You can collect for damaged gear you rented to customers if your agreements are correct. This snowmobile outfitter recovered $27,000 for $220.11 in damages.Posted: May 13, 2019
It helps to get that much money if the customer is a jerk and tries to get out of what they owe you. It makes the final judgment even better when one of the plaintiffs is an attorney.
Citation: Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514, 2012 WL 95208
State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado
Plaintiff: Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne
Defendant: Leonard M. Gelman
Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Fair Debt Collections Act
Defendant Defenses: They did not violate the act
Holding: For the Defendant
The plaintiff’s in this case rented snowmobiles and brought one back damaged. The release they signed to rent the snowmobiles stated if they damaged the snowmobiles they would have to pay for the damage and any lost time the snowmobiles could not be rented (like a car rental agreement).
The plaintiffs damaged a snowmobile and agreed to pay for the damages. The Snowmobile outfitter agreed not to charge them for the lost rental income.
When the plaintiff’s got home, they denied the claim on their credit card bill. The Snowmobile outfitter sued them for the $220.11 in damages and received a judgment of $27,000.
The plaintiff then sued the attorney representing the snowmobile outfitter for violation of the federal fair debt collection’s act, which is the subject of this lawsuit. The plaintiff lost that lawsuit also.
This case shows how agreements in advance to pay for damages from rented equipment are viable and can be upheld if used.
Although this is described as a debt collection case, it is a case where an outfitter can recover for the damages done to his equipment that he rented to the plaintiffs. The facts are from this case, which took them from an underlying County Court decision in Summit County Colorado.
Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely visible to any driver. At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee and charged Mr. Henne a total of only $220.11.
…one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court. This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.
This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court does not believe that the fairing just fell off.”
Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.
CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.”
At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s sig-nature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.”
After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees pro-vision, the court awarded CBR $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.”
As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The facts set forth in the underlying damage recover case, are the important part. In this case, the attorney for the snowmobile outfitter was found not to have violated the federal fair debt collections act.
In awarding judgment to the defendant in this case, the judge also awarded him costs.
Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.
Adding insult to injury. Sometimes it be better to quit while you are behind.
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Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514
Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.
Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO
2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514
January 12, 2012, Decided
January 12, 2012, Filed
CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees
COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.
For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.
JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.
OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya
This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1
1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.
On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)
2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.
3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)
4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.
5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)
Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.
Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)
At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)
After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)
6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.
7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)
As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.
In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.
8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)
A. Legal Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).
When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.
B. Request for Additional Discovery
As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]
The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)
As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.
C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector
The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).
The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.
The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).
9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.
The Act defines “debt collector” as:
[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.
15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed
Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.
Id. at 62-63.
1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group
The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.
After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.
One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)
10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)
Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11
11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.
In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.
Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)
Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.
12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)
13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.
2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology
This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)
a. Debt Collector Preface
In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.
14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.
Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).
When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.
b. Use of Form Letters
Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.
The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.
c. Pattern of Litigation Activity
Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.
Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.
Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.
Wherefore, it is ORDERED
1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.
2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.
3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED
Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya
Kathleen M Tafoya
United [*27] States Magistrate Judge
Lizzol v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Et. Al., 2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427Posted: June 4, 2017
Lizzol v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Et. Al., 2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427
Jennifer Lizzol, Michael Lizzol, and T.G., Plaintiffs v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Out Back Kayak, Inc., and Martin Welch, Defendants
Case No. 15-cv-100-SM
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427
October 31, 2016, Decided
October 31, 2016, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Lizzol v. Bros. Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16863 (D.N.H., 2016)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Jennifer Lizzol, Michael Lizzol, T. G., Plaintiffs: Philip R. Waystack, Jr., Sandra L. Cabrera, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Waystack Frizzell, Colebrook, NH.
For Brothers Property Management Corporation, Out Back Kayak, Inc. OBK, Defendants: Paul B. Kleinman, Bouchard Kleinman & Wright PA (M), Manchester, NH.
For Martin Welch, Defendant: Paul B. Kleinman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bouchard Kleinman & Wright PA (M), Manchester, NH.
