Twenty years ago, the New Hampshire Supreme Court shows how you can trample common sense to find a release invalid.

Release was signed for a trail ride and plaintiff claimed she told guide his horse was getting ready to act out before it kicked her.

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

Defendant: Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

Twenty-year-old New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions shows how convoluted a court can get when it decides a release will not be enforced. Court held the language in the release was confusing. However, to get that point the court had to not read the release I think.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up for a trail ride with the defendant. While on the ride she was kicked in the leg by another horse. She sued. On appeal she argued that her guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse, the one that kicked the plaintiff, was about to “act out.”

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.”

[Every time I’ve been bit or kicked by a horse there was no warning. Sure, if a horse’s ears go back, there is a warning, but most times, horse 1, Moss 0. I wish there were indications that a horse was going to act out.]

Prior to suing she signed a release. The trial court dismissed her claim because of the release. She appealed.

New Hampshire has a two-tier court system. The trial court is called the Superior Court and appeals from the Superior Court are appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This appeal was decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The entire issue before the court was “whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence.”

The defendant argued the release “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding’“.

The Supreme Court looked at this decision in its analysis in a slightly different way.

This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.”

“Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”

The court then read the release to determine if a reasonable person would have known about the exculpatory clause in the release. The court then worked hard to find a reasonable person would not.

A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” We will assess the clarity of the con-tract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case.

The language the court examined was in all caps so the language stood out from the surrounding language. However, the court stated that when the entire agreement was read, the all cap language was unclear. (?) The court’s determination that the clause was not clear was based on the word therefore.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that rea-son: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The court found additional language that it held confused the meaning of the release. The court concluded its analysis with this statement.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions.

There was a dissent by two justices. Both who found the majority’s analysis was just a little ridiculous.

So Now What?

Sometimes your release is not going to win. In those cases, you are going to rely on your insurance company. In this case, the court worked hard to find little ways it could justify its desire to not support the release.

Possibly, this release might have had a better chance with a simple clear statement that by signing the release the signor could not sue for negligence. This release reads like it was written by an attorney training to kill trees rather than write documents for consumers.

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Brenda Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

August 22, 1995, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Released for Publication September 7, 1995.

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiff injured brought a negligence action against defendant tour company after being hurt while on a horseback riding tour. The injured appealed the decision of the Superior Court of Merrimack County (New Hampshire), which granted the tour company’s motion for summary judgment.

OVERVIEW: Before going horseback riding on the tour, the injured signed an exculpatory agreement that released the tour company from liability as a result of various occurrences. The tour company successfully argued in the trial court that the exculpatory agreement barred the injured’s suit. The court found that the issue of whether the injured understood the agreement presented an issue of fact. In assessing the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, the court found that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses and did not clearly relieve the tour company of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in the case. The court reasoned that one clause was understandable to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injures that occurred for that reason. However, the court found that receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence was not an inherent danger. Because the contract did not put the injured on clear notice, the tour company was not entitled to summary judgment.

OUTCOME: The judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded.

CORE TERMS: horse, exculpatory, horseback riding, reasonable person, exculpatory provision, personal injury, own negligence, summary judgment, public policy, animal, exculpatory clauses, issue of fact, opportunity to prove, contravenes, inclusive, obscured, verb, tour guide, qualifying, notice, ridden, matter of law, entitled to judgment, contract language, misunderstanding, unabridged, exhaustive, quotations, prefaced, genuine

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Movants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

[HN2] The court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision. Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

[HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

[HN4] The court examines the language of the release to determine whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have known of the exculpatory provision. A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. The court assesses the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

New Hampshire Supreme Court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy.

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

The plaintiff’s understanding of the release presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

A reasonable person would “understand” an exculpatory provision if its language clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

Release language should be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

The release language fails where it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases and doesn’t put the plaintiff on clear notice.

COUNSEL: Craig, Wenners, Craig & Casinghino, P.A., of Manchester (Gary L. Casinghino and Gemma M. Dreher on the brief, and Mr. Casinghino orally), for the plaintiff.

Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A., of Manchester (Gregory D. H. Jones and Joseph M. McDonough, III, on the brief, and Mr. Jones orally), for the defendant.

JUDGES: JOHNSON, J.; THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[*167] [**1341] JOHNSON, J. The question presented is whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) found that the signed release barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. We reverse.

Before embarking on a horseback riding tour at the Loon Mountain Equestrian Center, owned and operated by the defendant, the plaintiff was asked to read, complete, and sign the following exculpatory [***2] agreement:

I accept for use, as is, the animals listed on this form and accept full responsibility for its care while it is in my possession. I have made no misrepresentation to Loon Mountain regarding my name, address or age. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation and its owners, agents and employees for any loss or damage, including any that result from claims for personal injury or property damage related to the use of this animal.

I understand and am aware that horseback riding is a HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY. I understand that the above activity and the use of horses involves a risk of injury to any and all parts of my body. I hereby agree to freely and expressly assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death from the use of this animal while participating in this activity.

I understand that it is not possible to predict every situation and condition of the terrain a horse will be ridden on; therefore, it is impossible to guarantee the horse I am riding will react safely in all riding situations. [*168]

I realize that it is mandatory that I wear a helmet at all times while horseback riding, and that I will obey all trail signs [***3] and remain only on open trails.

I therefore release Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, its owners, agents and employees FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES AND PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF OR ANY PERSON OR PROPERTY RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF LOON MOUNTAIN RECREATION CORPORATION TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all damages or injury of any kind which may result. (PLEASE SIGN: Brenda Wright/s)

I agree that there have been no warranties, expressed or implied, which have been made to me which extend beyond the description of the equipment listed on this form. I the undersigned, acknowledge that I have carefully read this agreement and release of liability, and I understand its contents. I understand that my signature below expressly waives any rights I have to sue Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation for injuries and damages.

The plaintiff signed this agreement after the fifth paragraph and at the bottom.

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging [***4] that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.” The defendant argued that the exculpatory contract barred the plaintiff’s suit and moved for summary judgment. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) granted its motion, and this appeal followed.

[**1342] On appeal, the defendant argues that we should uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the contract “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding.”

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory [*169] evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.


Phillips v. Verax [***5] Corp., 138 N.H. 240, 243, 637 A.2d 906, 909 (1994) (brackets, ellipses, and quotations omitted).

[HN2] This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H.. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777, 779 (1994). “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151, 154 (1986). “Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” Id.

The plaintiff does not argue that the exculpatory contract contravenes public policy. Accordingly, we determine only whether “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement,” and if not, whether “a reasonable person in [her] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Id.

The parties dispute whether the plaintiff understood the agreement to release the defendant from [***6] liability for its own negligence. [HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable. See Phillips, 138 N.H. at 243, 637 A.2d at 909; Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

[HN4] We therefore examine the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154; cf. Raudonis v. Ins. Co. of North America, 137 N.H. 57, 59, 623 A.2d 746, 747 (1993) (interpretation of insurance contract language a question of law; we construe terms as would reasonable person in insured’s position). A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154. We will assess the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated [*170] words and phrases. See Chadwick v. CSI, Ltd., [***7] 137 N.H. 515, 524, 629 A.2d 820, 826 (1993).

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

The defendant emphasizes the language of the agreement’s fifth paragraph, which states: “I therefore release [the defendant] from ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any . . . injury of any kind which may result.” (Emphasis added.) We find that when this clause is read within the [**1343] context of the entire agreement, its meaning is less than clear.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that reason: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced [***8] by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.” Being kicked by a horse is a danger inherent to horseback riding; receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence, however, is not.

The exculpatory phrase in the fifth paragraph is further clouded by the qualifying language that follows. Pursuant to the contract, the defendant is released from liability for its negligence “to include negligence in selection, adjustment or any maintenance of any horse.” If we parse these terms, they do not necessarily restrict the defendant’s release to liability for negligent selection, adjustment, or maintenance of any horse. The superfluity of the terms, however, serves to obscure rather than clarify. Moreover, one sense of the word “inclusive” is “covering or intended to cover all items . . . .” Webster’s, [***9] supra at 1143. A reasonable person reading the clause thus might conclude that the agreement relieved the defendant of responsibility for the enumerated types of negligence only.

