May 22, 2018

A New Approach to Writing Facts, Part II

The first half of this article explained how to create stories. It drew analogies to filmmaking and described four criteria from Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell. Those criteria are where does a story start, where does it end, from whose perspective is the story told, and which details are included and where.[1]

Let’s apply this approach to fact sections.

Example 1: A Criminal Appeal

Compare these two excerpts from a criminal appeal’s fact sections.

Version 1:

Around 11:00 p.m., Sergeant Smith, Officer Jones, and Officer Richardson, members of the Auto Larceny Unit with over twenty years of combined experience, patrolled in an unmarked car near Main Street and Tenth Avenue. These uniformed officers observed a white Subaru with a Wyoming license plate double-parked in front of a housing project in a high crime area. When Smith saw the Wyoming license plate, he ran a computer check for possible car theft because Wyoming had a recent streak of fraudulent car registrations.

As the officers waited for the results, defendant, wearing a camouflage jacket, left the car, crossed Tenth Avenue, and entered a gas station. He stood there, looking up and down the street, but did not buy anything or peruse the store. Then two other passengers left the car and entered a nearby housing project. A few minutes later they came back with a brown paper bag and re-entered the car. Then the defendant crossed the street and got back into the car. They pulled away, and made a U-turn over a double yellow line.[2]

Version 2:

Michael Doe left Jackson Hole to visit his ill cousin in Denver. He had no car so he got a ride from his cousin Christopher, and his cousin’s friend, James. They left Jackson Hole around 6:00 a.m. The rental car, a Subaru, had three rows of seats. Christopher drove and James was the front seat passenger. Michael sat behind Christopher. No one sat in the third row seat closest to the trunk.

When they arrived in Denver that night, they stopped by Christopher’s aunt’s home. They double-parked across from a gas station. After the long trip, Michael got out to stretch his legs. He crossed the street to a gas station. Christopher and James got out to visit the aunt. After a few minutes, everyone got back inside the car. They pulled away en route to Michael’s cousin. When Christopher noticed flashing lights in his rearview mirror he pulled over. Three officers approached the car.[3]

Analysis:

Even if this was the only section you read from each brief, you would probably determine the case involves a Fourth Amendment issue surrounding a car stop, and the first version belongs to the prosecution while the second version comes from the defense. Note the varying strategies.

The prosecution’s story starts minutes before the car stop. It begins from the combined officers’ perspective. The reader learns what they know and nothing else. This perspective aligns with the prosecution’s viewpoint on the Fourth Amendment, which usually centers on reasonableness; officers do not need to be perfect or all-knowing, they just have to act reasonably. The details chosen support the position. You learn a lot about the officers’ background. To build credibility, you learn their names, their unit, and some of their experience. The story shifts to the car occupants’ perspective to describe their relevant behavior. The details build suspicion. You know very little about them, but a lot about the situation. This type of car is often stolen and it is in a high crime neighborhood. The defendant’s behavior at the gas station makes him appear to be a lookout. And the ending is critical. The brown paper bag acts like a new character. At the end of the story the reader wants to know what is in the bag. Drugs? A gun? Putting aside the law, the facts almost burden the defendant to provide an explanation.

Contrast the defense story. It starts hours earlier from the occupants’ perspective to show how normal their behavior is. You learn the names of everyone in the car and their relationship to one another. Michael, the defendant, has a good motive to be in the car (visiting a sick relative) and is doing something both legal and normal by getting a ride from his cousin. The details about who sat where foreshadows an issue about contraband later located in the car and who it belonged to. The story ends with the police pulling the car over. Interjecting the officers at the end accomplishes a few goals. Primarily, the reader is left wondering why the officers pulled over the car. Again, regardless of the legal burden, the reader wants an explanation for the officers’ actions. You never learn the names or backgrounds of the officers because to the defense they do not matter.

Example 2: A Supreme Court Brief

Here’s an example from a brief by then-attorney John Roberts. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the EPA could override Alaska’s permitting decision under the Clean Air Act (CAA).[4] The fact section starts with this:

Statutory and Regulatory Background. The CAA establishes “a comprehensive national program that ma[kes] the States and the Federal Government partners in the struggle against air pollution.” General Motors Corp. v. United States, 496 U.S. 530, 532 (1990). At the same time, the CAA recognizes that “air pollution prevention and air pollution control at its source is the primary responsibility of States and local governments.” 42 U.S.C. §7401(a)(3) (emphasis added); see also id. § 7407(a) (“Each State shall have the primary responsibility for assuring air quality within the entire geographic area comprising such State”) (emphasis added). Thus, while the CAA assigns the EPA the responsibility for establishing national ambient air quality standards (“NAAQS”) for certain pollutants, see id. § 7409, the Act assigns the States the responsibility for implementing them. See id. §§ 7407(a), 7410(a).[5]

The opening begins with the regulatory scheme—not with Alaska, not with the federal government, not with a description of air pollutants, and not with the mining company this case affected. This choice frames the issue as Congress wanting states to control air pollutants. It uses case law and the Act’s language to emphasize a joint-scheme with states leading the way. That is a strategic choice to have the reader understand this viewpoint upfront and ideally view the later facts through this lens.

Later the fact section reads:

For generations, Inupiat Eskimos hunting and fishing in the DeLong Mountains in Northwest Alaska had been aware of orange- and red-stained creekbeds in which fish could not survive. In the 1960s, a bush pilot and part-time prospector by the name of Bob Baker noticed striking discolorations in the hills and creekbeds of a wide valley in the western DeLongs. Unable to land his plane on the rocky tundra to investigate, Baker alerted the U.S. Geological Survey. Exploration of the area eventually led to the discovery of a wealth of zinc and lead deposits. Although Baker died before the significance of his observations became known, his faithful traveling companion—an Irish Setter who often flew shotgun—was immortalized by a geologist who dubbed the creek Baker had spotted “Red Dog” Creek.

. . .

Operating 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, the Red Dog Mine is the largest private employer in the Northwest Arctic Borough, an area roughly the size of the State of Indiana with a population of about 7,000. The vast majority of the area’s residents are Inupiat Eskimos whose ancestors have inhabited the region for thousands of years. The region offers only limited year-round employment opportunities, particularly in the private sector; in the two years preceding Alaska’s permit decision, the borough’s unemployment rate was the highest in the State.[6]

No one could claim the name of a mine, a dog in an airplane, the demographics of a region, or any of these facts are necessary to interpret the Clean Air Act’s text. Although unnecessary, they are relevant. “Roberts is litigating a classic federalism fight between the states and the federal government. And who knows how a mine fits into the community better than the local and state officials close to the ground?”[7] By using facts to show how unique the area is and how invested local peoples and local government are in the region, it shows a need and a reason why state government is better suited than the federal government to control permitting.