JUDGES: Steven J. McAuliffe, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Steven J. McAuliffe
Jennifer Lizzol, her husband Michael, and their son, T.G., filed suit to recover damages for injuries sustained as a result of a snow machine accident that occurred during a winter vacation at the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa, in Whitefield, New Hampshire (“Mountain View Grand”). Defendants move for summary judgment based upon a liability release and covenant not to sue executed by Jennifer and Michael before the accident. Defendants also move for summary judgment on Michael Lizzol’s and T.G’s bystander liability claim. For the reasons discussed, defendants’ motion is granted.
Standard of Review
When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must “constru[e] the record in the light most favorable to the [*2] nonmoving party and resolv[e] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In this context, “a fact is ‘material’ if it potentially affects the outcome of the suit and a dispute over it is ‘genuine’ if the parties’ positions on the issue are supported by conflicting evidence.” Int’l Ass’n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Winship Green Nursing Ctr., 103 F.3d 196, 199-200 (1st Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). See also Nolan v. CN8, 656 F.3d 71, 76 (1st Cir. 2011). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).
Construing the record in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, and resolving all reasonable inferences in their favor, the controlling facts appear to be as follows.
The Lizzols travelled to the Mountain View Grand from Long Island, New York, on January 27, 2013, arriving in the afternoon. Prior to their arrival, Jennifer had scheduled a snowmobile lesson and tour for herself, her husband, and her son, as well as for a few of their friends, through the Mountain View Grand’s website. [*3] Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C at p. 2. The lessons and guided tour were provided by Out Back Kayak, Inc. (“OBK”). Upon arrival at the resort, the Lizzols quickly put their luggage in their rooms, and then left to participate in the snowmobile activity, including a lesson and tour. Id.
The Lizzols were directed by the hotel activities desk to a small building on the grounds, where they met a Mountain View Grand employee, who told them to quickly pick out helmets and sign a two-page document that bore the following heading:
Snow Machine Tour
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF RISKS AND HAZARDS
COVENANT NOT TO SUE
WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY
(the “Release”). The Lizzols felt rushed during the process, see, e.g., Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C. at p. 3, but both Jennifer and Michael had an opportunity to review the Release, and each signed and initialed it. (Jennifer executed the release on behalf of her minor son, T.G.). The Release includes the following language:
I . . . hereby voluntarily agree to release, waive, discharge, hold harmless, defend and indemnify BPMC, the field operator, the event promoter, the owners of premises used to conduct the snowmobile activity, their owners, [*4] agents, officers and employees from any and all claims, actions or losses for bodily injury, property damage, wrongful death or injury, loss of services or otherwise which may arise out of my use of eques[trian] or other equipment or my participation in any BPMC activity. I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions presently or in the future for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, designees or employees of BPMC.
Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A, p. 1. The Release includes five lettered paragraphs that provide tour participants with a designated space in which to place his or her initials, thereby confirming that he or she understands and acknowledges the following:
(A) that he or she is physically fit to participate in the activity;
(B) that participation in the activity may result in “bodily injury, disease, strains, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis, eye injury, dental injury, blindness, . . . cold weather injuries, heart attack, asthma, vehicle injuries, mental duress, death or other ailments that could cause serious disability;”
(C) that “[t]hese risks and dangers [*5] [of bodily injury] may be caused by the negligence of the owners, employees, officers or agents of the Mountain View Grand and/or the negligence of the participants . . . ;”
(D) that by participating “in these activities and/or use of equipment, [the participant] . . . assume[s] all risks and dangers and all responsibility for any loss and/or damages, whether caused in whole or in part by the negligence or other conduct of the owners, agents, officers, designees, employees of BPMC, or by any other person[;]” and
(E) that the participant “understand[s] that [he or she is] undertaking this snowmobiling activity at [his or her] own risk, freely and voluntarily without any inducement[.]”
Id. Jennifer did not initial Paragraph B or Paragraph D, and Michael did not initial Paragraph B.
After signing the Release and obtaining their helmets, the Lizzols met their tour instructor, OBK employee Martin Welch, and his assistant, Jennifer Welch. The Lizzols had no snow machine experience. Welch provided a very brief introduction to and instruction regarding operation of the snow machines. He explained how to accelerate, brake, and turn. He told them that the tour would never travel faster than 20 miles per hour. Welch then [*6] assisted the tour members with their snowmobile selections, and the tour began.
