Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for Sept. 23

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

People v.  Medina

In a matter of first impression, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that due process rights are not violated if a defendant waives a factual basis to an offense when entering into an Alford Plea. 

In August 2013, Delano Medina was arrested by Lake County Sheriff’s Department officers after his wife told police that he had held a knife to her throat and threatened her during an argument. Medina pleaded guilty to felony menacing with one year in custody in exchange for the dismissal of charges in five other Lake County cases. He maintained his innocence and waived a factual basis for the case, entering into an Alford plea. Alford pleas — derived from the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford — allow defendants to enter guilty pleas when they maintain innocence so long as “a defendant intelligently concludes that his interests require entry of a guilty plea and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.”

Medina attempted to withdraw his guilty plea at the plea hearing and sentencing hearing because, as he claimed, new evidence proved his innocence in the menacing charge. A district court rejected his motions and he was sentenced according to the agreement. Acting pro se, Medina filed for postconviction relief, holding that his plea counsel was ineffective and that he did not understand the implications of the guilty plea at the time. The postconviction court denied Medina’s motion and found he had waived the factual basis of his menacing charge in order to benefit from the plea offer. It further found that the evidence on the record sufficiently supported a factual basis. 

Medina appealed the postconviction court’s decision, ruling that due process rights mean an Alford plea must be supported by strong evidence in the record, that the court erred in evaluating for strong evidence and that there was no record of strong evidence of his guilt. 

Only addressing his first argument, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that waiving the factual basis of the case does not violate 14th Amendment rights so long as courts meet all requirements in the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 11 covering pleas. While many states across the country have different interpretations of Alford plea requirements, the division found that “Alford did not intend to create a separate constitutional due process right when it observed that a plea of guilty is permissible when there exists a ‘strong’ factual basis of actual guilt contained in the record,” according to the opinion summary. Further, it found that Colorado’s Rule 11 (b)(6) which allows defendants to ”waive the establishment of a factual basis for the particular charge to which he pleads” applied to Medina’s case. The division affirmed the postconviction court’s motion denial. 

Johnson v. MEP Engineering

A Denver apartment building initiated arbitration against architecture firm Johnson Nathan Strohe for a series of building issues stemming from a contracted engineering firm’s designs. The arbitrator awarded the building owner $1.2 million in damages. The architecture firm sued the engineering company it contracted, MEP Engineering Inc., for alleged negligence and hoped to recover the full amount awarded in arbitration. It moved, under CRCP 56 (h) “Affidavit or Declaration Submitted in Bad Faith,” for the court to rule on the validity of the limitation of liability provision which it contended was “too vague, confusing and ambiguous to be enforceable.” 

The district court rejected the architecture firm’s interpretation of the limitation of liability provision that it called “unambiguous.” MEP Engineering then moved to deposit $252,720, the maximum allowable amount under the limitation of liability provision, into the court’s registry and dismiss the case with prejudice. Johnson opposed the motion holding its original argument around ambiguity and adding that the needed repairs fell outside the scope of the contract and the limitation did not address costs or fees. The district court disagreed and granted MEP Engineering’s motion. Johnson appealed the decision. 

In a matter of first impression, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that, unlike exculpatory agreements, limitations of liability contract clauses are not void for the sole reason that they are ambiguous. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the district’s ruling that the limitation of liability section was unambiguous and held that the court erred by not reviewing the provision in its entirety nor giving effect to all parts of the provision.  It held that many interpretations of the clause and the phrase “consequential damages” were reasonable “but none of these interpretations are clear and unambiguous on the face of the contract.” It added that the phrase “liability exclusive” further muddied the contract. 

The court reversed the lower court’s ruling that the limitation liability was clear and unambiguous and remanded the case to the district court to determine the meaning of the provision as an issue of fact using ordinary methods of contract interpretation. The Colorado Court of Appeals did not address other issues raised by Johnson and tasked the remanded district court to decide the issues.

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