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Does UM policy cover road rage incident?

After being on the receiving end of a golf club in an episode of road rage that erupted in a McDonald’s parking lot, two Colorado men wondered whether their injuries would be covered by the Allstate policy on their car.

Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals decided that the men were out of luck.

The insurance claim filed by Chanson Roque and Shannon Isenhour arose when the two men, in Isenhour’s car, exchanged angry words with Richard Terlingen, who was driving  alongside in his car. Isenhour turned into the parking lot of a Denver-area McDonald’s, but Terlingen wasn’t finished.

When Isenhour parked his car, Terlingen pulled up behind. Blocked in, Isenhour and Roque emerged from their car and were confronted immediately by Terlingen. The argument escalated from there, and Terlingen pulled a golf club from the trunk of his car. Terlingen used the golf club to administer a severe beating to Isenhour and Roque.

The two injured men subsequently sued Terlingen for their injuries.

Terlingen held home, umbrella, and automobile insurance policies with American Family Mutual Insurance Company. American Family obtained a declaratory judgment in federal court that it was not required to cover Terlingen. With regard to Terlingen’s auto policy, the federal court decided that it only covered Terlingen for third-party claims “due to the use of a car,” and that the road rage injuries suffered by Isenhour and Roque did not result from such use.

The federal court judgment rendered Terlingen an uninsured motorist, so Isenhour and Roque sought UM coverage under an Allstate policy on Isenhour’s vehicle. They sued in state court when Allstate denied coverage.

The trial court agreed with Allstate’s contention that the plaintiffs’ injuries did not arise from the use of an automobile.

Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Allstate issued by the trial court.

Isenhour and Roque did win one point before the state appeals court. Allstate argued as a threshold issue that, because the declaratory judgment in federal court determined that plaintiffs’ injuries had not resulted from Terlingen’s use of his vehicle, issue preclusion barred their claim against Allstate.

In rejecting Allstate’s argument, the state appeals court explained that “the issue litigated in federal court was not identical to the issue before us. This case involves a policy providing first-party coverage mandated by Colorado’s UM statute. The federal court addressed a different insurer’s policy providing third-party coverage. Such coverage does not fall under the UM statute.”

Unfortunately, Isenhour and Roque were doomed to lose on the substantive issue of whether their road rage injuries were covered by the Allstate policy.

“We conclude that exiting the car and then engaging in intentional misconduct breaks the requisite causal chain between use of the vehicle and the injuries,” the court said. (Roque v. Allstate

The court concluded on this note: 

Colorado’s uninsured motorist statute is intended only to “compensate[] a person injured by an uninsured motorist to the same extent as one injured by a motorist who is insured in compliance with the law,” not to “require full indemnification of losses suffered at the hands of uninsured motorists under all circumstances.”

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Paralegals get green light for FLSA class action

A Texas personal injury firm last week failed in its bid to derail a putative class action brought by salaried paralegals who claimed they were entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Batting aside The Mostyn Law Firm’s contention that its paralegals’ job duties were too varied to permit class treatment, a federal judge on Thursday granted conditional certification in an FLSA lawsuit brought by Sherri L. Davis and Carlos Alvarado.

“[T]he Court believes that Plaintiffs have advanced sufficient evidence to support conditional certification on a firm-wide basis, and as to all salaried paralegals,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison in his Jan. 19 order.

The Mostyn Law Firm has its headquarters in Houston. Some of the firm’s 30 lawyers also work out of offices in Austin, Beaumont and Galveston. Of late, the firm has been heavily engaged in representing property owners in insurance disputes arising from Hurricanes Ike and Rita.

Davis alleged that she was employed as a salaried paralegal with Mostyn from June 2007 until February 2009. According to Davis, she typically worked more than 70 hours a week. She claimed that dozens of other salaried paralegals at Mostyn worked more than 40 hours per week and, like her, were denied overtime pay.

Alvarado likewise claimed that he was employed by Mostyn as a paralegal from July 2009 to June 2010.  According to Alvarado, he regularly worked in excess of 50 hours a week. He also alleged that “dozens” of paralegals at Mostyn worked in excess of 40 hours a week and were not paid overtime.