[*171] Whether the tour guide’s failure to control his horse constitutes “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse,” is unclear. Webster’s gives several definitions for the word “maintain,” the two most relevant being: (1) “to keep in a state of repair, efficiency, or validity: preserve from failure or decline” and (2) “to provide for: bear the expense of: SUPPORT.” Webster’s, supra at 1362. When read in the context of selection and adjustment, therefore, a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff might understand “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse” to relate to negligent upkeep rather than control.

The contract is also unclear with respect to injuries involving horses not ridden by the plaintiff. The first, second, and third paragraphs emphasize only the horse that the plaintiff “accept[s] for use.” We reject the defendant’s argument that the phrase “use of this animal,” used in the first and second paragraphs, “is merely an alternative expression for the activity of ‘horseback [***10] riding.'” We also reject the defendant’s contention that the phrase “use of this animal” does not limit the contract’s application to injuries involving the plaintiff’s horse because “[a] careful reading . . . reveals that it is part of a clause modifying plaintiff’s agreement to ‘hold harmless and indemnify [the defendant] for any loss or damage. . . .'” The Barnes test requires that release language be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

In Audley, we concluded:

Quite simply, the general release language does not satisfy the Barnes requirement that the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. The release fails in this respect not because it neglects to use the word ‘negligence’ or any other special terms; instead it fails because no particular attention is called to the notion of releasing the defendant from liability for his own negligence. The general language in the context of the release simply did not put the plaintiff on clear notice of such intent.


Audley, 138 N.H. at 419, 640 A.2d at 779 (quotations and citations omitted). [***11] Whereas the release language in Audley failed because it was too general, the release language in the present case fails because it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases. The cases are similar, however, because neither contract put the plaintiff “on clear notice,” id.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent [**1344] to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable [*172] care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions. The defendant was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

THAYER, J., dissenting: I would uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the exculpatory contract explicitly indicated an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. The contract in question purports to release the defendant from “ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE [***12] OF ANY HORSE.” The language clearly indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. I agree with the majority that the use of the word “therefore” restricts the release to negligence associated with the inherent hazards of horseback riding. I do not agree, however, that the negligence alleged is not such a risk. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s employee had failed to properly control his horse, and that as a result, the horse “acted out.” Controlling a horse is an essential part of horseback riding. The possibility that someone will fail to exercise the proper control would seem to fall squarely within the category of dangers inherent in the sport.

The majority bases its holding in part on its interpretation of the phrase “to include.” In holding that the list prefaced by the words “to include” is meant to be exhaustive, the majority relies on a definition of the word “inclusive.” Such reliance is misplaced. The contract used the word “include” as a verb. The primary relevant definition of that word is “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or a larger group, class, or aggregate.” Webster’s Third New International [***13] Dictionary 1143 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). “Inclusive,” however, is an adjective and its definition differs from the verb form of the word. See In re Dumaine, 135 N.H. 103, 107, 600 A.2d 127, 129 (1991). The use of the verb form of the word indicates that the listed types of negligence are “component[s] of a whole or a larger group,” Webster’s, supra, and that the list was not exhaustive.

The appropriate question, therefore, is whether the negligence alleged in this case is of the same type as those listed. The plaintiff [*173] alleges that the defendant’s employee failed to properly control his mount. This would seem to fall squarely within the type of negligence defined by the contract. That the horse causing the injury was not ridden by the plaintiff is irrelevant. The contract releases the defendant for negligence resulting from “the use of horses” and specifically from “NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE.” (Emphasis added.) While the contract does refer to the plaintiff’s horse on a number of occasions, it also refers to horses generally and to “any” horse. This language cannot be read to restrict the defendant’s release [***14] solely to injuries caused by the plaintiff’s horse. I disagree with the majority’s reading of the exculpatory contract. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

BROCK, C.J., joins in the dissent.