Jennifer and Michael rode on a two-person snow machine, with Jennifer operating the vehicle. They were directly behind Welch in the line of snowmobiles. Their son, T.G., rode by himself and was farther back in the line. Welch drove rather quickly during the tour, and far exceeded the self-imposed 20 miles per hour speed limitation he had announced earlier. Jennifer did not keep pace, and, as Welch increased his speed during the second half of the tour, Jennifer lost sight of him. Jennifer attempted to follow Welch’s tracks in the snow, but, in doing so, lost control of the snowmobile, which left the path and flipped over. Jennifer, Michael, and the snow machine fell down a steep embankment that was approximately seventy-five feet high.
Both Jennifer and Michael suffered physical injuries, but Jennifer’s were particularly severe. She lost consciousness, had collapsed lungs, 10 broken ribs, and multiple injuries to her spine and back.
The plaintiffs later learned that other customers may have complained that Welch drove too quickly during earlier snow machine tours. After the accident, Mountain View Grand manager, [*7] Chris Diego, asked Michael if Welch had been “going too fast again.” Pls.’ Opp. to Summary Judgment, Exh. 4, p. 6.
Jennifer, Michael, and their son brought suit against Brothers Property Management Corporation (which owns and operates the Mountain View Grand), OBK, and Martin Welch, asserting claims for negligence, including negligent training and supervision, vicarious liability, bystander liability, and loss of consortium. The defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that the contractual Release is both valid and enforceable.
Defendants argue that the scope of the Release plainly encompasses the claims at issue here because the complaint alleges that, as a result of the defendants’ negligence, they were injured while participating in the snow machine lesson and tour activity. Plaintiffs disagree.
New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts. McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009). But, there are exceptions. Exculpatory contracts are enforceable if: “(1) they do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation [*8] of the parties when they executed the contract.” Id. at 542 (quoting Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)).
A. The Scope of the Release
Plaintiffs argue that the Release is not enforceable because they did not understand it to encompass claims for negligent instruction, or negligent guidance on the snow machine tour, and a reasonable person in their position would not understand the Release to bar such claims. They say that the content, structure, and organization of the Release – which plaintiffs contend is verbose, employs obfuscating language, and uses confusing sentence structure – disguised any intent to relieve the defendants of liability for their own negligence related to instruction or guidance along the trail. They point out that the words “instruction,” “lesson” and “guide” are terms that do not appear in the Release. Rather, the Release focuses on terms like “services,” “use of equipment,” and “participation in activities.” Altogether, they say, the impression is given that the Release applies only to injuries inherent to snow machine activity and the use of snow machine equipment, but not to harm resulting from an instructor’s or guide’s failure to act with reasonable care.
The parties’ differing subjective understandings [*9] of the Release’s intent is of limited relevance to the controlling analysis, however, since courts must “judge the intent of the parties by objective criteria rather than the unmanifested states of mind of the parties.” Dean, 147 N.H. at 267 (citing Lake v. Sullivan, 145 N.H. 713, 715, 766 A.2d 708 (2001) and Barnes v. New Hampshire Karting Ass’n, Inc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). Under applicable New Hampshire law, courts examine the language of a release and “give the language used by the parties its common meaning and give the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Dean, 147 N.H. at 267). “As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Dean, 147 N.H. at 267). However, a defendant “will not be released from liability when the language of the contract raises any doubt as to whether the plaintiff has agreed to assume the risk of a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 414, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002) (citations omitted).
The language used in the Release at issue here is broad in reach, detailed, and clear. A reasonable person would be hard pressed to avoid recognizing the significance and effect of the words used. The Release [*10] plainly purports to release Mountain View Grand employees and agents of all liability for their own negligence, or the negligence of others (e.g. other snowmobile activity participants), related to the snow machine instruction and tour (equipment and services). The Release repeatedly references waiving the negligence of MVG’s employees, officers and agents. For example, after warning the signatory of the serious risks of injury associated with participation in the snow machine tour, including bodily injury and death, the Release explains that those risks could be caused by “the negligence of the owners, employees or agents of the Mountain View Grand.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A. The Release then states that the signatory agrees to “assume all risks and dangers and all responsibility for any loss and/or damages whether caused in whole or in part by the negligence . . . of the owners, agents, officers, designees, employees of BPMC.” Id. The Release further provides: “I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions . . . for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, [*11] designees or employees of BPMC.” Id.