Last August, Davis and Alvarado filed a class complaint for FLSA overtime against Mostyn in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The plaintiffs subsequently moved for issuance of class notice, seeking to notify current and former Mostyn paralegals of their right to recover unpaid overtime by joining the lawsuit.

Mostyn’s general position has been that the plaintiffs were independent contractors and that at least five different exemptions to the FLSA apply to any given paralegal in its workforce.

According to Mostyn, class treatment was particularly inappropriate because its paralegals perform a wide variety tasks depending on how they are classified within the firm and the particular office in which they work.

These were the main points in Mostyn’s argument that the plaintiffs could not show that they were similarly situated to other paralegals for purposes of justifying conditional FLSA class certification.

Judge Ellison concluded Thursday that the plaintiffs had made a sufficient showing to go forward with issuing notice to potential class members.

In particular, the judge decided that the plaintiffs satisfied their burden of providing evidence that Mostyn subjected a group of similarly situated potential class members to a “single decision, policy, or plan” that violated the provisions of the FLSA.

Addressing Mostyn’s point that its paralegals could not be deemed similarly situated because of their varied duties, the judge wrote:

Although there may have been some variation in paralegal duties, such variation does not indicate that the paralegals were not similarly situated. Indeed, even if paralegals’ duties “vary to some degree from day-to-day and possibly from location to location,” or even from docket to docket, the “thrust of the job duties,” as established by Plaintiffs’ declarations, remains similar. Moreover, the fact that some paralegals may have had different titles does not contravene the fact that the paralegals are in essence similarly situated.

The court also found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that they were subject to the same company-wide policy as other salaried paralegals, explaining that “Plaintiffs state that they have knowledge of other paralegals who performed similar work, were paid on a salary basis, and did not receive overtime. In addition, Davis alleges that she spoke with her office manager, who informed her that no salaried employee received overtime pay. At this stage, Plaintiffs’ declarations and allegations are sufficient to meet their lenient obligation.”

Mostyn probably imagined it had an ace in the hole in the form of the Supreme Court’s articulation of a heightened standard for class certification in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes

The firm was to be disappointed in this regard. The judge wrote that “Dukes does not advance Mostyn’s case, as Plaintiffs and salaried paralegals who have worked at Mostyn during the three-year period do not suffer from ‘dissimilarities’ that may ‘impede the generation of common answers.’”

Dispensing with Mostyn’s remaining objections, the judge conditionally certified a class of all of the firm’s “current and former salaried paralegal employees who worked more than forty (40) hours in a workweek but were not paid one and one-half times their regular rate of pay at any time starting August 3, 2008 to present.” (Davis v. The Mostyn Law Firm)

As a consequence of the judge’s decision, Mostyn has to go about the process of turning over to the plaintiffs information necessary for identifying and contacting potential class members.

To keep everything on the up and up, the judge further prohibited Mostyn’s management “from communicating, directly or indirectly, with any current or former paralegal employees about any matters which touch or concern the settlement of any outstanding wage claims or other matters related to this suit during the opt-in period.”

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Bigfoot carries the day in free speech fight

You probably never imagined that you would ever see the terms “Bigfoot” and “First Amendment” in the same sentence, but somehow a staged appearance by the hairy beast at a famed New Hampshire mountaintop turned into a court fight over freedom of expression.

As it turns out, the guy in the monkey suit struck a blow for free speech.

The guy in the monkey suit happens to be Jonathan Doyle. The 31-year-old performance artist has an interest in the legendary ape-like creature known as Bigfoot. Several years ago, he came up with the bright idea of filming himself dressed up as Bigfoot at the top of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

I’ve never heard of the place before, but supposedly the 3,165-foot peak is the second-most climbed mountain in the world. Tourists are drawn to the mountaintop because it gives 100-mile views to points in all six New England states.

Doyle just couldn’t keep himself from such a stage. On Sept. 6, 2009, Doyle hiked up Mount Monadnock with his girlfriend and put on an ape costume. Dressed as Bigfoot, Doyle filmed himself clowning around with other hikers.

After about 20 minutes of harmless fun, Doyle took off the costume and called it a day. On his way down the mountain, he came across a couple of Monadnock State Park staffers and got them to play along with the gag by writing a note to confirm that there had been a “Bigfoot sighting” on the mountain.