Example 3: A Supreme Court Decision

Look at Justice Jackson’s opinion in United States v. Morissette. The issue was whether a defendant could knowingly convert government property without any criminal intent. After the introductory paragraph, here is the opening:

On a large tract of uninhabited and untilled land in a wooded and sparsely populated area of Michigan, the Government established a practice bombing range over which the Air Force dropped simulated bombs at ground targets. These bombs consisted of a metal cylinder about forty inches long and eight inches across, filled with sand and enough black powder to cause a smoke puff by which the strike could be located. At various places about the range signs read ‘Danger—Keep Out—Bombing Range.’ Nevertheless, the range was known as good deer country and was extensively hunted.

Spent bomb casings were cleared from the targets and thrown into piles ‘so that they will be out of the way.’ They were not sacked or piled in any order but were dumped in heaps, some of which had been accumulating for four years or upwards, were exposed to the weather and rusting away.

Morissette, in December of 1948, went hunting in this area but did not get a deer. He thought to meet expenses of the trip by salvaging some of these casings. He loaded three tons of them on his truck and took them to a nearby farm, where they were flattened by driving a tractor over them. After expending this labor and trucking them to market in Flint, he realized $84.

Morissette, by occupation, is a fruit stand operator in summer and a trucker and scrap iron collector in winter. An honorably discharged veteran of World War II, he enjoys a good name among his neighbors and has had no blemish on his record more disreputable than a conviction for reckless driving.

The loading, crushing and transporting of these casings were all in broad daylight, in full view of passers-by, without the slightest effort at concealment. When an investigation was started, Morissette voluntarily, promptly and candidly told the whole story to the authorities, saying that he had no intention of stealing but thought the property was abandoned, unwanted and considered of no value to the Government. He was indicted, however, on the charge that he ‘did unlawfully, wilfully and knowingly steal and convert’ property of the United States of the value of $84, in violation of 18 U.S.C. s 641, 18 U.S.C.A. s 641, which provides that ‘whoever embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts’ government property is punishable by fine and imprisonment. Morissette was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for two months or to pay a fine of $200. The Court of Appeals affirmed, one judge dissenting.[8]

The fact section sets Morissette up for a win.

It begins with a god’s-eye-view of a place, the bombing range. [9] Then it describes things in that place, spent shell casings. Only then is Morissette introduced. We learn he goes to the range for an innocuous purpose, hunting. True, there are signs saying keep out (a bad fact for Morissette), but we already learned the signs are not enforced. All of his alleged criminal acts are summed up in three sentences: he wanted to make some money, he took the casings, and he sold them for $84. Then a paragraph about Morissette’s positive character. And then Morissette’s approach to his actions; he did everything in broad daylight, never thought anything was wrong, never hid it, and cooperated with authorities.

Rather than a chronology, this story is about where, who, and why. It frames Morissette as an upright man with blameless motives.[10] By the end the reader is sympathetic to Morissette, and even wondering why this man was ever arrested. And that is precisely where Justice Jackson wants you before starting his legal analysis.[11]


[1] Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 300 (Practicing Law Institute 3d ed. 2009).

[2] This is a variation of the fact section in the Brief for Defendant-Appellant at 4-15, People v. Bryant, 562/05 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010).

[3] This is a variation of the fact section in the Brief for Respondent at 4-14, People v. Bryant, 562/05 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010).

[4] Brief for Petitioner, Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency at i, No. 02-658 (U.S.).

[5] Id. at 5.

[6] Id. at 7-9 (citations omitted). This example is courtesy of Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates 59 (Oxford University Press 2d ed. 2014).

[7] Ross Guberman, “Five Ways to Write Like John Roberts,” https://www.legalwritingpro.com/pdf/john-roberts.pdf.

[8] Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 247–50 (1952). This example courtesy of Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 1 at 117-18, 300.

[9] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 1 at 300

[10] See id. at 117.

[11] For more examples of fact sections and storytelling see Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 1 at 113-118, 296-305.

 

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Colorado Supreme Court: Physician-Patient Privilege Bars Defendants from Consulting Ex Parte with Non-Party Witnesses

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re Bailey v. Hermacinski on Monday, March 5, 2018.

Physician-Patient Privilege—Implied Waiver.

In this original proceeding, the supreme court considered the scope of the physician-patient privilege in a medical malpractice action. Contrary to the conclusion of the trial court, the court held that plaintiffs’ non-party medical providers were not in consultation with defendants such that the typically privileged information held by those non-party medical providers was no longer protected by the physician-patient privilege. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion when it granted defendants’ request to hold ex parte interviews with those non-party medical providers on consultation grounds. However, the court remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of whether plaintiffs impliedly waived the protection of the physician-patient privilege such that ex parte interviews may still be permitted.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Erred in Summarily Dismissing Conversion and Unjust Enrichment Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Scott v. Scott on Thursday, February 22, 2018.

Torts—Conversion—Unjust Enrichment—Life Insurance Proceeds—Motion to Dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) and (6)—Attorney Fees and Costs.

Roseann’s marriage to Melvin Scott was dissolved. Their separation agreement provided that Melvin’s life insurance policies were to be maintained until Roseann remarried, and at that time the beneficiaries could be changed to the children of the parties. Upon emancipation of the children, if Roseann had remarried, Melvin could change the beneficiary to whomever he wished. A Prudential life insurance policy was the policy at issue in this case.

After the divorce, Melvin married Donna and remained married to her until his death. Roseann never remarried. A few years before Melvin died and decades after his divorce from Roseann, Melvin changed the named beneficiary on his life insurance policies to Donna. Melvin died and Donna received the proceeds from his life insurance policies. Roseann sent a demand letter to Donna, requesting the proceeds pursuant to the separation agreement. The proceeds were placed in a trust account pending the outcome of this litigation.

Roseann sued Donna in Mesa County District Court, alleging civil theft, conversion, and unjust enrichment/constructive trust. Donna did not answer but removed the case to federal district court based on administration of the veteran life insurance policies by the federal government. She then moved to dismiss Roseann’s claims under a theory of federal preemption. Ultimately, the federal court agreed with the preemption argument and dismissed Roseann’s claims with prejudice as to the veteran policies but remanded the remaining claims to the Mesa County District Court for resolution regarding the Prudential policy.

Donna filed a motion in the district court to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) and (6), arguing that Roseann’s claims failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and that she had failed to join Melvin’s estate, a necessary party. The district court granted the motion and a subsequent motion for attorney fees and costs.

