Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Contracts
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At issue in this appeal were commercial general liability policy exclusions that barred coverage for damage to “that particular part” of the property on which an insured is performing operations, or which must be repaired or replaced due to the insured’s incorrect work. The Tenth Circuit concluded the phrase “that particular part” was susceptible to more than one reasonable construction: it could refer to the distinct component upon which an insured works or to all parts ultimately impacted by that work. The Court surmised the contract had to then be interpreted consistent with the mutual intent of the parties, with the ambiguity resolved most favorably to the insured and against the insurance carrier. The Court adopted the narrower interpretation of the phrase “that particular part,” under which the exclusion extends only to the distinct components upon which work was performed. This conclusion was contrary to the district court's interpretation, and therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "MTI v. Employers Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Dennis Woolman, former president of The Clemens Coal Company, challenged a district court’s determination that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company didn’t breach a duty to him by failing to procure for Clemens Coal an insurance policy with a black-lung disease endorsement. Clemens Coal operated a surface coal mine until it filed for bankruptcy in 1997. Woolman served as Clemens Coal’s last president before it went bankrupt. Federal law required Clemens Coal to maintain worker’s compensation insurance with a special endorsement covering miners’ black-lung disease benefits. Woolman didn’t personally procure insurance for Clemens Coal but instead delegated that responsibility to an outside consultant. The policy the consultant ultimately purchased for the company did not contain a black-lung-claim endorsement, and it expressly excluded coverage for federal occupational disease claims, such as those arising under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the Act). In 2012, a former Clemens Coal employee, Clayton Spencer, filed a claim with the United States Department of Labor (DOL) against Clemens Coal for benefits under the Act. After some investigation, the DOL advised Woolman that Clemens Coal was uninsured for black-lung-benefits claims as of July 25, 1997 (the last date of Spencer’s employment) and that, without such coverage, Woolman, as Clemens Coal’s president, could be held personally liable. Woolman promptly tendered the claim to Liberty Mutual for a legal defense. Liberty Mutual responded with a reservation-of-rights letter, stating that it hadn’t yet determined coverage for Spencer’s claim but that it would provide a defense during its investigation. Then in a follow-up letter, Liberty Mutual clarified that it would defend Clemens Coal as a company (not Woolman personally) and advised Woolman to retain his own counsel. Liberty Mutual eventually concluded that the insurance policy didn’t cover the black-lung claim, and sued Clemens Coal and Woolman for a declaration to that effect. In his suit, Woolman also challenged the district court’s rejection of his argument that Liberty Mutual should have been estopped from denying black-lung-disease coverage, insisting that he relied on Liberty Mutual to provide such coverage. Having considered the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court didn’t err in declining Woolman’s extraordinary request to expand the coverages in the Liberty Mutual policy. “Liberty Mutual never represented it would procure the coverage that Woolman now seeks, and the policy itself clearly excludes such coverage. No other compelling consideration justifies rewriting the agreement— twenty years later—to Woolman’s liking.” View "Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance v. Woolman" on Justia Law

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The issue raised on appeal in this matter centered on a trespass claim by Plaintiffs-Appellants Marvin and Mildred Bay that Defendants-Appellees Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC and Anadarko Land Corp. (together, “Anadarko”), that through a lessee, exceeded the scope of an easement by using excessive surface land to drill for oil and gas. The district court had diversity jurisdiction over the case and entered final judgment against the Bays pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b). The Tenth Circuit was presented with an issue of whether a deed reserving mineral rights in land (and the specific right to use the surface as “convenient or necessary” to access the minerals) requires applying a different test than the one prescribed in Gerrity Oil & Gas Corp. v. Magness, 946 P.2d 913 (Colo. 1997), to evaluate whether the mineral owner’s use of land constitutes a trespass. The Court concluded it did not, and reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Bay v. Anadarko E&P Onshore" on Justia Law

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Husky Ventures, Inc. (“Husky”) sued B55 Investments Ltd. (“B55”) and its president, Christopher McArthur, for breach of contract and tortious interference under Oklahoma law. In response, B55 filed counterclaims against Husky. A jury reached a verdict in Husky’s favor, awarding $4 million in compensatory damages against both B55 and McArthur and $2 million in punitive damages against just McArthur; the jury also rejected the counterclaims. In further proceedings, the district court entered a permanent injunction and a declaratory judgment in Husky’s favor. After the court entered final judgment, B55 and McArthur appealed, and moved for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) or, in the alternative, to certify a question of state law to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court denied the motion in all respects. On appeal, B55 and McArthur contended the district court erred in denying their motion for a new trial and again moved to certify a question of state law to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In addition, they appealed the permanent injunction and declaratory judgment and argue that the district court erred in refusing to grant leave to amend the counterclaims. The Tenth Circuit dismissed B55 and McArthur’s claims relating to the motion for a new trial for lack of appellate jurisdiction and denied their motion to certify the state law question as moot. The Court otherwise affirmed the district court’s judgment on the remaining issues. View "Husky Ventures v. B55 Investments" on Justia Law