With note in hand, Doyle reported the Bigfoot sighting to the local police and the New Hampshire State Police.

Immensely pleased with himself, Doyle began to plan another Bigfoot event on the mountain, getting the word out via his website and a press release. A local newspaper also played along. The Keene Sentinel reported that Doyle would once more climb the mountain dressed as Bigfoot.

Everyone seemed to recognize that Doyle was engaged in harmless fun with the exception of officials with the New Hampshire Department of Resources, which runs Monadnock State Park.

Park Manager Patrick Hummel in particular was annoyed that he was being called by newspapers about the Bigfoot story. On Sept. 19, 2009, Hummel intercepted Doyle and five others when they returned to Mount Monadnock to stage their second Bigfoot event.

Hummel told Doyle and his crew to leave when they couldn’t produce a special-use permit. Under a state regulation, a person must obtain a special-use permit to use park properties for “[h]olding organized or special events which go beyond routine recreational activities.”

An individual must apply for the permit 30 days in advance of a scheduled event. In addition to paying $100, the applicant must obtain a $2,000,000 insurance policy that protects the state from any unforeseen problems.

Doyle left the mountan with his Bigfoot costume that day, but then fired off a lawsuit alleging that the state regulation violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment and the state constitution.

A state trial court upheld the constitutionality of the regulation, but earlier this month the New Hampshire Supreme Court decided that the state’s constitution protected Bigfoot mania.

As a threshold issue, the court decided that Doyle’s Bigfoot activities “unquestionably” fell within the realm of protected speech.

“Even though Doyle’s activities may have been nothing more than a playful hoax, ‘[w]holly neutral futilities . . . come under the protection of free speech as fully as do Keats’ poems or Donne’s sermons,’” the court said.

Next, the court decided that the state permitting regulation was overbroad and for that reason violated Doyle’s free speech rights under the state constitution.

In particular, the court found fault with the fact that the special-use regulation applied regardless of the number of people involved on the event:

Perhaps requiring very small groups to obtain permits would be constitutionally permissible where “the public space in question [is] so small that even a relatively small number of people could pose a problem of regulating competing uses.” That is not, however, the case here – Mount Monadnock is quite large, and the permit requirement applies to the entire park. Furthermore, even if requiring a single person to obtain a permit would occasionally serve [the state’s] significant interests, “it does so at too high a cost, namely, by significantly restricting a substantial quantity of speech that does not impede [the state’s] permissible goals.”

The court also concluded that the regulation on its face needlessly stifled political speech.

For example, if a group of three people supporting a political candidate were to climb the mountain and walk around the summit with campaign signs, they would need a permit. This event is special – it is not every day that political supporters climb the mountain to spread their message, and organizing on the mountain for a political purpose is plainly not a routine recreational activity. Requiring a permit for such an event is wholly unnecessary – a group of three people carrying signs will hardly burden park resources and will not likely cause unwelcome or unwarranted annoyance. [The state regulation], therefore, burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to serve [the state’s] interests.

(Doyle v. New Hampshire)

So with the regulation declared unconstitutional,  Doyle can break out his Bigfoot costume and head back up Mount Monadnock. And perhaps park officials just might be able to discover a sense of humor.

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

N.J. Supremes: County isn’t liable for bicyclist’s death

Local governments are going to go broke if they’re exposed to liability for minor defects in road surfaces.

That’s probably the best way to sum up yesterday’s decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that Essex County isn’t responsible for the death of a bicyclist caused by an inch-and-a-half depression on the shoulder of a county road.

“Public entities do not have the ability or resources to remove all dangers specific to bicycles,” the court said in Polzo v. Essex County.

The case addressed the death of Mathi Kahn-Polzo.

Around noon on Aug. 18, 2001, Kahn-Polzo and four other experienced bicyclists were riding downhill on the westbound shoulder of Parsonage Hill Road in Millburn Township. Kahn-Polzo was traveling at a speed of approximately 15 miles per hour when she encountered a circular depression on the shoulder of the road and lost control of her bicycle.

Despite wearing a helmet, Kahn-Polzo suffering a catastrophic head injury when she struck the pavement. The woman died 26 days later without ever regaining consciousness.

