July 23, 2019

Archives for June 29, 2015

Colorado Supreme Court: Announcement Sheet, 6/29/2015

On Monday, June 29, 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court issued eight published opinions.

Stackhouse v. People

People v. Hassen

Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District

St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club, L.L.C.

San Antonio, Los Pinos and Conejos River Acequia Preservation Association v. Special Improvement District No. 1

People v. Elmarr

People v. Wilson

People v. Rodriguez

Summaries of these cases are forthcoming, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions.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

Tenth Circuit: Conviction Stands Despite Jury’s Lack of Instruction on “Discharge” of Firearm

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Mann on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Clay Mann threw a firework into a neighbor’s bonfire at the neighbor’s peaceful gathering on an Indian reservation, and when members of the gathering approached the fenceline to confront Mann, he shot nine times, killing one man and grievously wounding one other man and the neighbor. For these acts, he was indicted on eight counts by a federal grand jury. Two weeks after the jury’s verdict, Mann filed a “motion to arrest judgment” based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), arguing that his conviction on Count 5 (a firearms offense based on the assault of the neighbor under § 924(c)) must be vacated because the jury did not find “discharge” of a firearm beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court conducted a plain error inquiry and determined it had erred by failing to instruct the jury on the element of discharging the firearm and the error was plain. The district court, however, found the error had not prejudiced Mann, because he had never contested that he fired shots. The district court sentenced Mann to three concurrent 51 month sentences for the involuntary manslaughter and two assault convictions, and a consecutive 120 month sentence for the § 924(c) conviction regarding the assault of the neighbor. Mann appealed.

The Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review. Mann argued on appeal that the district court constructively amended count 5 of his indictment by not instructing the jury that, to convict, it needed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly discharged his firearm in relation to the assault. Finding that the district court properly instructed the jury on the elements of a § 924(c) violation, the Tenth Circuit could discern no error, much less plain error. The Tenth Circuit found that the Alleyne error (failure to instruct the jury that it must find discharge beyond a reasonable doubt) did not qualify Mann for any relief in light of the overwhelming evidence that he discharged a firearm several times during the assault, including Mann’s own FBI interview in which he admitted discharging the firearm. Any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of this evidence.

The Tenth Circuit likewise concluded Mann could not use the error from the Alleyne analysis on his constructive amendment claim, since he was not required to show constructive amendment for his Alleyne claim. Although the government endorsed Mann’s “shortcut,” the Tenth Circuit did not. Turning to the merits of Mann’s argument, the Tenth Circuit noted the case law on which he relied for his claim of error had been rejected by the Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit, relying on good case law, found that Mann failed to show any error and rejected his constructive amendment claim.

The district court’s conviction was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Insurer Who Failed to Reserve Rights Responsible for Default Judgment

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Cornhusker Casualty Co. v. Skaj on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Vincent Rosty, an employee of R&R Roofing, Inc., drove a company dump truck to the home of Shari Skaj, his ex, to drop off roofing supplies and see if his kids were there. At some point after Vincent stopped in an alley behind the Skaj residence, the truck was accidentally knocked into second gear and rolled forward, pinning Ms. Skaj against a parked motor home and causing serious injuries. A lab test performed later in the day confirmed the presence of marijuana and methamphetamine in Vincent’s bloodstream.

Cornhusker Casualty provided commercial liability insurance to R&R at the time of the accident, and R&R and Randy Rosty (0wner of R&R, along with Steven Rosty) were the named insureds. Within days of the accident, Cornhusker hired AmeriClaim adjuster Charles Brando to investigate the incident. Brando’s report noted that Vincent had driven off-route on personal business despite an unwritten company policy prohibiting personal use of company vehicles.