Poorly written jurisdiction and venue clause places the defendant in jam when the defendant counter claims for attorney fees and costs.

This case was based on a zip-line accident. The release signed by the plaintiff had a forum selection clause, also known as a jurisdiction and venture clause. However, the clause was limited way so that when the defendant brought a counterclaim for attorney fees, it negated the forum selection clause.

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

State: Massachusetts, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Josephine Pittman

Defendant: Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: gross negligence and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Basically, for the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

This case was based on a zip line accident at the defendant’s location. The plaintiff filed the case in state court in Massachusetts. The defendant then removed the case to Federal District Court because the parties were from two different states.

After removal, the defendant filed a counterclaim for fees and costs as per the release. The plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss the counter claim because it was filed in the wrong court. Meaning the jurisdiction and venue clause was written in such a way it only applied to the complaint and not the counterclaim.

Facts

The facts concerning the actual accident are nowhere in the decision. This decision is based solely on the issues of jurisdiction and venue.

This opinion is based upon a motion to dismiss filed by the plaintiff, to dismiss the counter claim of the defendant for attorney fees and costs for filing the complaint to begin with.

No decision on the facts was made as of the writing of this decision.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court did a thorough analysis of forum selection clauses in its review of the issues.

In that jurisdiction, forum selection clauses, also known as jurisdiction and venue clauses, are valid and usually upheld. “Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'”

There are two issues the court must review to determine if the forum selection clause should be followed.

Before giving effect to a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold is-sues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it.

There are two types of forum selection clauses, mandatory and permissive. Permissive forum selection clauses allow the parties to change the jurisdiction and venue. Mandatory clauses require the court to follow the contract and change the venue and apply the jurisdiction identified in the forum selection clause.

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'”

Not only is the language in the clause used to determine if it is permissive or mandatory, but also if the forum selection clause refers to a venue. Mandatory forum selection clauses include a required venue.

The next part, whether the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to the clause was the major issue. Consequently, the language of the clause was the difference. The clause stated: “”[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement

The court interpreted the clause to only apply to the lawsuit brought by the plaintiff, as the clause states. The court found the forum selection clause did not apply to the counterclaim filed by the defendant against the plaintiff.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, here is where the decision starts to twist, and the defendant is saved, but only saved by accident.

The plaintiff in filing their motion to dismiss the counterclaim did not also move to change the venue or send the case back to state court. The plaintiff’s claim was going to be litigated in Federal District court where it has been moved.

The court implies if the plaintiff had moved to dismiss or change venue the court might have been inclined to do so. As it was, the forum selection clause only applied to the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant. The court claim was not subject to the clause.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, since the majority of the lawsuit would be based on the plaintiff’s complaint, it would be jurisdictionally economical to keep both cases together. Furthermore, the plaintiff claimed in her defense to the release that she was fraudulently induced to sign the release. If she prevailed on that claim, the forum selection clause would not apply because the contract, the release would not be valid.

If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.

So, until the trial is over on the plaintiff’s complaint and the validity of the plaintiff’s defense to the release, the motion to change the venue because the forum selection, clause did not apply to the country claim was denied.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the defendant’s counterclaim.

So Now What?

Here again, not understanding the breath of a lawsuit when writing a release almost cost the defendant. Judicial economy, not wasting the court’s time and money or either of the parties’ time and money is what saved the day.

If you need your release written properly to cover the issues, you have, the people you market too and the activities you offer, please contact me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

    

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

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Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 16-30182-MGM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

June 9, 2017, Decided

June 9, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Adopted by, Motion denied by Pittman v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106873 (D. Mass., July 11, 2017)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT; Timothy P. Wickstrom, Wickstrom Morse, LLP, Whitinsville, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant, Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA; Michael W. Garland, Burns & Farrey, P.C., Worcester, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA.

For Josephine Pittman, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT.

JUDGES: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

OPINION

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTERLCLAIM FOR IMPROPER VENUE

(Dkt. No. 11)

ROBERTSON, U.S.M.J.