The language of the Release unarguably applies to claims or suits based on the negligence of Mountain View Grand owners, employees, officers or agents. The Release does not qualify or limit the “negligence” being released in any way, nor is the Release ambiguous in that regard. References in the Release to “participation in [the] activity” also make clear that claims arising from the releasees’ negligence associated with the described activity are being waived.
The Lizzols participated in an activity that consisted of a snow machine lesson and a snow machine tour. Plaintiffs’ claim that they were injured because defendants negligently conducted both the snow machine lesson and the tour. Their negligence claims, then, necessarily arise directly from their participation in the activity (the snow machine lesson and tour). That the Release does not include terms like “instruction,” “lesson” or “guide” is not dispositive: “[T]he parties need not have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries, and may adopt language that covers a broad range of accidents.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (internal citations omitted) (citing Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). So, attempting to carve out [*12] discrete acts of negligence from the Release is futile if, as here, those discrete acts are associated with the conduct of the snow machine instruction and tour activity.
A reasonable person “would have contemplated that the agreements released the defendants from any negligence, not just from negligence inherent” in snowmobiling. McGrath, 158 N.H. at 547.
B. The Release encompasses the negligence claims against OBK
Plaintiffs further argue that the Release failed to place them on notice that they were releasing OBK from liability, since OBK is not a named party to the exculpatory contract, and is not mentioned by name. Relying on Porter v. Dartmouth College, No. 07-cv-28-PB, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831 (D.N.H. Sept. 30, 2009), plaintiffs note that the Release repeatedly makes reference to the Mountain View Grand and its equipment, but does not mention OBK or its instructors. Therefore, they say, a reasonable person would not understand that the Release also purported to absolve OBK from liability for its own negligence.
“An exculpatory contract need not specifically identify the defendant by name.” Porter, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831, at *3 (citing Dean, 147 N.H. at 270). “However, the contract must at least provide a functional identification of the parties being released.” Id. Here, the Release reads in relevant part:
I . [*13] . . voluntarily agree to release . . . BPMC, the field operator, the event promoter, the owners of premises used to conduct the snowmobile activity, their owners, agents, officers and employees from any and all claims, actions or losses for bodily injury, . . . wrongful death or injury, loss of services or otherwise which may arise out of my use of [equestrian] or other equipment or my participation in any BPMC activity. I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions . . . for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, designees or employees of BPMC.
Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A (emphasis supplied).
Defendants point out that OBK, and Welch individually, are covered by the Release because they are both “agents” of BPMC, and they acted as the referenced “field operator” for the snow machine tour. Indeed, plaintiffs specifically alleged the existence of an agency relationship between BPMC and OBK in their Complaint. See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 48 (“Mountain View Grand controlled in whole or in part the activities engaged in by Out Back Kayak and/or its employees and is vicariously [*14] liable for the negligent actions of the snow mobile tour guides committed while engaged in the scope of employment.”). The asserted agency relationship is an essential element of plaintiffs’ vicarious liability claim. Defendants readily agree that OBK and Welch were agents of BPMC. For reasons satisfactory to the parties, they do not dispute OBK’s or Welch’s status as agents of BPMC. As BPMC’s agent, OBK and Welch are plainly covered by the Release.
Moreover, plaintiffs’ reliance on Porter is unhelpful. In Porter, the plaintiff, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, was fatally injured while participating in a class that included ski lessons, at a facility owned, operated, and maintained by Dartmouth. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831, at *1. Her estate filed suit, asserting claims for negligence and wrongful death. Id. Dartmouth argued that the claims were barred by a release agreement plaintiff signed before renting ski equipment for the class. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, [WL] at *2. The release in Porter, which had been drafted by Solomon (the ski and bindings manufacturer), did not mention Dartmouth by name, and repeatedly emphasized and referred only to ski equipment being rented by the student. See 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, [WL] at *3. Based on those distinguishing facts, the court concluded [*15] that the release failed to place the “equipment renter on even functional notice that Dartmouth was in any way a party” to the release agreement. Id.