Parsonage Hill Road is owned and maintained by Essex County. In 2002, Kahn-Polzo’s husband, Donald T. Polzo, sued the county for wrongful death. Polzo claimed the county breached a duty of care by failing to detect and repair the depression in the roadway that caused his wife to lose control of her bike. The depression at issue was later determined to be two feet in diameter and approximately one-and-one-half inches deep.

Now, whether you live in an urban area, the suburbs or the country, you could get in your car and in about 20 minutes come across a number of similar defects in your own local road network. The fact is our roads take a beating from traffic and the weather. Road surfaces age and break up. Erosion or shifting underneath constantly cause road surfaces to settle or buckle.

Local governments are always behind keeping up with road repairs. Some do a better job at maintenance than others, but few really do enough to satisfy their citizens, let alone satisfy the standards that personal injury attorneys would impose on them.

The taxpayer dollars simply aren’t there to pay for the all the road repair manpower, equipment and materials one might want in an ideal world.

That’s the real-life context in which Polzo brought his suit against Essex County.

Under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, a local government is subject to liability “only when a pothole or depression on a roadway constitutes a dangerous condition; the public entity either causes the condition or is on actual or constructive notice of it; and, if so, the public entity’s failure to protect against the roadway defect is palpably unreasonable.”

In addition to his experts who said Essex County breached its duties under the statute, Polzo tethered his claim of liability to a road department record showing that a county worker had filled potholes and conducted an inspection on Parsonage Hill Road five weeks before his wife’s accident.

According to Polzo, this report showed that the county should have known about the dangerous depression and fixed it.

Polzo’s lawsuit took a tortuous path through New Jersey’s courts. The only thing we need to recount here is that the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the county on the ground that it didn’t have notice of the dangerous condition.

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that a jury issue existed as to whether the county should have had a proactive program in place to inspect its roadways for the type of roadway defect that caused the death of Mathi Kahn-Polzo.

With amicus New Jersey State League of Municipalities buzzing in its ear, the New Jersey Supreme Court slapped down the court of appeals’ decision.

First, the high court rejected outright the lower court’s conclusion that the county “created” the dangerous condition by failing to have a routine road inspection program in place.

On this issue, the state supreme court stated flatly that “a public entity does not create a dangerous condition merely because it should have discovered and repaired it within a reasonable time before an accident.”

Further, the court observed that Essex County did in fact have a roadway inspection program in place, just not one that would satisfy Polzo and his experts. Recognizing that the courts are inappropriate minders of taxpayer dollars, the court said:

This Court does not have the authority or expertise to dictate to public entities the ideal form of road inspection program, particularly given the limited resources available to them. We cannot find that the absence of a more systematic program violates the Tort Claims Act, particularly when plaintiff has not provided this Court with any recognized standard of care that demands otherwise.

Turning to the issue of whether the county had notice of the depression at issue for purposes of the state tort claims law, the court first framed the question in terms of what bicyclists should be prepared to expect from local governments:

We understand that many bicyclists may be inclined to ride on a roadway’s shoulder to stay clear of vehicular traffic and out of concern for their safety. Nevertheless, inherent dangers confront bicyclists who travel on roadways that are not faced by operators of motor vehicles. A tree branch, a stone, and even a pothole or depression might destabilize a bicycle that a car would harmlessly pass over. Public entities do not have the ability or resources to remove all dangers peculiar to bicycles. Roadways cannot possibly be made or maintained completely risk-free for bicyclists.

With these caveats in mind, the court predictably proceeded to conclude that the depression which felled Polzo’s wife was not so obvious that it could reasonably be concluded that the county had actual or constructive notice of that defect:

The evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff reveals a failure of proof. The depression, located on the roadway’s shoulder, was, at best, just one-and-one-half inches in depth, and the generally intended purpose of a roadway is for vehicular use and the generally intended purpose of the shoulder is for emergency use. Based on these factors, plaintiff cannot show, even under the indulgent summary-judgment standard of review, that the shoulder depression “was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.”

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Mayhem at the 18th hole

A golfer will have to fork over $50,000 after a Kentucky court placed its stamp of approval on a jury’s determination that he was the aggressor in a golf course scuffle.

I can’t back this up with empirical evidence, but it sure seems like a disproportionately large number of golfers find themselves in court suing for personal injuries.

