October 18, 2018

Colorado Supreme Court: Tort Cannot Be Transaction Giving Rise to Obligation to Pay Money, Therefore Not Debt Per Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ybarra v. Greenberg & Sada, P.C. on Monday, October 15, 2018.

Finance, Banking, and Credit—Insurance—Statutory Interpretation—Torts.

Ybarra petitioned for review of the court of appeals’ judgment affirming the dismissal of her Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act action against Greenberg & Sada, P.C. The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim, finding that damages arising from a subrogated tort claim do not qualify as a debt within the contemplation of the Act. The court of appeals agreed, reasoning that the undefined term “transaction” in the Act’s definition of “debt,” required some kind of business dealing, as distinguished from the commission of a tort; and to the extent an insurance contract providing for the subrogation of the rights of an insured constitutes a transaction in and of itself, that transaction is not one obligating the debtor to pay money, as required by the Act.

The supreme court held that because a tort does not obligate the tortfeasor to pay damages, a tort cannot be a transaction giving rise to an obligation to pay money, and is therefore not a debt within contemplation of the Act; and because an insurance contract providing for the subrogation of the rights of a damaged insured is not a transaction giving rise to an obligation of the tortfeasor to pay money, it also cannot constitute a transaction creating a debt within contemplation of the Act.

Accordingly, the court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Phrase “Arising Under” in Arbitration Clause Should Be Interpreted Broadly

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Digital Landscape Inc. v. Media Kings LLC on Thursday, September 20, 2018.

Arbitration Clause “Arising Under”Broad DefinitionAttorney Fees.

Media Kings LLC (Media) entered into a contract to provide marketing services to Transcendent Marketing, LLC (Transcendent). Media then contracted with Digital Landscape Inc. (Digital) to provide advertising services to Transcendent. The contract between Media and Digital had an arbitration clause providing that any disputes arising under the agreement would be resolved by binding arbitration. Per the contract, Media agreed to pay Digital a portion of its earnings from Transcendent in exchange for Digital’s work on the project. Media failed to pay Digital, and Transcendent proposed that Digital take over the project. Digital’s principal officer agreed, but had one of his other companies take over the work. Thus, Media was effectively cut out of its agreement with Transcendent.

Digital sued Media for breach of contract, and as relevant here, Media filed a counterclaim alleging that Digital had breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The district court ordered the parties to arbitrate the dispute. The arbitrator awarded Digital $68,197.41. While discussing the counterclaim, the arbitrator also referred to it as addressing a breach of Digital’s duty of loyalty to Media. The arbitrator decided that Digital still owed a duty of loyalty to Media that it had breached, and she awarded Media damages on the counterclaim. Lastly, finding that there was no prevailing party, she declined to award either party attorney fees. The district court confirmed the order.

On appeal, Digital contended that the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction to consider whether Digital had breached a duty of loyalty to Media because this claim did not “arise under” the arbitration clause. The court of appeals analyzed the phrase “arising under” and concluded that it was sufficiently broad to include the duty-of-loyalty counterclaim. Further, the arbitration clause was unrestricted.

Digital further contended that the arbitrator improperly converted the counterclaim alleging breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to a different one, breach of loyalty, which Media had not raised. It alleged that the ruling on this different claim was unfair and the award to Media was therefore void. The court found as an initial matter that the arbitrator did not intend to rule on a facially different counterclaim. But even assuming that she had, the different claim was within the issues that the parties had agreed to submit. The arbitrator did not exceed her powers because the substituted counterclaim “arose under” the contract between Digital and Media. Further, the evidence and arguments were encompassed in the breach-of-the-duty-of-good-faith-and-fair-dealing claim. The district court did not err when it confirmed the arbitrator’s award.

Finally, Digital argued that the arbitrator exceeded her authority by refusing to award attorney fees because neither party had prevailed. The court concluded there was clearly no prevailing party, so the arbitrator did not have to award attorney fees.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Whole Person Impairment Rating Relevant in Non-Workers’ Comp Personal Injury Case

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Herrera v. Lerma on Thursday, September 20, 2018.

Subsequent Accident Jury InstructionPersonal InjuryNegligenceEvidence RelevancyVoir Dire.

Defendant’s truck hit plaintiff’s car from behind as she slowed for traffic. A week later plaintiff was diagnosed with neck strain. The following year, plaintiff was involved in a second car accident in which she hit a car from behind. She testified that the second accident did not injure her.