On appeal, the court of appeals first examined whether Roseann had stated claims sufficient to withstand the plausibility standard required to survive a motion to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5). To state a claim for civil theft, a plaintiff must allege the elements of criminal theft, which requires the specific intent of the defendant to permanently deprive the owner of the benefit of his property. Roseann made a single, conclusory allegation, repeating the language in the statute, that Donna acted with the requisite intent to state a claim for civil theft. The court concluded that, without more, the allegation was not entitled to the assumption of truth, and the district court did not err in dismissing the civil theft claim.

Conversion, unlike civil theft, does not require that the convertor act with the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property. Even a good faith recipient of funds who receives them without knowledge that they belonged to another can be held liable for conversion. Here, Roseann adequately alleged that Donna’s dominion and control over the Prudential policy proceeds were unauthorized because of the separation agreement language and Donna’s refusal to return the allegedly converted funds. Roseann pleaded each element of conversion sufficiently for that claim to be plausible and withstand a request for dismissal under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5).

Similarly, the court concluded it was error to dismiss Roseann’s claim for unjust enrichment and constructive trust. In general, a person who is unjustly enriched at the expense of another is subject to liability in restitution. Here, Roseann alleged that Donna received a benefit that was promised to Roseann in the separation agreement and it would be inequitable for Donna to retain the funds. Roseann asked the court to impose a constructive trust on the assets. While this may be a difficult case in that two arguably innocent parties are asserting legal claims to the same insurance proceeds, resolution should be left to the fact finder and not resolved under a C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) motion to dismiss.

It was not clear whether the district court had dismissed the claims for failure to join a necessary party under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(6), so the court addressed this issue as well. Here, the court held that Melvin’s estate was not a necessary party because Donna has possession of the proceeds at issue, and thus complete relief can be accorded between Roseann and Donna. In addition, the life insurance proceeds were never a part of Melvin’s estate assets and therefore the estate has no interest in those proceeds. Further, this is not an action for enforcement of the separation agreement, but is essentially an action in tort. The district court erred by dismissing the case under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).

Lastly, Roseann contended that Donna is not entitled to attorney fees and costs because the court erred in granting Donna’s motion to dismiss. The court agreed.

The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions. The award of attorney fees and costs was vacated.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court had Personal Jurisdiction over Out of State Client in Legal Fee Dispute

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dorsey & Whitney LLP v. RegScan, Inc. on Thursday, February 22, 2018.

Attorney Fees—Personal Jurisdiction—Long Arm Statute—Due Process—Expert Witness—Fed. R. Evid. 703—Jury Instructions—CRE 408—Settlement Negotiations—Evidence.

RegScan, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based Internet company, reached out to and retained a specific Colorado attorney in Dorsey & Whitney LLP (the law firm) to represent it in a matter ultimately filed in Virginia. After a disagreement about the amount of fees owed, the law firm sued RegScan in Denver District Court. Judgment was ultimately entered for $373,707.43 against RegScan.

On appeal, RegScan argued that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction. It contended that its actions connecting it to Colorado did not demonstrate purposeful availment because it merely contacted a Minnesota-based firm that happened to staff the case with Colorado attorneys. A plaintiff desiring to invoke a Colorado court’s jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant must show that doing so comports with the long-arm statute and due process. Here, RegScan specifically retained an attorney in Colorado based on an existing relationship. The totality of the circumstances surrounding this retention demonstrates that RegScan’s purposeful activities directed at Colorado satisfy the minimum contacts requirement. Further, requiring RegScan to defend this case in Colorado was not unreasonable. Therefore, the district court did not err in denying RegScan’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

RegScan next contended that the court erred by allowing the law firm’s expert witness on the reasonableness of its fees to testify to the substance of information in pro forma bills (records reflecting the total number of hours worked) that the law firm didn’t offer into evidence. Fed. R. Evid. 703 allows an expert to base his opinion on facts or data that wouldn’t be admissible if such facts and data are of a type on which experts in the field would reasonably rely. But the expert may not disclose those inadmissible facts to the jury unless the court so allows after engaging in the balancing analysis required by the rule. RegScan’s argument confuses information that can’t be admitted under the evidence rules with information that simply has not been admitted. Here, RegScan failed to timely argue that the pro formas weren’t admissible. Further, the substance of the testimony was already in evidence, and RegScan did not argue that the witness’s ultimate opinion was inadmissible or wrong. Therefore, there was no violation of Fed. R. Evid. 703.

RegScan also contended that the district court erred by failing to include a fairness element in the elemental breach of contract jury instruction. Even if the court erred in omitting the element that the fee agreement was “fair and reasonable under the circumstances,” all relevant evidence in the record overwhelmingly shows that the fee agreement was fair and reasonable under the circumstances. Thus, any error was harmless.

Finally, RegScan argued that the district court erred by relying on CRE 408 to exclude email communications in which RegScan disputed the reasonableness of the law firm’s fees and didn’t admit liability. This evidence was properly excluded under CRE 408 because at the time the communications occurred the parties disputed the amount owed and were exchanging offers to resolve the dispute.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

A New Approach to Writing Facts, Part I

We are told fact sections should tell a story, as if such advice is self-executing. No one explains how to tell a story. Yes, we tell stories everyday. But when we do, they come out naturally and may not be very good. Writing a fact section is not natural and needs to be good.

Put aside storytelling. Consider a different approach: filmmaking. Think of any scene from a movie you enjoy. Let’s use TOPGUN, because as someone of intelligence and great taste you were probably thinking of it anyway. Why is the main character’s call sign Maverick? Why not Renegade or Creampuff? It’s Maverick because screenwriters chose that name. Just like a costume designer chose aviator sunglasses. And not just any aviators, dark lens aviators instead of silver lens. A set designer chose which planes and how many to have in the background. The director chose to have Tom Cruise on the left and shoot the scene from a high angle. And we are all indebted to the music director for hiring Kenny Loggins to play Danger Zone.

In every scene dozens of people made decisions. Those decisions shaped the audience’s perception and told the story. Those decisions are why Darth Vader’s cape is not yellow, why the ending of the Usual Suspects surprised you, and why you knew Scar was a villain before he killed Mufasa.

In a fact section you are the cast and crew. You control every decision. It’s empowering; you don’t need a special effects budget and there is no producer to answer to. Yet most attorneys fall short because most attorneys have no training in storytelling.

Part I of this article is Directing 101 For Attorneys. It explains what stories can do in a brief and how to create them. Part II (to debut next month) applies this advice to examples.

Rethink What Fact Sections Can Do For You

“If you let me state the facts, I will let you argue the law—and I will win.”[1]

Before you write a story you need goals: (1) Identify the facts a court needs to decide in your favor, (2) provide the relevant procedural background, (3) preempt facts that favor the other side, and (4) for appeals, discuss the lower court’s ruling. Most fact sections have these goals. Most fact sections achieve these goals. And most fact sections stink.