I. Introduction

On or around October 19, 2016, plaintiff Josephine Pittman (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint in the Trial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Superior Court Department, Franklin County (Dkt. No. 1-1). In summary, the complaint alleged that Plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a participant in a zip [*2] line canopy tour on the premises of defendant Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc. (“Defendant”). Defendant removed the case to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which provides for removal of actions where the parties are diverse (Dkt. No. 1). In this court, Defendant answered the complaint and asserted a counterclaim against Plaintiff for fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3). Presently before the court is Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss Counterclaim for Improper Venue (“Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss”), which was referred to the undersigned for Report and Recommendation by the presiding District Judge (Dkt. No. 27). For the reasons set forth below, the court recommends that Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss be denied.

II. Relevant background

Plaintiff’s initial complaint (“Complaint”) asserted claims of gross negligence (Count I) and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability (“Participant Agreement”) signed by Plaintiff as a condition of her participation in the zip lining activity (Count II) (Dkt. No. 1-1).1 In its response to the Complaint, Defendant asserted a counterclaim for contractual indemnification based on the contents of the Participation Agreement signed by Plaintiff. [*3] 2 Defendant attached a copy of the Participant Agreement as Exhibit A to Defendant’s Answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint, Counterclaim and Claim for Jury Trial (Dkt. No. 3).

1 With leave of court, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on June 5, 2017 (“Amended Complaint”), adding a claim of ordinary negligence and claims of loss of consortium on behalf of her husband, Ronald Pittman, and her daughter, Lillian Pittman (Dkt. No. 34).

2 The formal title of the document is “Participant Agreement, Release and Acknowledgement of Risk.”

In relevant part, the Participant Agreement provides as follows:

2. I expressly agree to and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity [expressly including zip line canopy tours]. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless Zoar from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of Zoar’s equipment, vehicles, facilities, or premises before, during, and after this activity including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of Zoar.

4. Should Zoar or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.

. . .

6. In the event that I file a lawsuit against Zoar, I agree the Venue of any dispute that may arise out of this agreement [*4] or otherwise between the parties to which Zoar or its agents is a party shall be either in the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts. I further agree that the substantive law of Massachusetts shall apply in that action without regard to the conflict of law rules of that state.3

(Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2).

3 The court takes judicial notice of the fact that a “town of Charlemont Justice Court” does not exist in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The parties agreed at oral argument that the Superior Court in Franklin County is the venue designated by the forum selection clause.

Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is based solely on the forum selection clause in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 11).

III. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

In this circuit, a motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause is treated “as a motion alleging the failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6).” Rivera v. Centro Medico de Turabo, Inc., 575 F.3d 10, 15 (1st Cir. 2009) (citing Silva v. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 239 F.3d 385, 387 & n.3 (1st Cir. 2001)). This court “must ‘accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint, draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the [counterclaim] plaintiff’s favor, and determine whether the [counterclaim], so read, limns facts sufficient to justify recovery on any cognizable theory.'” Id. (quoting LaChapelle v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 142 F.3d 507, 508 (1st Cir. 1998)). A court considering a motion to dismiss “may properly consider only facts and documents that are part of or incorporated into the complaint.” Trans-Spec Truck Serv., Inc. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 524 F.3d 315, 321 (1st Cir. 2008). In the present [*5] action, Defendant has attached the Participant Agreement in support of its counterclaim, and neither party disputes the authenticity of the document. Accordingly, in ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss, the court may appropriately take into account the contents of the Participant Agreement, including the choice of forum provision which is the basis of that motion. See Alternative Energy, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 267 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2001) (document sufficiently referred to in the complaint, the authenticity of which is not disputed, properly may be considered on a 12(b)(6) motion).

