Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for Sept. 15

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Cisneros v. Elder

The Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed and remanded a case involving the denial of a detainee’s release after posting bond.

The case was remanded from the Colorado Supreme Court. The high court granted certiorari earlier this year to consider whether the appeals court erred in concluding Colorado Revised Statute 24-10-106(1.5)(b) of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act doesn’t waive sovereign immunity for intentional torts that result from jail operations for claimants who are not convicted, but incarcerated.

The appeals court previously concluded Sheriff Bill Elder was immune from a claim from Saul Cisneros, for false imprisonment under the CGIA because the complaint alleged an intentional tort, but the CGIA only allows a waiver of immunity for negligence. The Supreme Court reversed the decision.

In the initial appeal, Elder also argued the CGIA waiver of immunity didn’t apply in the case because Cisneros hadn’t demonstrated his injury resulted from the operation of the jail under Section 24-10-106(1)(b). The appeals court didn’t reach the second argument given its interpretation of the CGIA. The Supreme Court argued it would not reach it because it was not within the grant of certiorari. Thus it was remanded to the appeals court.

Elder argued the conduct alleged in this case, where Elder refused to release Cisneros after posting bond, in order to comply with a hold placed on Cisneros by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, doesn’t come within the definition of jail operations. 

The appeals court disagreed with Elder’s argument citing the CGIA, which specifies a public entity is immune from liability in all claims for injury which lie in tort or could lie in tort, can be waived if injuries are the result of operations from facilities like a jail. The act goes on to say the waiver applies to claimants who are incarcerated but not convicted of a crime. 

The appeals court affirmed a district court’s ruling that the sheriff is not immune from suit under 24-10-106(1)(b). It remanded the case to district court for further proceedings.

People v. Rodriguez-Morelos

The appeals court unanimously affirmed, vacated in part and remanded a case involving identity theft. 

Jesus Rodriguez-Morelos was found guilty of identity theft, three counts of felony theft and one count of criminal impersonation. Rodriguez-Morelos appealed the judgment of his conviction and the trial court’s restitution order. The appeals court vacated the conviction of identity theft, affirmed the other convictions and remanded the case to trial court to amend the mittimus. The appeals court also affirmed the restitution order.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies investigated Rodriguez-Morelos after receiving claims he was taking money for teaching certified nursing assistant classes that were not approved by the state. Court records state Rodriguez-Morelos had done volunteer work for the nonprofit United for Migrants. He is accused of telling some of the students the classes were affiliated with the organization and he was acting on their behalf, even though that wasn’t the case. Court records also state Rodriguez-Morelos gave some students a tax-exempt document which had the organization’s name on it, without the nonprofit’s knowledge

Various problems were alleged, including overcrowded classes and students feeling they weren’t learning the right skills. None of the students who testified at trial had become CNAs according to the court. At trial, the defense claimed he was trying to help the immigrant community through a legitimate service. 

Rodriguez-Morelos maintains there wasn’t enough evidence to support his identity theft conviction because using the nonprofit’s name and tax-exempt document didn’t constitute the use of personal identifying information under Section 18-5-901(13) and even though the tax-exempt document he gave to some students was financial identifying information under Section 18-5-901(7), there wasn’t evidence on the record that Rodriguez-Morelos used the document to obtain money or other items of value under 18-5-902(1)(a). The appeals court agreed with both contentions. 

The appeals court concluded personal identifying information meant only specified information concerning single, identified people. The appeals court also concluded the record of Rodriguez-Morelos trial didn’t contain any evidence showing he used the nonprofit’s financial identifying information with the intent to obtain cash or items of value.

M.G. Dyess, Inc. v. MarkWest Liberty Midstream & Resources, L.L.C.

The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded a case involving quantum meruit claims. 

M.G. Dyess, Inc. appealed post-trial orders that reduced the amount of damages awarded on its quantum meruit claim and denying its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on a defendant’s counterclaim. The defendant, MarkWest Liberty Midstream & Resources, L.L.C., and Dyess both appeal the trial court’s denial of their motions for pre- and post-judgment interest. 

MarkWest is a corporation that processes and transports natural gas. It entered into three contracts with Dyess, a pipeline construction company, to install pipeline. Each contract was for a particular length of pipeline and each of those was assigned a lump sum payment amount and mechanical completion date, after which liquidated damages would accrue if it was incomplete.