Why they stink is less clear. When discussing fact sections, judges often advise attorneys to give them a reason to turn the page; “it is not unconstitutional to be interesting.”[2] Fair enough. But with large caseloads and billing concerns, writing entertaining briefs for an audience paid to read briefs is not a priority for most attorneys. A more compelling reason is that these four goals do not advance your argument.

A good fact section gives context and focuses on the relevant facts so “the legal analysis and result look inevitable.”[3] “From the reader’s perspective, your legal analysis seems the only possible means of reaching a just result on the basis of the facts.”[4] The four goals above do not accomplish this. You need more. Fact sections should prime a judge to favor an argument or side. They can elicit sympathy for a character or raise questions about behavior. This is where stories come in.

How to Craft A Story

If you have not been to film school, creating stories is daunting. Below is the best explanation I have come across, which comes from Stephen Armstrong’s and Timothy Terrell’s Thinking Like a Writer.[5]

The basic elements of a story are characters, the opening situation, the closing situation, and the movement from the opening to the closing.[6] “With each [element], your job is to create inferences that point towards favorable conclusions about the nature of the acts and actors that make up the story.”[7] These inferences are powerful. The power of fact sections is that “[t]hese very different stories were created from the same facts by making different decisions about which to use and how to organize them.”[8]

Like a film crew, four choices shape these elements into a story:

  1. The Start: Where does the story begin?
  2. The End: Where does the story end?
  3. Perspective: Through whose eyes do we see the events unfold?
  4. Details: Which details do we include and where do we include them? Which details do we omit?[9]

The Start

Beginnings are critical.

Sometimes stories begin by introducing a character, the world from his or her perspective, and that character’s motives for later actions. Han Solo, James Bond, Willy Wonka, George C. Scott’s General Patton, Indiana Jones, and Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman all have memorable introductions that prime the character’s later actions. The same principles apply to legal briefs. For example, a criminal trespass case might start with the defendant desperate, starving, and shivering, or with a family returning home to find a broken window.[10]  A trade secrets case might begin with a company introducing a revolutionary product for sale only to watch its chief scientist go to a competitor that introduces a similar product six months later. But the opposing brief might start years earlier with the competitor’s research and development team, and end with the new employee coming on board during the final stages of a product set for launch.

Other times effective stories start with context, not characters. Science fiction and fantasy movies do this all the time. There is no alien in the opening to Alien. Rather we see a giant ship with a skeleton crew floating in the void of space. The introduction establishes isolation, the last place you would want to encounter an alien with acid for blood. Lord of the Rings opens with a history of alliances and conflicts between humans, elves, and orcs; it introduces the ring but most of the main living characters come later. Bring this to your brief. Although we write about the real world, often it is a foreign world. Whether it is life in a gang-controlled neighborhood, a regulatory landscape, or how an industry works, there is a unique context. Armstrong and Terrell describe the case of a corporation accused of violating environmental regulations controlling pollutants released under certain weather conditions. Most writers would lead with what happened on the day of the violation. But a stronger opening might begin by describing how difficult it is to predict the weather.[11]

In most cases a story’s start should differ between sides. Imagine a car accident. Depending on who is being blamed, the story might begin with a description of the driver and his behavior (a character-based introduction), or a description of the intersection and weather (a context-based introduction).[12]

The End

The end of a story should reinforce the point. The criminal trespass case could end with a frightened defendant hiding in the bushes and being arrested, or with an intruder running out of a home.[13]

The end may go beyond the events that led to the lawsuit. It could lay the foundation for damages. So a trade secrets plaintiff might describe the plummeting sales or number of lost customers.  A victim’s hardships, the environmental impact, or reputational damage are all ways to end. Another option is the case’s effect on the client’s industry or the legal landscape.

Perspective

Conveying a perspective has two parts: who and how.

Who. Choose whose perspective to tell the story from. Often we choose one of the classic main characters like the plaintiff, defendant, or victim. But you don’t have to. The perspective could be from someone uninvolved with the events, like an expert witness or a detective. And it could be from someone on the other side of the case. In a case pivoting on intent, a prosecutor might tell the story from the defendant’s perspective to highlight the time he had to plan his actions; a plaintiff might do the same to show the warning signs before the negligent behavior.

Or the perspective could be from no person. You might adopt the legislature’s perspective to discuss a statute’s intent, or an agency’s perspective to describe a regulatory scheme. You could use a god’s-eye-view of the world to describe context, like a corporation’s organization or how a manufacturing process works.

Also consider whether the perspective will be consistent or whether it will change. You might begin with a god’s-eye-view of the world and then shift to a person’s perspective entering this world. Or you might start with the agency’s perspective in creating a regulatory scheme and then discuss your client’s view.

How. For most of us, to tell the client’s perspective we state the facts that client knew per that client’s testimony, deposition, sworn statement, etc. It looks likes this:

John became CEO of the company in 2001. The company entered the contract in January. The contract said all material facts were disclosed. It mentioned a $1 million debt. It did not mention a pending $3 million lawsuit. But John did not know about the lawsuit.

Stating facts your client knew does not necessarily tell the story from that client’s perspective. In fact, this example has three different perspectives.

Professor George Gopen explains that most people read a sentence as the story (i.e., perspective) of the main clause’s subject.[14] So “Jack loves Jill” is Jack’s story while “Jill is loved by Jack” is Jill’s story.[15] “Keep the grammatical subjects of your sentences the same for as long as you are telling that particular story. Then, by changing whose story the next sentence is, you will (silently) convey to your reader” a shift to a new story.[16]

So sentence structure defines perception. That is why in the above example there are three perspectives: John’s, the company’s, and the contract’s.

Avoid changing perspectives unintentionally. The compulsion to vary sentence structure (courtesy of our elementary school teachers) works against us. Rest assured, there are many ways to vary sentence structure while keeping the subject of the main clauses consistent. For example, both of these sentences are the defendant’s perspective:

The defendant chose to refuse the goods, even though the plaintiff delivered them on time.

Even though the plaintiff delivered the goods on time, the defendant chose to refuse them.[17]

Details

Identify the Necessary Facts

For a fact section you must know the law. The law identifies which facts a court must consider. For precisely this reason, many suggest writing the argument section first and the fact section last.[18] Public policies and equity may inform this decision too.

One caveat. Some hold Judge Aldisert’s view that, at least in an appellate brief, any fact you use in an argument section must be in the fact section.[19] The reason is that the fact section gives a court “an objective account of what occurred before the twist of advocacy is added to the cold facts.”[20] Perhaps in a single issue brief Judge Aldisert’s positon holds true. But modern writers have modified this approach.