A year later, plaintiff sought additional medical treatment for her neck and lower back. She sued defendant for negligence, claiming damages of $38,356.46. She was awarded $1,980.81 by a jury in economic damages and zero on her claims of physical impairment and noneconomic damages.

On appeal, plaintiff argued it was error to instruct the jury to consider whether the second accident worsened any injuries, damages, or losses caused by the first accident because defendant hadn’t presented any evidence supporting such an instruction. Here, neither party presented evidence that plaintiff suffered any injury or aggravation of an existing injury because of the second accident, so the evidence was insufficient to justify instructing the jury about the second accident and the trial court abused its discretion. Further, but for the trial court’s improper instruction, the jury might have reached a different verdict.

Plaintiff also argued that the trial court erred by excluding her expert’s testimony about her 15% permanent whole body impairment rating. Before trial, defendant requested that the court exclude testimony about plaintiff’s impairment rating. While it allowed testimony that plaintiff suffered an impairment, the court excluded testimony about the impairment rating as irrelevant under CRE 401 and prejudicial under CRE 403. The court of appeals could not discern any reason that the percentage rating of the impairment would not be relevant, and found reasons why it would be relevant. The court similarly found no support for the trial court’s belief that such testimony would be unfairly prejudicial, confusing, or misleading. The trial court abused its discretion by excluding the testimony.

Plaintiff finally contended that it was error for the trial court to prevent her counsel from asking prospective jurors during voir dire whether they had an interest in defendant’s insurance carrier. Counsel was entitled to ask the insurance question during voir dire to determine the biases and prejudices of the prospective jurors, so the trial court abused its discretion.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Dead Man’s Statute Now Applies in “All Civil Actions”

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Estate of Brookoff v. Clark on Monday, September 24, 2018.

Statutory Interpretation—Dead Man’s Statute.

In this case, the supreme court interpreted Colorado’s “Dead Man’s Statute” in light of recent amendments that removed language limiting the statute’s applicability to matters in which a decedent’s estate was a party. Discerning no ambiguity in the current version of the statute, the court held that these amendments expand the scope of the statute such that it is now applicable “in all civil actions.” The court also held that because the statute applies irrespective of the potential impact of a judgment on an estate, the existence of insurance coverage is not a factor militating for or against the applicability of the statute.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Strict Privity Rule Bars Claims Against Attorneys by Non-Clients

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bewley v. Semler on Monday, September 24, 2018.

Strict Privity—Standing—Pleading.

In this case, the supreme court considered whether the strict privity rule bars claims against attorneys by non-clients absent a showing of fraud, malicious conduct, or negligent misrepresentation. The court held that, absent any wrongdoing, the strict privity rule does bar claims against attorneys by non-clients because holding otherwise may force attorneys to place non-clients’ interests ahead of clients’ interests. Here, because Semler did not allege any fraud, malicious conduct, or negligent misrepresentation, he lacked standing to assert a breach-of-contract claim.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Allowing Alternate Juror to Deliberate Did Not Affect Parties’ Substantial Rights

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Johnson v. Schonlaw on Monday, September 17, 2018.

Jury Deliberations—Conduct Affecting Jurors—Risk of Prejudice—Harmless Error.

Johnson sought review of the court of appeals’ judgment reversing jury verdicts in his favor on personal injury claims against Schonlaw and VCG Restaurants. At the close of the case, the district court overruled the objections of Schonlaw and VCG to its announced decision to allow the alternate to deliberate to verdict with the other jurors. The court of appeals concluded that the trial court had erred in allowing an alternate juror to participate in jury deliberations over the objection of a party, and that the error gave rise to a presumption of prejudice, which remained unrebutted by Johnson, and therefore  required reversal.

The supreme court reversed, holding that because the error did not affect the substantial rights of any defendant, it should have been disregarded as harmless, as required by C.R.C.P. 61.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Plaintiff Not Entitled to Prejudgment Interest Where Claim Does Not Meet Statutory Factors

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Munoz v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co. on Monday, September 10, 2018.

Prejudgment Interest—Statutory Interpretation.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether an insured is entitled to collect prejudgment interest when he settles an uninsured motorist claim with his insurer. The court held that, under the plain language of the prejudgment interest statute, C.R.S. § 13-21-101, an insured is entitled to prejudgment interest only after (1) an action is brought, (2) the plaintiff claims damages and interest in the complaint, (3) there is a finding of damages by a jury or court, and (4) judgment is entered. Because Munoz did not meet all of these conditions, the court concluded he is not entitled to prejudgment interest.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: UIM Policy Not Triggered if Insurer Agrees to Pay Entire Amount of Jury Award

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Bailey v. State Farm Automobile Insurance Co. on Thursday, September 6, 2018.