After receiving notice of Ms. Skaj’s forthcoming claim, Cornhusker wrote to R&R, Steven Rosty, and Vincent to notify them of potential excess liability exposure and to inform them of the right to retain independent counsel. Cornhusker specifically stated it would continue to defend the claim. The Skajs filed suit in Wyoming county court, asserting several claims based on negligence and requesting punitive damages since Vincent was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Cornhusker’s counsel filed an answer to the complaint as to Steven and R&R only, asserting she did not represent Vincent. Cornhusker determined Vincent was not entitled to a defense. However, Cornhusker did not attempt to inform Vincent it was no longer defending him. Default issued against Vincent, the non-defaulting defendants were dismissed, and eventually the Wyoming trial court set a default judgment hearing. Cornhusker hired separate representation for Vincent for that hearing, who opposed the default judgment, and after the hearing default entered against Vincent for $897,344.24.

One week after the default judgment hearing, Cornhusker sent Vincent a letter purporting to deny coverage for the first time. In support of its coverage denial, Cornhusker stated Vincent was not a permissive user of the truck, was not acting within the course and scope of his employment with R&R, was intoxicated, and had misappropriated roofing materials from R&R, also stating he had not cooperated with Cornhusker during the Skajs’ lawsuit. Shortly after, Cornhusker sent another letter to Vincent, characterizing its representation of him at the default judgment hearing as “pursuant to a reservation of rights” and for the limited purpose of having the default set aside. Meanwhile, Vincent’s counsel appealed the default, and eventually the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed the judgment except insofar as it awarded punitive damages. Cornhusker refused to pay, maintaining Vincent was not covered by the policy.

Cornhusker filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, seeking a declaration that the policy did not provide coverage for Vincent because he was not an insured and had not cooperated in the investigation. Vincent counterclaimed against Cornhusker, asserting theories of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, promissory estoppel, and breach of contract. The Skajs also counterclaimed, seeking a declaration that Cornhusker was required to pay the judgment in the underlying action and seeking attorney fees based on Cornhusker’s refusal to pay. Vincent and the Skajs jointly counterclaimed that Cornhusker should be estopped from asserting the defense of noncoverage because of its unconditional defense of Vincent in the underlying action. All parties filed motions for summary judgment. After a hearing, the district court declared Cornhusker was estopped from denying coverage to Vincent because it represented it would provide a defense, never reserved its rights, and did not advise Vincent of its decision to deny coverage until more than 16 months after entry of default. The court granted summary judgment to Cornhusker on Vincent’s various claims and denied the Skajs’ motion for attorney fees. The district court ordered Cornhusker to pay the full amount of the default judgment. Cornhusker appealed the district court’s finding of estoppel. The Skajs cross-appealed the court’s denial of their attorney fees. Vincent also appealed, seeking reversal on his bad faith and punitive damages claims.

After quickly dismissing Cornhusker’s standing argument, the Tenth Circuit evaluated the estoppel claim. Prior circuit precedent established estoppel where an insurer defended a claim without reserving its rights. Although the question had not been reached in Wyoming, the Tenth Circuit construed Wyoming law and determined the insurer must accept the consequences of its decision to assume full control of the litigation without a reservation of rights, because the insured was induced to relinquish control of the defense. In this case, Cornhusker never explicitly reserved its rights as to Vincent. Even Vincent’s counsel “found it odd” that Cornhusker would take the approach of providing a full defense to Vincent without a reservation of rights, but the Tenth Circuit found that since that was the path Cornhusker chose, it should face the consequences of its action and pay the judgment. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s order for Cornhusker to pay the default judgment.