Usually, they want to get paid for being struck by an errant ball, but there are also the cases of those who slipped or tripped at a golf course, or suffered some sort of mishap involving a golf cart. Then there’s the odd case of the golfer who gets nailed by a golf club because he’s standing too close when another player tees off.

Why golfers sue is something of a mystery. Perhaps it’s because it’s a good bet that there’s a lawyer in the clubhouse ready to egg on the injured golfer. Or maybe too many golfers just come from that class of people who can’t bring themselves to slough off life’s bumps and bruises like the rest of us.

The good thing is that courts like clockwork boot golfer cases almost as fast as they come in, reasoning most of the time that the injury in question falls within the normal hazards of the game.

Michael Nichols is one golfer who may have had a viable claim if only a jury believed his version of events. Unfortunately for Nichols, a jury didn’t buy his story.

On August 2, 2008, Nichols and his girlfriend, Mary Gaines, were playing golf at the Charlie Vettner Golf Course in Louisville, Kentucky. Their round was uneventful until after the twosome teed off on the 16th hole. While looking for their balls, someone in the group behind them hit a ball that landed near them.

The trailing group included Michael Hazelip and Steven Gregson. After the near miss, Nichols yelled back to Hazelip and Gregson to warn them to hold off until he and his girlfriend played themselves out of harm’s way.

Evidently, someone in this exchange said something that created some hard feelings because a full-blown confrontation would later erupt on the course.

While Nichols waited to tee off on the 18th hole, Hazelip and Gregson passed by on their approach to the 17th green. What happened next is in dispute, but there is no doubt that Nichols, Gregson and Hazelip wound up in a wrestling match.

According to Nichols’ later testimony, the fight started when Gregson approached and began pushing and hitting him. Nichols claims that Hazelip piled on, placing him in a choke hold until he began to lose consciousness.

On the other hand, Gregson and Hazelip would each testify that Gregson approached Nichols to apologize for almost hitting him on the 16th hole. They claimed that, rather than accepting the apology, Nichols took a swing at Gregson with a golf club.

Gregson and Hazelip testified that Gregson fell to the ground in attempting to get out of the way, at which point Nichols began hitting Gregson. Hazelip testified that he only intervened to pull Nichols off of Gregson.

That probably should have been the end to the matter. In fact, later events would demonstrate that Nichols should have let sleeping dogs lie.

But Nichols just couldn’t help himself. He sued Gregson and Hazelip for assault and battery, claiming that he aggravated a shoulder injury in the tussle.

Prodded by Nichols’ suit, Gregson filed a counterclaim against Nichols alleging assault.

The jury didn’t believe Nichols after hearing the evidence and determined that he was the initial aggressor. Apart from ending Nichols’ chances of a pay day, the jury’s finding opened the door to the entry of a verdict in favor of Gregson on his counterclaim. The jury duly awarded Gregson $50,000 in compensatory damages for pain and suffering and $200 in punitive damages.

Surely Nichols never contemplated that this would be the result when he filed his lawsuit. With the tables turned, Nichols sought relief from the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Friday, that court decided that Nichols would have to fork over the cash, rejecting his argument that Gregson could not recover damages for mental and emotional suffering because he didn’t suffer physical injuries in the clash on the golf course.

The court explained that the “evidence presented suggested Gregson feared for his life during the altercation, specifically at the moment he fell backwards while he claimed Nichols was preparing to swing a golf club at him. Gregson testified that he was lying on the ground expecting to be hit with a golf club. The trial court understood such a fear to be consistent with the award granted by the jury, and Nichols fails to cite any evidence contrary to this position.” (Nichols v. Hazelip

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Is ice fisherman’s shanty subject to warrantless search?

The ice fishing thing I don’t get. My idea of fun doesn’t include sitting around a hole in the ice on a bitter January morning.

But if you live in northern climes, you know that there are fanatical sportsmen who every year look forward to getting out on some frozen lake in the middle of winter.

Of course, comfort is still a priority for any American sportsman. For an ice fisherman, an ice shanty is just the thing to take the edge off winter cold and wind.

An ice shanty is a wooden or tent-like structure that a fisherman can slide over the surface of a frozen lake. Once in position, the fisherman can cut his hole in the ice and drop his line in comparative comfort.