Underinsured Motorist Insurance Benefits—Coverage Limitations.

Plaintiff was in a car accident and sued the other driver for negligence and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. for underinsured motorist (UIM) benefits. Plaintiff’s policy covered him up to $100,000 for damages caused by underinsured motorists. The other driver’s insurance company covered him for $100,000 in damages and also agreed to pay the full extent of a jury’s verdict. At trial, State Farm presented evidence that plaintiff had not cooperated with claims adjusters and had committed fraud, and therefore plaintiff voided the insurance contract and he was not entitled to UIM benefits.

The jury rejected State Farm’s affirmative defenses of fraud and failure to cooperate and awarded plaintiff $300,000 in damages. State Farm moved for entry of judgment based on a letter from the other driver’s insurance company that effectively provided unlimited liability insurance coverage for him. State Farm argued that because there was no difference between the coverage limit and the amount of damages, plaintiff was not entitled to UIM benefits. The other driver did not object. The trial court granted the motion and the other driver’s insurance company paid the entire judgment.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that it was error to grant State Farm’s motion for entry of judgment. Plaintiff contended that the trial court should not have considered the merits of State Farm’s motion because the motion raised an affirmative defense that State Farm waived by not presenting before trial. An affirmative defense must be in the nature of a confession and avoidance. Here, State Farm did not contend that it owed UIM benefits but could avoid its obligation to pay them for some other reason; rather, the motion asserted that it did not owe benefits at all. State Farm’s motion did not raise an affirmative defense. The motion was properly made and the trial court did not err by entertaining it.

Plaintiff also contended that under the plain language of C.R.S. § 10-4-609, State Farm is required to provide him with the full amount of UIM benefits. Plaintiff argued that even though he recovered the full amount of the jury’s verdict from the other driver’s insurer, he should still be allowed to recover an additional $100,000 in UIM benefits. UIM benefits are intended to cover the difference between the negligent driver’s liability limits and the damages. The plain language of the statute does not allow a plaintiff to recover UIM benefits in excess of the total amount of actual damages. Further, the statute does not prevent an insurer from effectively increasing a driver’s liability coverage by offering to pay any damages awarded at trial. Here, there is no difference between the amount of damages and the amount of coverage, so UIM benefits are not triggered.

The court of appeals also found no statutory support for plaintiff’s arguments that (1) the letter from the other driver’s insurance company does not meet the requirements of a complying policy, and so it is not legal liability coverage; and (2) the determination of whether a driver is underinsured is made at the time of the accident.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Father Lacked Standing to Bring Wrongful Death Action Because Daughter Married at Time of Death

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Hansen v. Barron’s Oilfield Service, Inc. on Thursday, September 6, 2018.

Torts—Wrongful Death—Standing to Sue—Adult Child.

Wife died in an automobile collision with Hierro, an employee of Barron’s Oilfield Services, Inc. (Barron’s). At the time of her death, Wife was married to Husband and had no children. A law firm filed a wrongful death action on Husband’s behalf, naming Barron’s and Hierro as defendants. However, apparently unbeknownst to the attorneys, Husband had died of natural causes before the complaint was filed. Upon learning of Husband’s death, the law firm filed an amended complaint substituting Hansen, Wife’s father (Parent), as the plaintiff. Barron’s moved to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) arguing that Parent lacked standing under the Colorado Wrongful Death Act (WDA). The trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, Parent argued that the district court erred in dismissing his wrongful death action because it interpreted the WDA too strictly. He further argued that fairness and public policy dictate that he should be allowed to file a wrongful death action for the death of Wife under the circumstances here. Parents of an adult deceased have the right to bring a wrongful death action only if the decedent is unmarried and without descendants. Under C.R.S. § 13-21-201(1)(c)(I), the relevant time for determining if an adult deceased is “unmarried” is the decedent’s date of death. Here, it was undisputed that when Wife died, she was married to Husband, and Husband survived her.

The court of appeals also granted Barron’s request for attorney fees.

The judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded with directions for a determination of the appropriate amount of attorney fees incurred on appeal.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Hospital Lien Statute Only Applies to Lien Violations Existing at the Time a Complaint is Filed

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Marchant v. Boulder Community Health, Inc. on Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Hospital Lien Statute—Statutory Penalties—Summary Judgment.