“Do not burden the opening statement of facts with details relevant to a specific argument that you will develop in full later. Just state the basics.”[21] If your brief raises multiple unrelated issues, having mini-fact sections near each argument is easier for readers. Think of an appellate brief that raises pretrial, trial, and post-trial issues. The reader gets to the pretrial issue fact section on page four but does not see its corresponding argument section until page eighteen. Between those sections are pages of unrelated facts. Having a pretrial issue fact section right before its argument section makes your reader’s life much easier.

Cut Irrelevant Unnecessary Facts

A universal gripe is that fact sections contain too many facts.[22] But “too many” is the wrong phrase; it is not a numbers issue. It’s an issue with misleading a reader.

Fact sections cause problems when they suggest a fact is important when it is not. Readers assume you included a fact for a reason. The longer the reader searches for that reason the more confused the reader becomes. If a reason never comes, the reader gets confused and frustrated.

Here is a good example. At a recent CLE, one judge remarked that when she reads that police executed a search warrant at a particular address, she immediately begins to think the police searched the wrong home because why else would the address be relevant. When that is not the case, she is left wondering why the lawyer told her the address.[23] For precisely the same reason, dates, times, quotations, addresses, procedural history, locations, dollar amounts, weights, quantities, and proper names of people, places, entities, and pleadings are often irrelevant.[24]

A related problem is that fact sections fail to highlight key facts. If there are nine key facts and you tack on eighty more, those nine facts do not look essential. “Cutting clutter isn’t just about saving words. It’s also about turning down the noise so the signal shines through.”[25]

Applying these guidelines, look at Judge Posner’s edits to an opinion by Judge Wald.[26]

 

 

Judge Wald’s Opinion

 

 

Judge Posner’s Edit

 

Appellant Robert Morris was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to sell, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 841(b)(1)(B)(iii), and for using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). He appeals both convictions on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support either charge. We reject both challenges and affirm the judgment below.[27] A jury convicted the defendant of possession of cocaine with intent to sell it, and of using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug offense. The judge sentenced him to 130 months in prison.[28]
On December 11, 1990, officers of the Metropolitan Police Department executed a search warrant on a one-bedroom apartment at 2525 14th Street, N.E., in the District of Columbia. Upon entering the apartment, the officers found appellant seated on a small couch in the living room; they detained him while they searched the apartment. The search produced two ziplock bags containing a total of 15.7 grams of crack cocaine divided among 100 smaller ziplock bags, $500 in cash, empty ziplock bags, razor blades, and three loaded and operable pistols. Two of the guns were under the cushions of the couch on which appellant sat; the third was in a nightstand in the bedroom. The cocaine and the cash were in an air duct vent in the ceiling of the bedroom. In the drawer of a dresser in the bedroom, the officers found two birthday cards; appellant’s name was on the envelope of one, and the other was for a “son,” signed “Mr. and Mrs. B.G. Morris” and dated November 30, 1990. No address was on either. In a hallway closet, the officers found a laundry ticket dated December 3, 1990, and bearing the name “E. Morris.” There were no identifiable fingerprints on any of these items. The officers arrested appellant, who was indicted on two counts: possession with intent to distribute in excess of five grams of cocaine base and using or carrying a firearm in relation to the possession offense.[29] Police had a warrant to search a one-bedroom apartment. Upon entering they found the defendant sitting on a small couch in the living room. The search revealed drugs, cash, and drug paraphernalia, and also three pistols—two under the cushions of the couch and the third in a nightstand in the bedroom.[30]

 

Once you identify the necessary facts and cut all the excess facts, congratulations—you now have a timeline. But not a fact section.

Add Relevant Unnecessary Facts

Conventional advice strips a fact section to only what a court needs to rule.[31] This advice goes too far.

Think of a summary judgment motion. Think of that numbered list of materially undisputed facts. That list is not a story. If you delete the numbers and group the list into paragraphs, it is still not a story. So a fact section needs more.

Great fact sections contain helpful unnecessary facts. The difference from the previous step is that these, albeit unnecessary, facts have a purpose, a purpose that furthers the story even if it does not further the legal argument.

This concept is not new. We see it in judicial opinions. “I doubt it’s a coincidence, for example, that in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark death-penalty cases in the 1970s and ’80s, the justices who voted against death sentences said nary a word about the underlying crimes, while those who upheld death sentences sometimes sounded like they were writing smut fiction.”[32]

There is another role for relevant unnecessary facts.  Some facts neutralize a tangent on the reader’s mind. For example, you might explain a rare point of law, like how although the defendant acknowledged his prior convictions when he testified trial, that testimony is inadmissible at a post-trial habitual criminal sentencing hearing to prove those convictions.[33] Without this fact, a court may be left wondering why a defendant disputes the existence of prior convictions he admitted to.

Organization

“[S]ome writers assume that, if they organize facts chronologically, they are by definition telling a story. That is a damaging mistake.”[34]

Choosing which facts to include and exclude is not enough. Equally important is where the facts fit into the story.

Begin by choosing the key facts in your story. Then choose an organization that highlights those facts. For chronologies, the key fact is the sequence of events. If the case centers on who knew what when, or who did what first, chronologies work well. But be careful because chronologies deprive you of control. “Because the writer is locked into his chronological default, however, he has no choice but to insert the key [] facts wherever the chronology permits, blurring the emphasis they deserve.”[35] They also tend to “run[] out of control and drag[] irrelevant facts along.”[36]

Other kinds of key facts do not depend on sequence. Armstrong and Terrell frame these alternatives as who, what, where, and why. Who: people and descriptions of them, their motives, or their credibility. [37]  What: a thing, like documents and what they say, who they were sent to, or how they were drafted; a manufacturing process; a person’s mental state.[38] Where: a location, the conditions of an area; the weather. Why: an explanation or motive like alcohol, jealousy, greed, wet roads.[39]

These facts are best highlighted without a chronology. Just because an organization is not a chronology does not mean it is told backwards or out of order. It just means sequence and timing do not control the story. Such stories might have timeless sections that discuss context, like a corporate structure or the ecology of a marsh polluted by an oil spill.[40] They might have lengthy explanations about people, companies, or contracts before moving on to an event. Or they might explain the story out of order; they might begin at the end and then explain what led up to that event. They might switch back and forth between an event and the past (like The Godfather Part 2).

Conclusion

Fact sections are the most underused part of briefs. If you do not tell a story and if you do not tell the right story, your brief is weak. Elevate your fact section and you will elevate your brief.