While waiting for the fish to bite, it’s not uncommon for a fisherman and his pals to indulge in adult beverages. Other fisherman might be partial to illicit substances.

That’s exactly what Officer Brandon Fehrenbacher encountered one day while patrolling Spring Lake, in Lake County, Illinois. Fehrenbacher is employed as a conservation officer by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement.

On Jan. 27, 2010, Fehrenbacher was making summary checks on ice fishermen on Spring Lake to ensure that they were in compliance with fishing regulations. Sometime before noon, Fehrenbacher observed an ice shanty with a canvas covering on the west side of the lake. He approached the shanty and stopped outside for a few minutes to listen in on the conversation of the shanty’s three occupants.

Fehrenbacher heard one occupant comment on who was going to “pack the bowl” and compliment the quality of the “weed.” The conservation officer naturally reached the conclusion that the occupants were smoking marijuana, so he opened the ice shanty’s front and identified himself as a law enforcement officer. Upon opening the cover, the conservation officer was greeted by the odor of marijuana smoke.

Ronald Slavin was one of the three fishermen inside. Caught red-handed, Slavin produced an orange glass pipe and a plastic bag containing 1.93 grams of cannabis when questioned by Fehrenbacher.

The officer took Slavin into custody and cited him for the misdemeanor of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

In moving to suppress, Slavin argued that Officer Fehrenbacher violated his Fourth Amendment rights by entering his ice shanty without a warrant, likening ice shanties to camping tents in which some courts had recognized a reasonable right to privacy.

The state countered that the officer’s entry was permitted under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. In making this argument, the state tried to make the case that Slavin’s ice shanty was akin to an automobile for Fourth Amendment purposes in that it is was easily collapsible and moveable.

The trial court denied Slavin’s motion to suppress and he was convicted.

At the end of December, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Slavin’s conviction.

The court rejected Slavin’s position that his shanty was like a dwelling. But it also nixed the state’s contention that searches of ice shanties should fall within the automobile exception.

Instead, the court decided that Fehrenbacher’s warrantless entry of the ice shanty was justified by exigent circumstances, pointing out that the conservation officer had probable cause to believe the shanty contained contraband based on what he had overheard.

In explaining that the specific exigency at hand justified Fehrenbacher’s search, the court said that, contrary to Slavin’s contention, “Fehrenbacher could not have called another officer to monitor the scene while he obtained a warrant, as the suspected cannabis likely would have been removed from the scene or destroyed by simply smoking it or dropping it through the hole into the water below. Given the officer’s reasonable belief that someone in the shanty was smoking cannabis, and his knowledge that the evidence likely would have been destroyed if he had delayed, the warrantless entry was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”  (Illinois v. Slavin)

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Can lawyer sue to enforce fee provision in client’s settlement?

Does a lawyer have standing to enforce an opposing party’s obligation to pay attorney fees under the terms of a client’s settlement? The answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

And it may come as a surprise to some Illinois lawyers that a state court hasn’t squarely decided that issue until recently.

The question was presented to the Illinois Appellate Court in a small claims case, Law Offices of Colleen M. McLaughlin v. First Start Financial Corporation.

McLaughlin represented Alexandria Kondenar in an employment discrimination action against First Star Financial, David Johnson and Damon Dumas.

In 2008, McLaughlin negotiated a settlement on behalf of Kondenar. Under the terms of the settlement, Star Financial and its co-defendants were to pay McLaughlin the firm’s attorney fees in two installments, each in the amount of $12,500.

The defendants paid the first installment in full. However, the second payment was for only $6,000.

McLaughlin filed a claim for breach of contract in the Cook County Circuit Court, seeking to recover the remaining $6,500.

The defendants argued that McLaughlin lacked standing to enforce the terms of its client’s settlement agreement. After all, Kondenar, not the law firm, was the real party to the contract, the defendants asserted.

The trial court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss and granted the law firm judgment in the amount of $6,500.

The defendants’ appeal had the Illinois Appellate Court searching for authority as to whether the trial court had it right on the standing issue. It could find none. While it is well-established in Illinois that an attorney has standing to maintain a suit for attorney fees as a party in interest in divorce proceedings, the issue hadn’t been squarely addressed in other contexts.