Marchant’s daughter was struck by an automobile and received medical treatment from Boulder Community Health, Inc. (BCH) for which she was billed $27,681.10. Cardon Outreach, LLC (Cardon), as agent for BCH, filed a statutory lien in that amount “upon the net amount payable . . . as damages on account of such injuries,” without first billing the daughter’s insurance company. BCH subsequently made an insurance adjustment to reduce the bill and billed the insurer, which paid $6,999.36, leaving a balance of $777.74. Cardon amended the lien to that amount. Marchant paid the balance, and the lien was released. Later, Marchant, as guardian of her daughter, filed an amended complaint alleging violation of the hospital lien statute, C.R.S. § 38-27-101, regarding her right to seek damages of twice the amount of the hospital lien filed.

The parties filed cross-motions for determination of a question of law, and the trial court ruled that C.R.S. § 38-27-101(7) only provides standing for a lawsuit if the plaintiff is subject to an improper lien at the time the legal action is filed. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, plaintiff contended that the trial court misinterpreted the hospital lien statute. The parties agreed that when the lien was filed it violated the hospital lien statute. However, the lien did not violate the statute at the time the lawsuit was commenced. The statute clearly applies only to liens that violate the statute at the time a complaint is filed. Thus, the statute does not allow plaintiff to seek damages.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Medicare Benefits Fall Within Contract Exception to Collateral Source Rule

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Forfar v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. on Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Insurance—Collateral Source Rule—Medicare Benefits—Premises Liability.

Forfar, a Medicare beneficiary, slipped and fell at a Wal-Mart store. He filed a premises liability case. Before trial, Wal-Mart moved to exclude evidence of Forfar’s medical expenses owed under agreements he had with his medical providers. Forfar moved in limine to exclude evidence that he had received Medicare benefits. The trial court ruled that Wal-Mart could not present evidence to the jury as to the amount of the Medicare limits and that Forfar could not present evidence of private contracts between himself and any third-party medical providers. Forfar was allowed to present evidence of the reasonable value of medical services, for which he sought $72,636. After trial, Wal-Mart moved to reduce the damages under C.R.S. § 13-21-111.6, arguing that the economic damages awarded for medical expenses should be reduced to Medicare accepted rates. The trial court denied the motion, holding that Medicare benefits fall within the contract exception to the collateral source rule in C.R.S. § 13-21-111.6. The judgment entered on a jury verdict included $44,000 in economic damages for the reasonable value of medical services that Forfar had received.

On appeal, Wal-Mart contended that the trial court should have reduced the damages, arguing that the amounts paid by Medicare are dispositive of the necessary and reasonable value of medical services provided to Forfar. Pre-verdict, the collateral source rule, C.R.S. § 10-1-135(10)(a), bars evidence of collateral source benefits, and the correct measure of damages is the reasonable value of medical services. A benefit is not excluded from the definition of a collateral source simply because it comes from a government program. The trial court properly held Medicare benefits to be a collateral source inadmissible as evidence based on C.R.S. § 10-1-135(10)(a).

Wal-Mart also challenged the trial court’s holding that Medicare benefits fall within the contract exception to the collateral source rule. Post-verdict, the trial court is required to reduce a plaintiff’s verdict by the amount the plaintiff “has been or will be wholly or partially indemnified or compensated for his loss by any other person, corporation, insurance company or fund.” The exception to this prohibits trial courts from reducing a plaintiff’s verdict by the amount of indemnification or compensation that the plaintiff has received from “a benefit paid as a result of a contract entered into and paid for by or on behalf of the plaintiff.” Medicare benefits fall within the contract exception to the collateral source rule of C.R.S. § 13-21-111.6. The trial court properly applied the contract exception to Medicare benefits.

Wal-Mart further contended that the trial court violated the Supremacy Clause by failing to apply the Medicaid statutes and regulations over the collateral source rule, asserting that no person may be liable for payment of amounts billed in excess of Medicare approved charges. The Medicare statutes Wal-Mart relies on do not preempt Colorado law holding it liable for the reasonable value of Forfar’s medical services.

The court of appeals declined to award Forfar attorney fees because the issues presented by Wal-Mart were novel and supported by some out-of-state authority.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: On Interlocutory Review, Class Certifications Were Not Abuse of Discretion by District Court

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Menocal, et al. v. The GEO Group, Inc. on February 9, 2018.