It remains an unsettled question in this circuit whether “‘forum selection clauses are to be treated as substantive or procedural for Erie purposes.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16 (quoting Lambert v. Kysar, 983 F.2d 1110, 1116 & n.10 (1st Cir. 1993)). This is a question that the court need not address. See id. The forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement provides that Massachusetts law shall apply to legal actions arising out of the agreement or otherwise between the parties (Dkt. No. 35-1 at 1, ¶ 6). This court should, therefore, look to Massachusetts law for principles bearing on interpretation of the Participant Agreement. That said, there is no conflict between federal common law and Massachusetts law regarding the enforceability and interpretation [*6] of forum selection clauses. See generally Boland v. George S. May Int’l Co., 81 Mass. App. Ct. 817, 969 N.E.2d 166, 169-74 (Mass. App. Ct. 2012) (relying on federal and Massachusetts law for purposes of interpreting a forum selection clause). Accordingly, it is also appropriate for this court to apply federal common law in ruling on the enforceability and interpretation of the Participant Agreement’s forum selection clause. See Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16-17; see also OsComp Sys., Inc. v. Bakken Express, LLC, 930 F. Supp. 2d 261, 268 n.3 (D. Mass. 2013) (relying on federal common law where the parties did so; noting that there do not appear to be material discrepancies between federal and Massachusetts law regarding the validity and interpretation of forum selection clauses); Summa Humma Enters., LLC v. Fisher Eng’g, Civil No. 12-cv-367-LM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 856, 2013 WL 57042, at *3 (D. Me. Jan. 3, 2013) (court would apply Maine law to interpretation of forum selection clauses; because Maine law was co-extensive with federal law concerning the interpretation of a forum selection clause, the court would also apply federal common law to the interpretive task).

IV. Analysis

Notwithstanding citations to cases ruling that forum selection clauses can constitute a waiver of a defendant’s right to remove a case to federal court, Plaintiff has not moved for dismissal or remand of this case to the state court where it was filed. Rather, Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is limited [*7] to seeking dismissal of Defendant’s counterclaim. On this point, Plaintiff contends that this court is an improper venue for a counterclaim alleging contractual indemnity because the claim is a dispute between the parties that arises out of the Participant Agreement. Plaintiff notes that, in setting forth the designated venue, the forum selection clause uses the word “shall,” which, Plaintiff argues, connotes a mandatory choice of venue which is binding on Defendant (Dkt. No. 12). Defendant opposes Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss on the ground that the forum selection clause was binding on Plaintiff, but by its terms, did not constrain Defendant’s choice of venue for any claims it had against Plaintiff arising from the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 15). In the court’s view, Defendant has the better of the arguments.

Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'” Silva, 239 F.3d at 386 (quoting M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972)). “A forum selection clause ‘does not divest a court of [the] jurisdiction it otherwise retains, rather it constitutes a stipulation in which the parties join in asking the court to give effect to their agreement by declining to exercise jurisdiction.'” Provanzano v. Parker View Farm, Inc., 827 F. Supp. 2d 53, 58 (D. Mass. 2011) (quoting Silva, 239 F.3d at 389 n.6). Before giving effect to [*8] a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold issues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it. See id.

1. The Forum Selection Clause is Mandatory as to Claims to Which it Applies

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 17 (quoting 14D C.A. Wright, A.R. Miller & E.H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (3d ed. 1998)). “The use of words such as ‘will’ or ‘shall’ demonstrate parties’ exclusive commitment to the named forum.” Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Summit Packaging Sys., Inc. v. Kenyon & Kenyon, 273 F.3d 9, 12 (1st Cir. 2001)). Moreover, “[a] crucial distinction between mandatory and permissive clauses is whether the clause only mentions jurisdiction or specifically refers to venue.” Arguss Communs. Group, Inc. v. Teletron, Inc., No. CIV. 99-257-JD, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18085, 2000 WL 36936, at *7 (D.N.H. Nov. 19, 1999). In the present case, “[b]ecause the [Participant] Agreement uses the term ‘shall’ to describe . . . the commitment to resolving . . . [certain] litigation [*9] ‘in [either the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts,’] [and because it refers to ‘venue,’ not just ‘jurisdiction,’] it is a mandatory clause.” Xiao Wei Yang Catering Linkage in Inner Mongolia Co., LTD v. Inner Mongolia Xiao Wei Yang USA, Inc., 150 F. Supp. 3d 71, 77 (D. Mass. 2015). Indeed, the parties do not appear to dispute that the forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement is mandatory as to claims to which it applies.