Channel your inner filmmaker to craft the story that advances your argument and sets you up for success. The next time you read a brief, think about whether the fact section helps the argument. Analyze it from the director’s chair: where does the story start, where does it end, who is telling the story, which details does it include and omit, and how it is organized.


[1] George Gopen, “Controlling the Reader’s Perception of Your Client’s Story,” 38 Litigation 4, at 18 (Summer/Fall 2012), available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_5_palsgraffian_perspectives.pdf (attributing quotation to Clarence Darrow without citation).

[2] Ruggero J. Aldisert, Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Argument 168 (National Institute of Trial Advocacy 2d ed. 2003).

[3] Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 111 (Practicing Law Institute 3d ed. 2009).

[4] Id.

[5] See also Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, “Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections,” 32 Rutgers L. Rev. 459 (2001).

[6] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3. at 299. See also Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 168 (stories have characters, conflict, resolution, organization, a point of view, and a setting).

[7] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3. at 299.

[8] Id. at. 299.

[9] Id. at 300.

[10] See id. at 298; 300.

[11] Id. at 300.

[12] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 113-14.

[13] Id. at. 300 (“notice how the impact of the arrest differs dramatically then it comes at the end rather than the beginning. If the rest of the story has been carefully constructed, the arrest seems cruel and unjust, not a presumption to be overcome.”).

[14] George Gopen, Whose Story is This Sentence? Directing Readers’ Perceptions of Narrative, 38 Litigation 3, Spring 2012 at 17-18,

available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_4_whose_story.pdf.

[15] George Gopen, “Controlling the Reader’s Perception of Your Client’s Story,” 38 Litigation 4, at 18, (Summer/Fall 2012), available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_5_palsgraffian_perspectives.pdf.

[16] Id. at 19.

[17] Gopen, supra n. 14 at 17-18.

[18] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 297 (“To write a persuasive story, you have to think carefully about the framework of plot and character around which the facts will cohere.”). See also id. at 354 (“Present facts with an eye towards the law” by stating only the facts you need, addressing material facts harmful to your argument, and avoiding argumentative characterizations of the facts).

[19] Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 169-70.

[20] Id. at 169.

[21] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 354.

[22] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 297 (“The fact section of the brief or memorandum of law becomes an agglomeration of data that is not just unpersuasive, but downright painful to read.”).

[23] Elizabeth Harris, Judge, Colorado Court of Appeals, Presentation at Appellate Practice Update 2017 (CLE in Colo., Inc. Nov. 29, 2017).

[24] Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 44-57 (Oxford University Press 2015) (applying this advice to judicial opinion writing); Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/five-resolutions-litigators/.

[25] Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 51 (Oxford University Press 2015) (applying this advice to judicial opinion writing). See also Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 301-03 (showing how too much detail prevents key facts from getting the attention they disserve).

[26] These examples come from Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[27] United States v. Morris, 977 F.2d 617, 618 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

[28] Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[29] Morris, 977 F.2d at 619.

[30] Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[31] See also Guberman, supra n. 25 at 56; 77 (“if your legal analysis does not turn on one of these details, consider purging them from your fact or background statement . . . .”) (applying advice to judicial opinion writing).

[32] Id. at 60.

[33] C.R.S. § 18-1.3-803(5)(b) (2017).

[34] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 120. But see Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 169-70 (recommending always explaining facts chronologically). The dangers of default organizations applies to other sections of brief writing too. In fact, Armstrong and Terrell have a chapter titled “The Dangers of Default Organizations” discussing common defaults like tracking the history of your research and thinking, or tracking your opponent’s organization. Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 87-110.

[35] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 113.

[36] Id. at 111. “[T]he writer usually seizes onto chronology as a drowning person onto a life preserver. But a chronology is not a story. Nor can you turn it into one by ‘spinning’ or characterizing the facts, or by adding a few more heart-wrenching details.” Id. at 297.

[37] See id.

[38] See id.

[39] See id.

[40] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 111-12.

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Colorado Court of Appeals: When Liability Based on Respondeat Superior, Settlement with Agent is Setoff Against Jury Verdict for Principal

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Marso v. Homeowners Realty on Thursday, February 8, 2018.

Respondeat Superior—Agent—Amendment of Answer—Affirmative Defense—Setoff—Settlement—Statutory Prejudgment Interest.

Dilbeck was employed by or associated with Homeowners Realty, Inc., d/b/a/ Coldwell Banker Home Owners Realty, Inc. (Coldwell) and acted as the Marsos’ agent in their purchase of a house. Two years after the purchase, the Marsos discovered that uranium tailings had been used as fill material, creating a potential health hazard. The Marsos filed a complaint against Dilbeck and Coldwell alleging negligence against Dilbeck and respondeat superior liability against Coldwell. Before the scheduled trial date, the Marsos settled with Dilbeck for $150,000, inclusive of interest. The jury was instructed to determine the total amount of damages sustained by the Marsos and was not informed of the amount of the settlement with Dilbeck. The jury returned a verdict of $120,000 against Coldwell. In post-trial proceedings, the trial court set off the settlement payment of $150,000 against the $120,000 jury verdict, resulting in a zero recovery for the Marsos. Because the settlement payment exceeded the jury verdict, the court entered judgment in favor of Coldwell and later entered a cost award against the Marsos of approximately $30,000.

On appeal, the Marsos contended that the court abused its discretion in allowing Coldwell to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense of setoff over the Marsos’ timeliness objection. Because Coldwell did not obtain the settlement agreement until shortly before trial and the Marsos had no right to rely on the absence of a setoff, the amendment did not result in legal prejudice to the Marsos. Under these circumstances, the court did not abuse its discretion in allowing Coldwell to pursue its setoff defense.

The Marsos next argued that the trial court erred when it set off the settlement payment against the jury verdict. When a party’s liability is based entirely on respondeat superior, a settlement with the agent is setoff against the jury verdict entered against the principal. Therefore, the trial court did not err in this regard.

The Marsos also contended that the trial court erred when it set off the settlement payment before statutory prejudgment interest accrued on the jury verdict. Statutory prejudgment interest accrues on the jury verdict before the setoff. Here, the court must calculate the interest that accrued on the jury’s verdict from the date of the Marsos’ injury to the date of Dilbeck’s settlement payment and add it to the jury verdict

The judgment and cost award in Coldwell’s favor was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Nonparty at Fault Statute Does Not Preclude Evidence of Subsequent Providers’ Negligence

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Danko v. Conyers, M.D. on Thursday, February 8, 2018.

Torts—Medical Malpractice—Evidence—Pro Rata Liability—Non-Party Fault—Costs.