Unlike the release at issue in Porter, the Release here makes evident that it pertains not just to the furnishing and use of equipment associated with the snow machine activity, but also to the furnishing of services associated with that activity. The clearest example is found in the first paragraph of the Release, which provides: “In consideration of Brothers Property Management Corporation . . . furnishing services and equipment to enable me to participate in the Snow Machine tour (snowmobiling), I acknowledge and agree as follows.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A (emphasis added). Indeed, nearly every time the Release references the signatory’s use of equipment, the Release also references the signatory’s participation in the snow machine lesson and tour. See id. Such references objectively manifest the parties’ intent that the Release encompass all claims based upon the negligent provision of services – including services provided by Mountain View Grand’s agent, OBK — that related to plaintiffs’ participation in the snow machine [*16] tour activity. While not identified by name, OBK and Welch were functionally identified as benefitting from the Release, when acting as agents of Mountain View Grand.
C. Jennifer’s failure to initial certain paragraphs of the Release does not preclude its enforcement.
Plaintiffs next argue that, even if the Release does encompass the claims at issue, it is still not enforceable against Jennifer, because she failed to initial paragraphs B and D of the Release. Plaintiffs characterize the lettered paragraphs as “several distinct exculpatory clauses” that they were required to agree to separately, and which, as structured, give the impression that “the participant might agree to certain terms, but not others.” Pls.’ Mem. in Opp. to Mot. for Summary Judgment at p. 18. Because Jennifer did not initial two of the contract’s paragraphs, plaintiffs say, those paragraphs are not enforceable against her. At the very least, plaintiffs continue, Jennifer’s failure to initial those paragraphs gives rise to disputed issues of material fact regarding her intent to be bound by those paragraphs, and whether there was a “meeting of the minds” with respect to releasing defendants from liability for their [*17] own negligence. Id.
In response, defendants point out that the final paragraph of the Release reads:
I have read the above paragraphs and fully understand their content. I understand that this is a Release of Liability, which will legally prevent me or any other person from filing suit and making any other claims for damages in the event of personal injury, death or property damage.
Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A. Defendants argue that the final paragraph clearly and explicitly incorporates the terms of paragraphs B and D, and therefore plaintiffs’ argument is unavailing.
The final paragraph of the Release is unambiguous. By signing the Release, Jennifer acknowledged that she had read the entire agreement and agreed to its terms; all of its terms. Cf. Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., No. 14-CV-049-JD, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *3 (D.N.H. July 16, 2015) (finding that plaintiff’s failure to sign a release on the back of a form did not bar enforcement, where plaintiff had signed the front of the agreement following a statement acknowledging that she had read the agreement on the back of the form concerning the release of liability, and agreed to its terms); see also Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 269-70, 552 A.2d 99 (1988) (“The plaintiff argues, however, that she is not bound by the [*18] condition in the release, as she never returned the release to Merchants. The return of the release, however, is irrelevant, as it was the acceptance of a check offered on the condition that it constitute payment in full, rather than the signing of the release, which bound [plaintiff]. It is also irrelevant whether she actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when [plaintiff] had the opportunity to read it before cashing the check.”). Here, Jennifer acknowledged having read the entire release and objectively manifested her agreement, after which she accepted the services to be provided only on condition that a full release first be given.
The parties do not cite New Hampshire authorities directly on point, nor has the court found any, but it appears that the Tenth Circuit addressed a nearly identical issue in Elsken v. Network Multi-Family Security Corp, 49 F.3d 1470 (10th Cir. 1995). In Elsken, the plaintiff entered into a services agreement with a security corporation to provide a 24-hour alarm system. Id. at 1471. The agreement contained a limitation of liability clause, on the same page as a space provided for a party to initial. Id. at 1473. The plaintiff signed the agreement, but failed to initial the line next to the [*19] limitation of liability clause. Plaintiff there also signed the agreement below a provision “articulating a presumption that the agreement was properly executed,” which read:
Resident acknowledges that resident has read and understands all of this resident agreement including the terms and conditions on this side and the reverse side, particularly Paragraph 3.0 Limitation of Liability and agrees to the amounts set forth herein.
Id. at 1473. The plaintiff was subsequently fatally stabbed in her apartment. Her estate filed suit against the security alarm company, asserting claims for breach of contract, negligence, and breach of warranties based on the alarm company’s failure to properly respond to an alarm. Plaintiffs argued that the limitation of liability clause was not effective because plaintiff did not initial the line provided for that purpose, and, therefore, had not objectively manifested her agreement to the waiver provision. Id. at 1472-73.