And allowing McLaughlin to sue in this case would seem to be contrary to the tried and tested rule that only a party to a contract, or one in privity with a party, may sue on a contract.

But ultimately the court found dispositive the fact that the settlement agreement specified the payment of fees to McLaughlin, as well as the fact that the client’s lawyer signed the agreement on behalf of the firm.

“The agreement clearly provides for separate payments of attorney fees to The Law Offices of Colleen M. McLaughlin as part of the settlement,” the court explained. “The signature on behalf of The Law Offices of Colleen M. McLaughlin indicates that the law office itself was a party to the agreement, as the signature was not on behalf of the client but rather on its own behalf. …  Thus, The Law Offices of Colleen M. McLaughlin was a proper party to the agreement and had standing to maintain this cause of action against all defendants.”

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Worker who blew himself up can’t get comp

If you spend your work day cutting the tops off 55-gallon drums, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself where it all went wrong. For instance, you might want to consider whether your regular enjoyment of marijuana has something to do with your place in the food chain.

Alas, these and other profound questions probably never crossed the mind of Greg Prock before he took an acetylene torch to a 55-gallon barrel at Bull Shoals Landing. The marina is on Bull Shoals Lake, an aquatic playground in the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks

Prock worked at the marina as a welder and general laborer. On Nov. 1, 2007, Prock and a co-worker, Matt Edmisten, were tasked to cut the tops off two 55-gallon barrels that had previously contained marine oil.

Prock’s boss, Steve Eastwold, swears that he had previously instructed Prock that the only safe way to cut the top off a barrel was by using a pneumatic air chisel. Prock denies that he was given this instruction and chose the torch instead, presumably because it was faster.

In any event, Prock use of the torch triggered an explosion and he and Edmisten went up in a ball of flame. Fortunately, the two workers were able to limit their injuries by jumping into the nearby lake, though Prock claims that he still experiences heat sensitivity due to the burns on his hands.

Both Prock and Edmisten were rushed to the hospital for treatment of their injuries. Unfortunately for both men, blood tests indicated the presence of marijuana in their systems and Bull Shoals Landing used this evidence to defeat their claims for workers’ compensation benefits.

The evidence as to whether Prock and Edmisten were actually under the influence at the time of the accident was inconclusive. Although Eastwold would later testify that Prock and Edmisten were acting suspiciously before the accident, the two employees denied taking any drugs that day.

Prock later testified he frequently smoked marijuana, explaining that he smoked up to three or four times a week. If he smoked during the week, it was after work hours.

Prock vehemently asserted that he had stopped smoking marijuana two weeks prior to the accident, explaining that he had an eye on a job opening at a local welding shop and knew that he would have to pass a drug test to get the position.

Prock’s problem was that, under Arkansas law, the positive drug test after the accident raised a presumption that his accident and injury at work were substantially the result of his use of marijuana.

He was unable to rebut the presumption according to the state’s workers’ compensation commission, so his claim was denied.

Yesterday, the Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld that decision:

It was not incumbent upon Bull Shoals Landing to produce evidence that Prock was impaired prior to the explosion. Rather, once the presumption arose, it was Prock’s burden to prove that the explosion and resulting injury were not substantially occasioned by Prock’s use of marijuana. In finding that Prock failed to rebut the presumption, the Commission made specific credibility determinations, whereby the Commission resolved conflicting evidence and arrived at the true facts. The Commission could reasonably conclude that Eastwold’s testimony concerning the events leading up to the accident was worthy of belief, whereas testimony by Prock and Edmisten was not. (Prock v. Bull Shoals Landing

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Cheerleader punctures website’s immunity

The Communications Decency Act presents a formidable obstacle for those attempting to sue website operators for objectionable posts by third parties. Yesterday, a federal judge in Kentucky showed the way for breaching the Act’s immunity provision in a defamation and invasion of privacy case brought by a member of the BenGals cheerleading squad.

According to U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman’s decision in Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, a website operator is “responsible” for offensive content within the meaning of the Act when it in some way “specifically encourages” the development of “what is offensive about the content.” 