Dyess asserts MarkWest materially hindered its work which led to increased costs and the duration of the project. Dyess sued MarkWest, claiming breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent nondisclosure, fraud, promissory estoppel and quantum meruit. MarkWest countered claiming it had not hindered Dyess’ work and Dyess failed to achieve mechanical completion by deadline. MarkWest brought counterclaims for liquidated damages along with declaratory judgment. 

A jury trial began in 2020 and MarkWest claimed Dyess’ promissory estoppel and quantum meruit claims were not triable for the jury because they were equitable claims. Dyess argued its claims were legal, contending MarkWest waived any objections to the jury trial.

The trial court surmised Dyess brought a mix of legal and equitable claims, but the court didn’t specify what claims were equitable. It stated the intention to submit all claims to the jury under C.R.C.P. 39(c) which allows courts to try any issue with an advisory jury in all actions not triable by a jury. The court also concluded if the jury returned a verdict awarding relief on an arguably equitable claim, it would allow for further briefing.

The jury rejected all of Dyess’ claims except the quantum meruit, for which it awarded more than $26 million in damages. MarkWest was also awarded $4.5 million in liquidated damages based on the breach of contract counterclaim. When the verdict was given, MarkWest made a motion to treat the jury’s quantum meruit claim as advisory, asking the court to decide on the issue. The court then did an additional briefing. 

MarkWest urged the court that Dyess could only recover $934,436, which would be the approximate amount Dyess claimed for the items listed in instruction 60 (the quantum meruit jury instruction). Dyess countered that the $26 million amount was supported by the evidence. 

The trial court found MarkWest didn’t waive its objection to a jury trial and quantum meruit is an equitable theory of recovery that’s triable by a court and not a jury. That court accepted the jury’s advisory verdict finding MarkWest liable under the quantum meruit theory, but the court concluded the amount awarded was not supported by the evidence and damages were reduced to $934,436. On the same day, the court entered judgment on the jury verdict as modified by the C.R.C.P. 52 order. 

Dyess filed a motion for JNOV on MarkWest’s breach of contract counterclaim, arguing it achieved mechanical completion before the final completion dates, which it claimed had been extended by MarkWest. The trial court didn’t rule on the motion. Dyess didn’t file other post-trial motions challenging the jury’s verdict and MarkWest didn’t seek post-trial relief on any claim. Both parties did file a motion to amend the judgment to include pre- and post-judgment interest. Those motions were denied.

Dyess appealed the order treating the verdict in its favor as advisory and reducing the damages award, the denial of its JNOV in respect to MarkWest’s counterclaim and the denial of its motion for pre- and post-judgment interest. MarkWest cross-appealed the denial of its pre- and post-judgment interest. 

The appeals court concluded that when a claimant requests monetary damages, the quantum meruit claim is legal and the claimant is entitled to a jury trial. The appeals court also considered whether pursuant to C.R.C.P. 52, a trial court can reduce the amount of damages awarded in a jury verdict. The appeals court surmised C.R.C.P. 52 doesn’t provide that authority. Since the trial court did that, it erred. 

The appeals court reversed the judgment insofar as reducing damages, but affirmed the judgment as the court accepted the jury’s verdict on liability. The appeals court also rejected Dyess’ contention the trial court erred when it denied JNOV on MarkWest’s counterclaim, by concluding there was evidence upon which a verdict against Dyess could hold. The case was remanded for entry of the amended judgment and award of pre- and post-judgment interest for both parties.

Salazar v. Public Trust Institute et al.

The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded a case involving Colorado’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation statute.

The Public Trust Institute and Suzanne Staiert appealed a district court’s order denying their special motion to dismiss the complaint for malicious prosecution filed by Joseph Salazar. PTI and Staiert filed their special motion under Colorado’s anti-SLAPP statute. 

Salazar is a former state representative and former candidate for Colorado Attorney General. Staiert is the former deputy Secretary of State for Colorado and the former executive director of PTI.

In December 2019, when serving at PTI, Staiert filed two administrative complaints, one with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office and one with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, that alleged Salazar violated lobbying laws and regulations. Staiert asserted Salazar violated the Colorado lobbying statute Section 24-6-301-309 and Amendment 41 of the Colorado Constitution. 

The Elections Division of the SOS investigated the allegations and filed a motion to dismiss citing no basis to establish a violation of the lobbying regulation. The IEC also reviewed Staiert’s complaint. Salazar moved to dismiss based on C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) and (5) for a lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. Staiert later dismissed three of the four alleged violations and then the IEC dismissed the fourth for failure to state a claim.