The court of appeals found that plaintiff’s failure to initial the line provided did not preclude summary judgment, since plaintiff had signed “directly below a statement of acceptance of the contract that explicitly incorporates the provisions on the reverse side [*20] of the page.” Id. at 1474. The court determined that, “[b]ased upon a plain reading of the contract,” plaintiff agreed to the contract in its entirety as written. Id. So too, here. Jennifer’s signature directly follows a paragraph that references the liability waiver clauses defendants seek to enforce.
Finally, plaintiffs point to no evidence in the record that might support a finding that Jennifer’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D was in any way motivated by an objection to or non-acceptance of either of those terms. Nor do they point to evidence in the record that would support a finding that Jennifer ever expressed any objection to the terms of paragraphs B and D before executing the agreement. Indeed, the relevant evidence of record suggests that Jennifer’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D was not the product of a conscious decision. See Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C, p. 4 (Q: “Do you have any explanation for why A, C, and E were initialed, but not B and D?” Jennifer Lizzol: “No.” . . . Q: “Was there a conscious decision on your part not to initial B and D?” Jennifer Lizzol: “No.”)
Jennifer Lizzol’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D of the Release does not render the Release [*21] or those paragraphs unenforceable against her. The same general analysis applies to Michael Lizzol’s failure to initial Paragraph B of the Release.
D. The Release does not violate public policy.
Plaintiffs argue that the Release contravenes public policy, because its enforcement would relieve an instructor from liability for his own negligent instruction. Plaintiffs contend that because the instructor/guide holds a position of authority over the conduct of the snow machine tour, the instructor/guide is uniquely positioned to ensure that the tour is conducted in a reasonably safe manner. So, plaintiffs say, releasing an instructor of his or her obligation to exercise reasonable care will result in that instructor failing to make a good faith effort to carry out his duties, which, they say, is what happened here. That contravenes public policy, they argue, because it will surely impede public safety.
The argument, while creative, avoids the public policy analysis required under New Hampshire law. “A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there [*22] was no other disparity in bargaining power.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106. “‘A special relationship exists when “the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service.'” Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106). Additionally, a release may be against public policy if, among other things, “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Serna, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (citing McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543).
Plaintiffs do not contend that a “special relationship” existed between the parties, as that term is used in the liability waiver context. Nor could they. While the Mountain View Grand is an inn, the Release does “not pertain to the usual activities of running an inn,” but instead to the Mountain View Grand’s facilitation of collateral outdoor recreation activities. Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2. And snowmobiling (like skating, Serna, id., and snowboarding, McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544) constitutes recreational activity, not “an activity ‘of such great importance or necessity to the public that it creates a special relationship.'” Serna, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (quoting McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544).
“Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544 (citing Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). But, “there [is] no [*23] substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that [plaintiffs were] required to sign the release in order to” participate in the snow machine lesson and tour. Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Here, the plaintiffs were “under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release,” and “[s]ince the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength” over the plaintiffs or others who sought to participate in the snowmobile lesson and tour. Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108.
The Release does not violate public policy.
E. The plaintiffs have not sufficiently established fraud in the inducement.
Finally, plaintiffs argue that the Release is unenforceable because they were fraudulently induced to enter into the agreement. Plaintiffs assert that defendants had prior knowledge that Welch generally drove too quickly when conducting snow machine tours, and, notwithstanding that knowledge, failed (negligently) to take reasonable steps to ensure that Welch conducted the tours safely. Plaintiffs further contend that they were induced to sign the Release based upon defendants’ false assurances that the lesson and tour would be conducted in a safe manner, with adequate instruction, and at [*24] a safe speed. Relying on those assurances, plaintiffs signed the Release. Plaintiffs argue that, at the very least, whether the defendants made assurances (and omissions) regarding the nature of the snow machine tour with conscious indifference to the truth, and whether the plaintiffs justifiably relied upon those statements when signing the Release, are disputed issues of material fact precluding summary judgment.