Dr. Conyers performed carpal tunnel surgery on Danko. He did not order a post-operative biopsy to detect possible infection and ultimately released Danko from further care. Danko sought a second opinion from Dr. Scott, who performed a minor procedure on Danko’s wrist and later diagnosed her with an infection. Subsequently, Danko saw Dr. Savelli, who recommended a regimen of antibiotics and periodic surgical debridement of infected tissue. Two weeks later, Danko consulted Dr. Lindeque, who amputated Danko’s forearm. Danko filed a complaint alleging that Dr. Conyers negligently failed to detect an infection resulting from the surgery, which led to amputation of her forearm. The jury found Dr. Conyers liable and awarded damages of $1.5 million.

On appeal, Dr. Conyers challenged the trial court’s exclusion of his evidence that physicians who treated Danko after the surgery were at fault for the amputation. Dr. Conyers did not seek to apportion fault between himself and the other providers. Instead, he sought to admit evidence of their negligence as a superseding cause of Danko’s amputation. Such evidence is admissible under C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5 (the nonparty at fault statute) even if a nonparty at fault has not been designated. Thus, the part of the trial court’s ruling excluding evidence that was based on C.R.S. § 13-21-111.5(b)(3) was incorrect. But the trial court also based its ruling on Restatement (Second) of Torts § 457, which provides an exception to the liability of initial physicians for harm from subsequent physicians’ extraordinary misconduct, a superseding cause. Here, the trial court acted within its discretion in excluding evidence of the other providers’ fault, under both Restatement § 457 and CRE 403, because Dr. Conyers had not presented evidence sufficient to invoke the extraordinary misconduct exception. Further, the trial court did not err in instructing the jury consistent with this ruling.

On cross-appeal, Danko challenged the trial court’s denial of certain costs, including jury consulting expenses. Danko made a settlement offer under C.R.S. § 13-17-202(1)(a)(I), which Dr. Conyers did not accept. The verdict exceeded the amount of the offer. A party may recover jury consulting expenses when that party made a statutory settlement offer that was rejected, and did better than the offer at trial. Here, the trial court improperly denied costs for jury consulting and related travel expenses.

The judgment was affirmed. The costs award was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded to increase Danko’s costs award.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Petitioners’ Tort Claims for Airborne Asbestos Injuries Not Barred by Colorado Governmental Immunity Act

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Smokebrush Foundation v. City of Colorado Springs on Monday, February 5, 2018.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Sovereign Immunity.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the Colorado Court of Appeals division’s conclusion that petitioners’ claims against respondent city were barred under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). Petitioners asserted a number of tort claims for alleged injuries resulting from airborne asbestos released during demolition activities on the city’s property in 2013 and from the subsurface migration of coal tar pollutants created by historical coal gasification operations on the city’s property. The division concluded that each of these claims was barred under the CGIA.

The supreme court first addressed whether petitioners’ asbestos-related claims fell within the waiver of immunity set forth in C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(c) for injuries resulting from the dangerous condition of a public building. The CGIA defines a “dangerous condition,” in pertinent part, as a physical condition of a facility or the use thereof that constitutes an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the public and that is proximately caused by the negligent act or omission of the public entity in “constructing or maintaining” such facility. C.R.S. § 24-10-103(1.3). Because the complete and permanent demolition of a building does not come within the plain meaning of the terms “constructing” or “maintaining” a facility, the court concluded that the dangerous condition of a public building exception does not apply.

Next, the court addressed whether petitioners’ coal tar-related claims fell within the waiver of immunity set forth in C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f) for injuries resulting from the operation and maintenance of a public gas facility when, as here, petitioners’ cause of action accrued after the CGIA’s enactment but the operation and maintenance of the facility that caused the injury occurred before that enactment. Because petitioners have established that (1) the facility at issue was a public gas facility, (2) petitioners’ claimed injuries from the coal tar contamination resulted from the operation and maintenance of that facility, and (3) petitioners’ coal tar-related claims accrued after the CGIA’s enactment, the court concluded that under the plain language of C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f), the city waived its immunity for these claims.

Accordingly, court affirmed the portion of the division’s judgment requiring the dismissal of petitioners’ asbestos-related claims but reversed the portion of the judgment requiring the dismissal of petitioners’ coal tar-related claims.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Written Rejection of Enhanced UM/UIM Coverage Not Required

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Airth v. Zurich American Insurance Co. on Thursday, January 25, 2018.

Motor Vehicle Insurance—Uninsured/Underinsured—Summary Judgment.

Airth was seriously injured in an accident while operating a semi truck owned by his employer, Sole Transport LLC, d/b/a Solar Transport Company (Solar). He was struck by a negligent, uninsured driver. Solar had uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) insurance coverage of $50,000 for its employees through a policy issued by Zurich American Insurance Co. Airth brought a claim for declaratory relief, seeking to reform Solar’s policy to provide UM/UIM coverage of $1 million. He alleged he was entitled to the higher amount because Zurich had failed, as required by C.R.S. § 10-4-609, to (1) offer Solar UM/UIM coverage in an amount equal to its bodily injury liability coverage ($1 million), and (2) produce a written rejection by Solar of such an offer. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court entered judgment for Zurich ruling, as a matter of law, that (1) Zurich’s documents adequately offered Solar UM/UIM coverage in an amount equal to the bodily injury liability limits of the policy, and (2) there is no requirement that the rejection of UM/UIM limits in an amount equal to liability limits be in writing.

On appeal, Airth contended that both of the district court’s rulings were incorrect and the court therefore erred in granting Zurich’s summary judgment motion and denying Airth’s cross-motion. C.R.S. § 10-4-609(1)(a) prohibits an insurer from issuing an automobile liability policy unless a minimum amount of UM/UIM coverage is included in the policy, except where the named insured rejects UM/UIM coverage in writing. C.R.S. § 10-4-609(2) requires an insurer, before a policy is issued or renewed, to offer the insured the right to obtain UM/UIM coverage in an amount equal to the insured’s bodily injury liability limits. The facts here were undisputed. Before renewing Solar’s policy, Zurich sent a package of documents pertaining to Solar’s rights related to UM/UIM coverage and Solar’s counsel affirmed that he had read all the documents. This included an opportunity to reject UM/UIM coverage or to select a higher than minimum level of UM/UIM coverage. Airth argued that none of this constituted an “offer” of the ability to obtain higher UM/UIM coverage, because the documents did not contain a premium quote or a way to estimate the premium for purchasing UM/UIM coverage commensurate with a bodily injury liability limit of $1 million. The Colorado Court of Appeals agreed that this would be the case if it were applying the meaning of the term “offer” as used in contract law. But the Colorado Supreme Court has attributed a different meaning to “offer” as it is used in C.R.S. § 10-4-609; the dispositive question is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the insured was adequately informed that higher UM/UIM coverage was available. Here, that standard was met by the documents Zurich provided to Solar.