After the dismissal of the complaints, Salazar filed an action for malicious prosecution against PTI and Staiert claiming they were aware Salazar’s conduct didn’t violate lobbying laws, but wanted to damage Salazar’s reputation. Before answering, Staiert filed two motions. One to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(5) and a special motion to dismiss under Colorado’s anti-SLAPP statute. 

The district court denied both motions and Staiert appealed the denial of the special motion to dismiss. Staiert argued the district court erred denying her motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute. She argued a malicious prosecution claim cannot be based on truthful complaints to government investigators, the First Amendment requires Salazar’s claims to be dismissed and the administrative proceedings before the SOS were insufficient to support the malicious prosecution claim. The appeals court rejected the first two arguments, but agreed with the third.

The appeals court argued that for an administrative proceeding to qualify as prior action, that could lead to a malicious prosecution claim, it needs to be quasi judicial in nature. According to court records, no formal proceedings or hearings were held, which led the appeals court to conclude the SOS proceedings were not quasi judicial in nature and cannot support a claim of malicious prosecution.

With the appeals court partially reversing the district court’s order denying the special motion to dismiss, the court wrote Salazar is still able to pursue a malicious prosecution claim at this time. The order was affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings concerning Salazar’s assertion regarding the IEC complaint.

Great Northern Properties, LLLP v. Extraction Oil and Gas, Inc. et al.

The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded a case involving the centerline presumption.

The common law centerline presumption provides when grantors convey land abutting a right-of-way, it’s meant to convey the title to the center of the right-of-way, unless the conveyance reveals a different intent.

Great Northern Properties, LLLP and defendant Extraction Oil and Gas, Inc. ask the appeals court to resolve a first impression issue: “Does the centerline presumption apply to convey the mineral interests beneath a dedicated right-of-way to the owners of abutting parcels?”

In 1974, a real estate developer owned a simple absolute parcel of land in Greeley. At one point, the developer subdivided the property into different lots. Later, the developer dedicated a right-of-way across the land to the City of Greeley known as West 11th Street Road. The developer then conveyed two parcels of land abutting 11th Street to two different grantees. Court records indicate the deed didn’t reference 11th Street and didn’t expressly reserve to the developer any mineral interests. 

In 1975, the developer conveyed a third parcel abutting 11th Street. This deed referenced 11th Street but didn’t expressly reserve to the developer any mineral interests. Once the developer conveyed the third parcel, it didn’t own any more property adjacent to 11th Street. 

In 2019, the developer conveyed whatever interest it had in the minerals beneath 11th Street to GNP who brought an action to quiet the title to the mineral estate under a section of 11th Street. According to the record, Extraction has oil and gas leases from the owners of all the parcels abutting the section of 11th Street and from GNP. Therefore, the court wrote, Extraction is entitled to drill and produce oil and gas from the portion of 11th Street regardless of who the mineral estate belongs to, but the ownership dictates who Extraction pays royalties to.

Later in 2019, Extraction filed a motion for determination for a question of law for C.R.C.P 56(h), arguing when applying the centerline presumption, the owners of the parcels abutting 11th Street own the mineral rights beneath the street to the centerline of the street. In November 2019, the district court granted the motion and ruled the developer conveyed the mineral estate to the centerline of the roadway if the abutting lot owners carried their burden proving the conditions discerned from the Colorado Supreme Court’s Asmussen decision.

Despite that ruling, GNP filed a motion for summary judgment asking the district court to enter a final judgment decreeing it owns mineral interest beneath the relevant portion of the street. The district court denied the motion entering a final judgment quieting the title to the disputed mineral interests in the two landowner defendants that participated in the proceeding. 

GNP contends the district court erred when it applied the centerline presumption concluding the deed conveyed a grantor’s interest in the property adjacent to the right-of-way also conveys any interest the grantor may have in the mineral estate beneath and to the center of the right-of-way. The appeals court disagreed. 

After applying property law principles, the appeals court concluded if the centerline presumption applies, it’s for all interests a grantor possesses in the property underlying the right-of-way including the mineral interests. The appeals court also clarified conditions that have to be met before the presumption applies. 

The appeals court affirmed the district court’s finding of the law and part of its final judgment denying GNP’s quiet title claim. Since the judgment quieted the title to mineral interests beyond those claimed by the two landowner defendants participating in the proceeding, the division reversed the judgment and remanded it to district court with directions to correct the decree that quieted the title and dismiss the case for the remaining defendants.

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