The appeal addresses whether or not immigration detainees housed in a private contract detention facility in Aurora, Colorado may bring claims as a class under 18 U.S.C. § 1589, a provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that prohibits forced labor, and Colorado unjust enrichment law.

The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) owns and operates the Aurora Facility under government contract. While there, the plaintiff detainees (Appellees) rendered mandatory and voluntary services to GEO. Under GEO’s mandatory policies, they cleaned their housing units’ common areas. They also performed various jobs through a voluntary work program, which paid them $1 a day.

The district court certified two separate classes: (1) all detainees housed at the Aurora Facility in the past ten years (TVPA class), and (2) all detainees who participated in the Aurora Facility’s voluntary work program in the past three years (unjust enrichment class). On interlocutory appeal, GEO argues that the district court abused its discretion in certifying each class under Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It primarily contended that the Appellees’ TVPA and Colorado unjust enrichment claims both require predominantly individualized determinations, making class treatment inappropriate.

At all times relevant to this appeal, GEO owned and operated the Aurora Facility under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In operating this facility, GEO implemented two programs that form the basis for this case: (1) the Housing Unit Sanitation Policy, which required all detainees to clean their common living areas; and (2) the Voluntary Work Program, which compensated detainees $1 a day for performing various jobs.

The Aurora Facility’s Sanitation Policy had two components: (1) a mandatory housing unit sanitation program, and (2) a general disciplinary system for detainees who engaged in “prohibited acts,” including refusal to participate in the housing unit sanitation program. Under the mandatory housing unit sanitation program, GEO staff generated daily lists of detainees from each housing unit who were assigned to clean common areas after meal service. Upon arriving at the Aurora Facility, each detainee received a handbook notifying them of their obligation to participate in the program.

Under the disciplinary system, detainees who refused to perform their cleaning assignments faced a range of possible sanctions, including the initiation of criminal proceedings, disciplinary segregation—solitary confinement—for up to 72 hours, loss of commissary, loss of job, restriction to housing unit, reprimand, or warning. The Aurora Facility handbook included an explanation of the disciplinary system and the possible sanctions for refusing to clean. The Appellees alleged that the TVPA class members were all “forced to clean the housing units for no pay and under threat of solitary confinement as punishment for any refusal to work.”

Under the Aurora Facility’s Voluntary Work Program (VWP), participating detainees received $1 a day in compensation for voluntarily performing jobs such as painting, food services, laundry services, barbershop, and sanitation. Detainees who wished to participate in the VWP had to sign the “Detainee Voluntary Work Program Agreement,” which specified that “compensation shall be $1 per day.” Detainees had the additional option of working without pay if no paid positions were available. The complaint alleged that the VWP class members were all “paid one dollar $1 per day for their VWP labor.”

The Appellees filed a class action complaint against GEO in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on behalf of current and former ICE detainees housed at the Aurora Facility. The complaint alleged a TVPA forced labor claim based on the Sanitation Policy, and an unjust enrichment claim under Colorado law based on the VWP. GEO moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Regarding the TVPA claim, GEO argued that the Thirteenth Amendment’s civic duty exception to the prohibition on involuntary servitude should also apply to the TVPA’s ban on forced labor. Regarding the unjust enrichment claim, GEO asserted sovereign immunity as a government contractor because ICE “specifically directed it to establish a voluntary detainee work program and pay the detainees who volunteer for that program $1 per day.” The district court rejected these arguments and denied GEO’s motion to dismiss the TVPA and unjust enrichment claims. GEO moved for reconsideration of the court’s rulings. The court denied the motion, finding that GEO “d[id] not identify any intervening change in controlling law or new evidence previously unavailable” to warrant reconsideration. After prevailing on the motion to dismiss, Appellees moved for certification of a separate class for each claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a) and (b)(3). GEO petitioned the Tenth Circuit for interlocutory review of the class certifications. Accordingly, only the district court’s order granting class certification—and not its rulings on whether the complaint stated TVPA and unjust enrichment claims—is before us.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision to certify a class for an abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s certification of the TVPA class. GEO contended that the district court abused its discretion in determining that the TVPA class satisfied commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority. The court did not abuse its discretion as to any of these requirements in certifying the TVPA class.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s certification of unjust enrichment class. GEO argued the district court abused its discretion in determining that the unjust enrichment class satisfies commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority. The district court reasonably determined that the class members shared the circumstances relevant to the unjustness question and that individual damage assessments would not predominate over the class’s common issues. Its findings on commonality, typicality, and superiority were likewise reasonable and fell within its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s certification of both classes.