw results, and that the statements were not fruit of the poisonous tree. The court found that defendant failed to establish a causal connection between the illegality of the warrantless blood draws and the challenged statements.

Defendant also contended the jury instruction defining “cause” misstated the law because it instructed the jury that the victim’s preexisting physical condition was not a defense to the murder and assault charges. He argues that while a victim’s preexisting conditions generally do not impact the causation element, they are relevant to the culpable mental state. The court of appeals disagreed. The court held that because the trial court’s instruction that “it is no defense that the victim was suffering from preexisting physical ailments, illnesses, injuries, conditions or infirmities” was not a stand-alone instruction but rather was embedded into the definition of “cause,” there was no error. The court noted that it is no defense that a victim who had been in good physical condition would have survived an attack; a defendant cannot be excused from guilt and punishment because his victim was weak and could not survive the torture he administered. The court rejected defendant’s contention that the instruction misstated the law.

The defendant also asserted that the trial court plainly erred by giving an erroneous elemental instruction for first degree assault and admitting hearsay testimony from the prosecution’s blood spatter analysis expert. The court of appeals again disagreed, finding that the instruction tracked the statutory language and was therefore sufficient, and the blood spatter analyst’s testimony that someone else always reviews his work was a general statement that did not rise to the level of plain error.

The court of appeals affirmed defendant’s convictions.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 1/26/2017

On Thursday, January 26, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued four published opinions and 17 unpublished opinions.

People v. Archuleta

People v. Ewing

People v. Johnson

People v. Smith

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.