Court Opinions: Colorado Supreme Court Opinions for Feb. 22

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

Lodge Properties v. Eagle County Board of Equalization

In this property tax case, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that rental income a hotel receives for managing privately owned condominiums shouldn’t count toward the hotel’s actual value for tax purposes.

Lodge Properties, a subsidiary of Vail Corporation, owns luxury hotel Lodge at Vail. Another Vail subsidiary, Vail Beaver Creek, manages condominium units that are physically connected to the hotel but are owned by third parties.

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals found in September 2020 that the rental fees collected by VBC should count toward LAV’s property valuation under the income approach to valuation, in which an appraiser determines the net income generated by a property and then capitalizes the net income to determine market value.

Lodge Properties argued that its condominium management contracts are intangible personal property exempt from taxation. The Board of Assessment Appeals had agreed with Lodge Properties. Lodge Properties said the Court of Appeals used “novel reasoning” to overturn the board’s decision.

The Supreme Court found that VBC’s net rental management income was generated by the condominiums, not the Lodge. Since the Lodge and condominiums are legally separate parcels of property, the properties must be valued and appraised separately. VBC’s rental management agreements are contracts for management services, not contracts for an interest in the Lodge’s real property, according to the court’s opinion. The rental income shouldn’t have been included in the Lodge’s actual value under the income approach to valuation, the court concluded.

Maphis v. City of Boulder 

In this personal injury case, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether a bumpy sidewalk in Boulder posed an “unreasonable risk” and a “dangerous condition” that would waive the city’s immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. The high court concluded in a 4-3 decision that the sidewalk didn’t constitute an “unreasonable risk” under the CGIA and affirmed the Colorado Court of Appeals’ dismissal of the lawsuit.

Joy Maphis sued Boulder for injuries sustained in a fall on a city sidewalk. Maphis tripped on a slab of pavement that was raised two and a half inches above the adjacent slab. She landed on her elbows and face, fracturing both elbows. She also needed stitches in her lip. 

The city moved to dismiss under the CGIA, which protects public entities from liability in all claims for injury that lie in tort or could lie in tort, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is if there is a “dangerous condition” that interferes with the movement of traffic on a road, street or sidewalk.

During an evidentiary hearing, Maphis testified that the deviation in the sidewalk was “invisible” and was unreasonably dangerous. The district court agreed, finding the coloring of the sidewalk made the deviation difficult to detect and created a tripping hazard. The sidewalk was an unreasonable risk of harm to the public, according to the lower court, and the city’s immunity was waived.

A division of the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that while the sidewalk created “some risk,” it was not one that “exceeded the bounds of reason” as required under the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in City and County of Denver v. Dennis.

A majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the sidewalk deviation fell short of the “unreasonable risk” standard set forth in Dennis. The risk was not unreasonable because sidewalks deviations are commonplace in Colorado due to the climate and other environmental factors, and the sidewalk Maphis tripped on was in a residential area without heightened safety concerns, according to Justice Melissa Hart, writing for the majority. Nor had the city received any other citizen complaints about the sidewalk, though it had independently flagged the deviation for repairs.

In a dissent joined by Justices Richard Gabriel and Carlos Samour, Justice Monica Márquez disagreed that the sidewalk deviation wasn’t a “dangerous condition” and said the majority’s opinion “effectively narrows the scope of the CGIA’s waiver of immunity,” creating an “unjust result” in Maphis’ case. Boulder city guidelines deem sidewalk deviations greater than three quarters of an inch a “hazard,” Márquez noted, and the deviation Maphis tripped over was more than three times that size. The deviation was also found to be “largely imperceptible” by the district court, the dissent states, and the city hadn’t marked the hazard to make it more visible to pedestrians, even though it had identified the deviation for repairs.

Márquez pointed to the Supreme Court’s analysis in Dennis, which explicitly identified a “raised pavement lip” as an example of unreasonable risk that could damage a vehicle and lead to an accident. “In sum, the analysis in Dennis should lead us to affirm the district court’s conclusion here that the sidewalk deviation was a ‘dangerous condition’ for purposes of the CGIA,” Márquez wrote. “In holding otherwise, the majority misapplies Dennis.”

Rojas v. People

The Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday abolished the res gestae doctrine in criminal cases. The common-law doctrine allows for the admission of evidence that is incidental to the charged offense but closely connected and helps explain or provide context for the events in question.

In this criminal case, Brooke Rojas was charged with theft of food stamps she allegedly obtained by deception between February and July of 2013. She originally applied for the food stamps in January 2013. Rojas also submitted a food stamps application in August 2013, but she did not receive benefits based on the application.

Although the August application was not used to commit the charged theft, the trial court admitted it as res gestae because it provided circumstantial evidence of Rojas’ mental state and was a continuing part of the charged act. Rojas objected to the admission of the August application and requested a limiting instruction for the jury, but none was given. The prosecution referred to the August application as evidence of Rojas’ intent in opening and closing arguments and questioned her about it when she took the stand. Rojas was convicted of two counts of theft.

The Colorado Supreme Court abandoned the res gestae doctrine in its Feb. 22 decision. Justice William Hood, writing for the majority, called res gestae a “troublesome relic” of the state’s common law of evidence and said the doctrine has become a “shortcut for admitting character evidence about criminal defendants.”

In the absence of the doctrine, trial courts must determine when evidence that is incidental to the charged crime may be admitted under the Colorado Rules of Evidence. First, trial courts must determine whether evidence is intrinsic or extrinsic to the charged offense, the supreme court said. Intrinsic evidence and must be evaluated under CRE 401-403. Extrinsic evidence that does not suggest bad character must also be evaluated under the same rules. On the other hand, extrinsic evidence that does suggest bad character is only admissible as provided for in CRE 404(b) and must also be evaluated under the court’s decision in People v. Spoto.

The court reversed Rojas’ convictions and remanded for a new trial. Chief Justice Brian Boatright, joined by Justice Maria Berkenkotter, concurred in judgment only. They agreed that the trial court improperly admitted Rojas’ August application but disagreed that the res gestae doctrine should be tossed out.

“I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that jettisoning the doctrine will solve any problems — it won’t,” Boatright wrote, adding that he feared the decision could lead to a “needless explosion of CRE 404(b) hearings, furthering the burden on Colorado’s overworked trial courts.” 

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