Next, the Tenth Circuit considered Vincent’s bad faith and punitive damages claims. Vincent characterized the bad faith as Cornhusker’s retention of counsel who refused to defend him and allowed entry of default against him. However, the Tenth Circuit found neither substantive nor procedural bad faith in Cornhusker’s conduct. Because Cornhusker had a reasonable basis for its denial, there was no substantive bad faith. And, because Cornhusker did not fail to investigate the claim, there was no procedural bad faith, and certainly not enough to satisfy Wyoming’s “high bar” for conduct constituting procedural bad faith. The Tenth Circuit similarly disposed of the punitive damages claim since it was based on the same conduct as the bad faith claim. Finding that punitive damages are only to be awarded for conduct so egregious it is nearly criminal, the Tenth Circuit could discern no such conduct here.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to the Skajs’ counterclaim for attorney fees. The district court had determined that Wyoming’s “unreasonable or without cause” standard for refusal to pay losses covered by insurance was so similar to the standard for bad faith that the same analysis applied. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s finding and affirmed its denial of attorney fees. Although the Skajs sought to introduce supplemental material to the Tenth Circuit to bolster their attorney fee claim, the Tenth Circuit denied the motion, finding the Skajs could have introduced the evidence in district court but failed to do so. Likewise, Cornhusker’s motion to seal the Skajs’ supplemental index was denied as moot.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court in full, denied the Skajs’ motion to file a supplemental index, and denied as moot Cornhusker’s motion to seal the supplemental index.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 6/29/2015

On Monday, June 29, 2015, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two published opinions and six unpublished opinions.

Maestas v. Colvin

United States v. Bergman

United States v. Madkins

United States v. Vazquez

United States v. Beckstrom

Love v. Raemisch

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.

Tenth Circuit: Totality of Circumstances Provides Reasonable Suspicion for Extended Traffic Stop

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Pettit on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.

Michael Pettit was pulled over in Utah after crossing a highway’s fog line multiple times. During the traffic stop, Pettit seemed excessively nervous, produced a suspended Missouri driver’s license after passing over a California license, and reported unusual travel plans to the trooper. The trooper asked permission to search the trunk of the car, which Pettit granted, and conducted a cursory pat-down search of the luggage, finding nothing. The trooper checked Pettit’s licenses, discovered they were both suspended, and completed the citation paperwork, but instead of returning the citation and license to Pettit, the trooper decided to question him further. He requested consent to search the entire car, which Pettit granted, and soon a drug-sniffing dog arrived and alerted to the presence of drugs. Over 2.5 kilograms of cocaine was found hidden in a spare tire in the trunk. Pettit was indicted on one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was found guilty by a jury. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment followed by eight years’ supervised release. He appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence uncovered after the trooper completed the citation.

Pettit contended the trooper unlawfully extended the traffic stop based on “hunches and unjustified generalizations.” The parties agree that the initial traffic stop was lawful since Pettit crossed the fog line multiple times, and they agree that the initial stop ended when the trooper returned with the completed citation. However, since the trooper did not return Pettit’s license and registration at that time, the encounter did not become consensual. The parties disagree about whether there was reasonable suspicion justifying the continuation of the traffic stop at that time. The Tenth Circuit evaluated each factor supporting reasonable suspicion separately and in aggregate.

Pettit first argued his nervousness could not form the basis for reasonable suspicion. However, the Tenth Circuit examined the record and found that the trooper testified with particularity about the excessive nature of Pettit’s nervousness, including that his lower body would not stop shaking, Pettit said twice within 25 seconds that the officer was making him nervous, and his hand was shaking as he gave the trooper his license. The Tenth Circuit next addressed Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Although travel plans in themselves may not necessarily form the basis for reasonable suspicion, the court found that prior to the citation’s completion, the trooper had discovered Pettit was driving cross-country in a vehicle registered to an absent third party, which is consistent with drug trafficking. Next, Pettit argued that the two suspended licenses could not have given rise to reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the licenses alone could have contributed to the formation of an objectively reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, and could also have heightened the officer’s suspicion about Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Finally, Pettit argued that the officer’s initial fruitless search militated against a finding of reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the search was only cursory and occurred before much of the officer’s questioning.

Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s denial of Pettit’s motion to suppress, and found the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 6/26/2015

On Friday, June 26, 2015, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued four published opinions and three unpublished opinions.

Teufel v. Department of the Army

United States v. Funez

United States v. Miller

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.