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Billy Hamilton appealed a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of defendant Northfield Insurance Company as to Hamilton’s claim for breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing and his accompanying request for punitive damages. In March 2015, Hamilton purchased a Northfield insurance policy for a commercial building in Council Hill, Oklahoma. Northfield had a third party inspect the property for underwriting purposes; the underwriting survey report concluded the risk was “Satisfactory with Recommendation Compliance” and identified eight recommendations for repairs. A tenant informed him the roof was leaking in December 2015, and Hamilton reported the leak and the resulting interior damage to Northfield. Northfield denied the claim because a claims adjuster saw no evidence of damage. Hamilton had made repairs, but the adjuster did not see evidence of them, and did not ask whether any were made. A week after receiving the denial, Northfield informed Hamilton it would not renew his policy when it expired. Hamilton was unsuccessful in his suit against Northfield, challenging on appeal the outcome with respect to breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing (he won a jury verdict on his breach of contract claim). The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in its rulings on Hamilton’s claims, and affirmed. View "Hamilton v. Northfield Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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Wakaya Perfection, LLC and its principals sued Youngevity International Corp. and its principals in Utah state court. The Youngevity parties responded by bringing their own suit against the Wakaya parties in a California federal district court, then removing the Utah case to federal court. These steps resulted in concurrent federal cases sharing at least some claims and issues. The California litigation progressed; and in November 2017, the federal district court in Utah ordered dismissal. The issues presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether: (1) the federal district court should have abstained from exercising jurisdiction under the Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976) test; and (2) and arbitrator would have needed to decide the arbitrability of Wakaya's claims. The Tenth Circuit reversed on both grounds: the federal trial court applied the wrong abstention test and erroneously ruled that an arbitrator should have decided whether Wakaya's claims were arbitrable. View "Wakaya Perfection, LLC v. Youngevity International" on Justia Law

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This appeal grew out of a battle between the majority and minority owners of units in an investment vehicle. The majority unitholder wanted to merge, but this would require the minority to sell their units or convert them to shares in a newly created entity. The minority unitholders balked because they wanted to retain their original units, but the majority unitholder approved the merger, terminating the minority’s units in the process. The termination of these units led the minority to sue. The issue presented for the Tenth Circuit’s review reduced to one of “classic” contract interpretation: did the contract empower the majority unitholder to approve a merger that eliminated and replaced the minority unitholders’ units without providing an opportunity for a class vote? The district court concluded “yes,” and the Tenth Circuit concurred. View "Stender v. Archstone-Smith" on Justia Law

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From 2009 until 2012, Debbi Potts worked as the campus director of the Cheyenne, Wyoming campus of CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc. (CollegeAmerica), a predecessor of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Inc. (the Center). Potts alleged she resigned because CollegeAmerica’s business practices were unethical. In particular, she alleges that CollegeAmerica violated its accreditation standards and “actively deceiv[ed]” its accreditor to maintain accreditation. In September 2012, Potts and CollegeAmerica entered a written agreement by which CollegeAmerica agreed to pay Potts $7,000 and support her unemployment claim, and Potts agreed to (1) “refrain from personally (or through the use of any third party) contacting any governmental or regulatory agency with the purpose of filing any complaint or grievance,” (2) “direct any complaints or issues against CollegeAmerica . . . to CollegeAmerica’s toll free compliant [sic] number,” and (3) “not intentionally with malicious intent (publicly or privately) disparage the reputation of CollegeAmerica.” Despite the agreement, Potts disparaged the Center in an e-mail she sent to another former employee. After learning of this, the Center sued Potts in Colorado state court for violating the agreement, seeking the $7,000 it had paid to Potts under the agreement. In February 2013, Potts sent a written complaint to the Center’s accreditor, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), concerning the Center’s alleged deceptions in maintaining its accreditation. After learning this, the Center amended its state-court complaint to add breach of contract. In response, Potts sued the Center in federal district court, alleging that the Center’s state claim violated the False Claims Act’s anti-retaliation provision. The Tenth Circuit considered whether this anti-retaliation statute applied when no retaliatory discrimination occurred until after employment ends. The Court concluded that it did not, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Potts’s retaliation claim. View "Potts v. Center for Excellence" on Justia Law

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Au pairs and former au pairs filed a class action lawsuit against AuPairCare, Inc. (“APC”) and other au pair sponsoring companies alleging violations of antitrust laws, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), federal and state minimum wage laws, and other state laws. Eventually, the au pairs amended their complaint and added two former au pairs, Juliane Harning and Laura Mejia Jimenez, who were sponsored by APC. In response, APC filed a motion to compel arbitration, which the district court denied. The district court found the arbitration provision between the parties both procedurally and substantively unconscionable and declined to enforce it. Because the arbitration provision contained only one substantively unconscionable clause, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court abused its discretion by refusing to sever the offending clause and otherwise enforce the agreement to arbitrate. The Court therefore reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings. View "Beltran v. Interexchange, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2013, while the disputed insurance policy was in effect, several guests at the Siloam Springs Hotel allegedly sustained injuries due to carbon monoxide poisoning stemming from an indoor-swimming-pool heater that had recently been serviced. The hotel sought coverage under the policy, and the insurer denied coverage based on the exclusion for “qualities or characteristics of indoor air.” This case made it back to the Tenth Circuit following a remand in which the district court was directed to determine whether there was complete diversity of citizenship between the parties, which was an essential jurisdictional issue that needed to be decided before it could properly address the merits of this case. On remand, the district court received evidence on this question and determined that diversity jurisdiction was indeed proper. The district court also certified a policy question to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which held that the exclusion at issue in this case - however interpreted -should not be voided based on public policy concerns. Following the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s resolution of the certified question, the insurer asked the district court to administratively close the case, arguing that “no further activity in this case . . . remains necessary to render the [district c]ourt’s adjudication of the coverage issue which the case concerns a final judgment.” The hotel asked the court to reopen the case to either reconsider its previous order or to enter a final, appealable judgment against the hotel. The district court held that the case had already been administratively closed and it had no need to reopen the case, since “both its finding of diversity jurisdiction and the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s answer to the certified question did not alter in any way” the court’s summary judgment decision on the merits of the coverage dispute. The hotel appealed. The Tenth Circuit determined the hotel was entitled to coverage under the policy at issue, and reversed the district court's denial. The case was remanded for further proceedings on the question of damages. View "Siloam Springs Hotel v. Century Surety Company" on Justia Law