Airth also argued that Zurich was not entitled to summary judgment because there was no evidence that anyone from Solar read or understood the document. This argument overlooks that attestation of Solar’s counsel.

Airth further argued that reversal is required because the documents were signed and dated a month after the policy went into effect. The operative question is whether the insurer gave the insured the opportunity to purchase statutorily-compliant coverage before the insured needed it. The record reflects that Solar had received and responded to the notification and offer before the accident that injured Airth.

Airth also contended that the district court erred in determining that the statute only requires a written rejection with respect to the minimum UM/UIM coverage available and not to the additional coverage available. The court agreed with the district court’s conclusion that a written rejection is required only if the insured declines the minimum amount of UM/UIM coverage, which was not the case here.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Nursing Home Liable for Abuse to Resident

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Racher v. Westlake Nursing Home Limited Partnership on Thursday, September 28, 2017.

Mrs. Mayberry was abused by two certified nursing assistants while in Quail Creek Nursing Home, which is owned by Westlake. This case was filed against Westlake under Oklahoma law for negligence, negligence per se, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At trial, the jury found for plaintiffs, Westlake appeals.

The two nursing assistants involved, Kaseke and Gakunga, worked at Quail Creek and were Mayberry’s caretakers. Both assistants had numerous write-ups in their personnel files for infractions and refusal to complete assigned duties, including sleeping on the job, which was grounds for immediate termination; however, neither were terminated for that infraction.

One of Mayberry’s daughters testified that the family began to notice bruising on Mayberry’s hands and arms soon after moving Mayberry to Quail Creek. These concerns went unexplained by Quail Creek. Although it was difficult for Mayberry to communicate due to dementia, Mayberry began to cry out to the family for help and that someone was hurting her mouth. To monitor Mayberry, the family placed a hidden camera in her room. The videos show Gakunga slapping Mayberry, forcibly stuffing Mayberry’s mouth with wadded up gloves, and performing compressions on Mayberry’s chest to force her to empty her bladder. Kaseke is seen watching this take place. Both assistants are seen roughly lifting Mayberry from her wheelchair and pushing her to lay down. Mayberry’s family brought the videos to Quail Creek’s attention. Both assistants were arrested. Mayberry died three months after the abuse was discovered.

Plaintiffs brought suit against Quail Creek due to the abuse that occurred and was perpetrated by Quail Creek employees, and on the grounds that Quail Creek is directly negligent in failing to investigate and report the incidents of abuse. At trial, the jury found that Westlake, the owner of Quail Creek, was liable on theories of negligence and negligence per se, that Westlake acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others, and that plaintiffs were entitled to compensatory damages in the sum of $1.2 million.

Westlake raised four issues on appeal: (1) whether the district court erred by failing to reduce compensatory damages to the statutory cap of $350,000; (2) whether the district court erred by failing to reduce the allegedly excessive compensatory damage award of $1.2 million or, in the alternative, to grant a new trial; (3) whether the district court erred by allowing allegedly improper closing argument regarding punitive damages during the first phase of the trial; and (4) whether the district court erred by admitting evidence of an unrelated incident subject to a limiting instruction.

As for the first issue, Oklahoma law caps noneconomic damages at $350,000 unless special findings are made. The district court concluded that the requirements for lifting the cap were satisfied in this case. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court decision. Because Westlake failed to raise the statutory damage cap at any point before the trial was completed, the Tenth Circuit held that Westlake waived the defense.

Next, Westlake argued that the compensatory damages awarded by the jury were excessive and that the district court erred by declining to either reduce the award or grant a new trial. The district court denied this motion because it concluded that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the jury’s award. Oklahoma recognizes a broad jury discretion in determining the amount of damages to award. The Tenth Circuit considered the entire trial record and viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs in concluding that the damages awarded were not excessive. The Circuit found that the jury could have reasonably concluded that Mayberry was abused on a daily basis and that the abuse caused emotional distress that was significant enough to have contributed to her death.

Westlake then argued that the district court erred by allowing counsel for plaintiffs to make arguments that invited an award based on consideration of deterrent and punitive rather than compensatory factors. Although the Tenth Circuit agreed that portions of the argument were improper at the time they were presented, Westlake failed to show that the argument led the jury to return a verdict based on passion or prejudice rather than the evidence presented at trial. The Tenth Circuit noted that not all errors require reversal. In this case, the Circuit found that the jury was not prejudiced by the poorly timed statements regarding the award of punitive damages. The jury was clearly instructed as to the correct procedure and the size of the awards, when considered in the context of the evidence presented at trial. The Tenth Circuit declined to warrant a new trial based on these circumstances.

Lastly, Westlake argued that the district court erred by admitting evidence of another incident subject to a limiting instruction. Prior to trial, Westlake had filed to exclude any evidence that Kaseke caused any physical or mental harm to any residents at Quail Creek on April 4th. This evidence at issue included two more instances of abuse, where two nursing students testified that Gakunga struck Mayberry on the forehead and put her into a cold shower, and Kaseke sprayed an unnamed resident in the face with cold water so violently that the resident’s dentures fell out. The district court denied Westlake’s motion because the evidence would be relevant, not unfairly prejudicial, and admissible if the abuse in Mayberrry’s case occurred after April 4th. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court because there was a limiting instruction given to the jury that properly allowed the jury to consider the incidents only if they took place before the alleged abuse of Mayberry.

The Tenth Circuit AFFIRMED the district court’s judgment.

Colorado Supreme Court: Complaint Against Planned Parenthood Failed to State a Claim

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Norton v. Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood, Inc. on Monday, January 22, 2018.

Constitutional Law—Colo. Const. Art. V, § 50—Motion to Dismiss.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether petitioner’s complaint alleged a violation of article V, section 50 of the Colorado Constitution sufficient to overcome a motion to dismiss. The court held that to state a claim for relief under section 50, a complaint must allege that the state made a payment to a person or entity—whether directly to that person or entity, or indirectly through an intermediary—for the purpose of compensating them for performing an abortion and that such an abortion was actually performed. Because petitioner’s complaint did not allege that the state made such a payment, the complaint failed to state a claim for relief under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5). Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

CJD 05-03 Amended Regarding Management Plan for Court Reporting and Recording

On Friday, January 19, 2018, the Colorado Supreme Court amended Chief Justice Directive 05-03, “Management Plan for Court Reporting and Recording Services.” This CJD was amended to reflect recent changes to C.A.R. 10 and 11, effective for appeals filed on or after January 1, 2018. The full text of the CJD is available here. For all of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Directives, click here.