2. The Forum Selection Clause Does Not Apply to Defendant’s Counterclaim

Whether to enforce a forum selection clause depends on whether the clause governs the claims asserted in the lawsuit. See Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Huffington v. T.C. Grp., LLC, 637 F.3d 18, 21 (1st Cir. 2011)); see also Pacheco v. St. Luke’s Emergency Assocs., P.C., 879 F. Supp. 2d 136, 140 (D. Mass. 2012). This is a matter of interpreting the terms of the contract between the parties. “The construction of a written contract which is plain in its terms and free from ambiguity presents a question of law for the court,'” Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 173 (quoting Hiller v. Submarine Signal Co., 325 Mass. 546, 91 N.E.2d 667, 669 (Mass. 1950)), and it is “‘the language of the forum selection clause itself that determines which claims fall within its scope.'” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140 (quoting Rivera, 575 F.3d at 19).

In the present case, the plain language of the forum selection clause mandated venue in the Franklin County Superior Court, but only as to claims asserted by Plaintiff. Plaintiff’s contention that the forum selection clause is binding on Defendant ignores the qualifying introductory clause of the provision, which states [*10] that “[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt No. 3-1 at 2). In this case, as in Rivera, the mandatory venue language “is preceded and informed by a qualifying phrase: ‘In the event that . . . [I file suit against Zoar] . . ., I . . . agree [the Venue] . . . .’ That is, the [Participant Agreement] required [Plaintiff] to assert any causes of action that [she] may have against [Defendant] in the [Franklin County Superior Court].” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 18. There is no comparable venue provision, nor is there any mandatory or restrictive language, in paragraph 4 related to an assertion by Defendant of a claim for recovery of attorney’s fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2). Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement. See Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140; Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 174; cf. Xiao Wei Catering Linkage, 150 F. Supp. 3d at 77 (satisfaction of condition precedent was required to trigger application of a forum selection clause).

Furthermore, because [*11] Plaintiff has not moved for remand and intends to prosecute her claims against Defendant in this court, it would be a waste of judicial resources to require Defendant to seek recovery of fees and costs in a separate state court action. In Count II of Plaintiff’s Complaint (and her amended complaint), she has alleged that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. “It is black-letter law that an agreement . . . is voidable by a party who is fraudulently induced to enter into it.” Green v. Harvard Vanguard Med. Assocs., Inc., 79 Mass. App. Ct. 1, 944 N.E.2d 184, 193 (Mass. App. Ct. 2011); see also St. Fleur v. WPI Cable Sys./Mutron, 450 Mass. 345, 879 N.E.2d 27, 35 (Mass. 2008) (a party is not bound by a contract she was fraudulently induced to sign). To prevail on the claim of ordinary negligence alleged in the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff will be required to prove that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. See Lee v. Allied Sports Assocs., 349 Mass. 544, 209 N.E.2d 329, 332-33 (Mass. 1965). If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 138.

V. Conclusion

For these reasons, it is this court’s RECOMMENDATION [*12] that Plaintiff’s Motion be DENIED.4

4 The parties are advised that under the provisions of Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b) or Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b), any party who objects to these findings and recommendations must file a written objection with the Clerk of this Court within fourteen (14) days of the party’s receipt of this Report and Recommendation. The written objection must specifically identify the portion of the proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for such objection. The parties are further advised that failure to comply with this rule shall preclude further appellate review by the Court of Appeals of the District Court order entered pursuant to this Report and Recommendation. See Keating v. Secretary of HHS, 848 F.2d 271, 275 (1st Cir. 1988); United States v. Valencia-Copete, 792 F.2d 4, 6 (1st Cir. 1986); Scott v. Schweiker, 702 F.2d 13, 14 (1st Cir. 1983); United States v. Vega, 678 F.2d 376, 378-79 (1st Cir. 1982); Park Motor Mart, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 616 F.2d 603, 604 (1st Cir. 1980). See also Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 154-55, 106 S. Ct. 466, 88 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1985). A party may respond to another party’s objections within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof.

/s/ Katherine A. Robertson

KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: June 9, 2017