“Under New Hampshire law, fraud in the inducement is a valid defense to a contract action and can be raised to void a contract.” Bryant v. Liberty Mut. Grp., Inc., No. 11-CV-217-SM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76713, 2013 WL 2403483, at *9 (D.N.H. May 31, 2013) (citing Nashua Trust Co. v. Weisman, 122 N.H. 397, 400, 445 A.2d 1101 (1982)). As the parties seeking to invalidate the Release on fraudulent inducement grounds, plaintiffs bear a substantial burden: they “must establish that the other party made a representation with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to its truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it. In addition, the party seeking to prove fraud must demonstrate justifiable reliance.” Trefethen v. Liberty Mut. Grp., Inc., No. 11-CV-225-SM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76753, 2013 WL 2403314, at *7 (D.N.H. May 31, 2013)(quoting Van Der Stok v. Van Voorhees, 151 N.H. 679, 682, 866 A.2d 972 (2005)) (additional citations omitted).
Plaintiffs rely on Van Der Stok v. Van Voorhees, but that decision offers little support. That case arose [*25] out of a transaction for the sale of real estate. The plaintiff represented that defendant-purchaser would be able to build on the property, but did not disclose that his own earlier application to the zoning board for a permit to build on the property had been denied. After the closing, defendant went to the town offices to inquire about the property, and first learned that plaintiff’s earlier permit application had been denied. Defendant stopped payment on the check given at closing to cover the purchase price. The plaintiff subsequently filed an action, and defendant raised fraud in the inducement as a defense to plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff argued the defendant could not show reasonable reliance on his purported misrepresentation, because the purchase and sale agreement provided, “Seller makes no representations as to land use law or regulations.” Id. at 682.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected that argument for two reasons. First, the court was unconvinced that the disclaimer “would put a reasonable person on notice that he could not rely upon the specific representation made . . . that the particular lot he was buying was a buildable lot.” Id. at 683. Moreover, the plaintiff had “made a representation [*26] with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to the truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it.” Id. (quoting Snierson v. Scruton, 145 N.H. 73, 77, 761 A.2d 1046 (2000)). Such “positive fraud,” the court stated, “vitiates every thing.” Id. (quoting Jones v. Emery, 40 N.H. 348, 350 (1860)).
This case is distinguishable from Van Der Stok because the Lizzols have not shown what representation defendant(s) allegedly made “with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to its truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it.” Id. In support of their assertion that defendants knew (or believed) that Walsh was likely to conduct their particular tour in an unsafe manner, plaintiffs point to the following: (1) “[u]pon information and belief, there had been complaints from customers that OBK’s tour guides, specifically Martin Welch, had driven unreasonably fast while conducting tours; (2) after the incident, the MVG manager asked Michael if Welch had been “driving too fast again.”
Admissibility of that evidence is doubtful, and it is plainly insufficient to support a finding that defendants knew that plaintiffs’ lesson and tour would be conducted in a negligent or actionably unsafe manner or were recklessly indifferent to that likelihood. And [*27] plaintiffs have identified no particular representation made by defendants, with the intention to induce plaintiffs to rely upon it, and, upon which they justifiably relied, that either proved to be false or the product of reckless indifference to the truth. The only statement in the record to which they point (Welch’s statement that he would not drive the snow machines faster than 20 miles per hour) occurred after plaintiffs signed the Release. The record is also utterly silent with respect to whether speed in excess of 20 mph is considered dangerous or negligent when conducting a snowmobile tour, or whether “too fast” in the past equates to the speed driven by the guide on plaintiffs’ tour, or even what “too fast” might mean in the context of a snowmobile tour that included novices.
Because plaintiffs have not produced sufficient evidence from which a finder of fact could conclude that the defendants knowingly made fraudulent representations to them, they have not established that a genuine issue of fact exists with respect to whether their execution of the Release was fraudulently induced, and is therefore ineffective.
The Release is valid and enforceable, and it encompasses the plaintiffs’ [*28] bystander liability claim as well as their negligence claims.
For the foregoing reasons, and for those argued in the defendants’ memoranda, the motion for summary judgment (document no. 23) is necessarily granted under controlling New Hampshire law. The Release at issue here is not ambiguous. It unmistakably released the defendants from any liability relating to their negligence, and that of their employees and agents. Neither qualifying language nor any other provision in, nor the structure of the Release, obscured the defendants’ intent to be relieved of all liability for their own negligence. A reasonable person would have understood that the Release relieved the defendants of all liability for injuries caused by their negligence. The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment for defendants and close the case.
/s/ Steven J. McAuliffe
Steven J. McAuliffe
United States District Judge
October 31, 2016