The judge reached this conclusion in a lawsuit brought by Sarah Jones, who is a teacher at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Kentucky. Jones also happens to be a member of the BenGals, the cheerleading squad for the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Professional cheerleaders naturally attract a lot of attention, both wanted and unwanted. In 2009, Jones was appalled to find that her movements around Cincinnati were being tracked by visitors to the website “the dirty.com.” 

The website is operated by Hooman Karamian a/k/a Nik Richie through his Arizona business, Dirty World, LLC. Richie’s website invites and publishes comments by individuals who visit the site. Richie responds to the posts and publishes his own comments on the subjects under discussion.

As the name suggests, sex is the primary subject of discussion at the dirty.com. Moreover, as Judge Bertelsman observed, the “principal content of ‘the dirty.com’ website is not only offensive but tortious.” 

While sex appeal is surely what cheerleaders are all about, Jones didn’t like the fact that rumors of the worst kind were posted about her on the dirty.com.

On Oct. 27, 2009, one visitor posted a message stating:

Nik, this is Sara J, Cincinnati Bengal[sic] Cheerleader. She’s been spotted around town lately with the infamous [kicker] Shayne Graham. She also has slept with every other Bengal Football player. This girl is a teacher too! You would think with Graham’s paycheck he could attract something a little easier on the eyes Nik!

On December 7, 2009, an even more salacious post was made to the dirty.com: 

Nik, here we have Sarah J, captain cheerleader of the playoff bound cinci bengals.. Most ppl see Sarah has [sic] a gorgeous cheerleader AND high school teacher. . yes she’s also a teacher . . but what most of you don’t know is . . Her ex Nate . . cheated on her with over 50 girls in 4 yrs. . in that time he tested positive for Chlamydia Infection and Gonorrhea . . so im sure Sarah also has both . . what’s worse is he brags about doing sarah in the gym . . football field . . her class room at the school where she teaches at DIXIE Heights.

In response to this particular post, Richie posted: “Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack? – nik.”

Concerned for her job, Jones repeatedly e-mailed the site and asked that the posts be removed, but her requests were ignored.

So she sued Richie and Dirty World in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, seeking damages for defamation and invasion of privacy.

The case landed in the lap of Judge Bertelsman. According to the judge, Richie and his company have admitted that facially defamatory and privacy-violating posts were made to their website concerning Sarah Jones.

However, the defendants claimed immunity under the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 of the CDA generally immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties.

However, there is one catch: The grant of immunity only applies if the service provider is not also an “information content provider,” which is defined as someone who is “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the objectionable content.

The Act’s immunity provision has proved to be a tough nut to crack for many a personal injury attorney.

Judge Bertelsman in his decision Tuesday provided a glimmer of hope for plaintiffs faced with a website operator’s assertion that it is not an “information content provider” and, therefore, entitled to absolute immunity under the CDA.

Finding no controlling 6th Circuit authority, Bertelsman borrowed from the 10th Circuit’s decision in FTC v. Accusearch (570 F.3d 1187) to find the controlling test for determining immunity under the CDA.

In Accusearch, the 10th Circuit said that a “service provider is ‘responsible’ for the development of offensive content only if it in some way specifically encourages the development of what is offensive about the content.”

With Bertelsman’s adoption of this test, the assertion of absolute immunity by Richie and Dirty World was in deep trouble.

The judge held that “the defendants here, through the activities of defendant Richie, ‘specifically encourage development of what is offensive about the content’ of ‘the dirty.com’ website.”

In explaining his decision that Richie and Dirty were not immune under the CDA, the judge first underscored the obvious point that “the name of the site in and of itself encourages the posting only of ‘dirt,’ that is material which is potentially defamatory or an invasion of the subject’s privacy.”

The judge also found problematic for Richie and his claim of immunity the manner by which he manages his site. As explained by the judge, in Richie’s capacity as editor of the site, he selects a small percentage of comments to be posted and adds a tagline. While Richie reviews a post, he does not verify its accuracy. Moreover, Richie is the one to decide whether a particular post should be removed when someone objects.

“Most significantly, Richie adds his own comments to many postings,” the judge said. “In these comments, he refers to ‘the fans of the site’ as ‘the Dirty Army.’ He also adds his own opinions as to what he thinks of postings.”

In deeming Richie a “responsible” service provider under CDA, Bertelsman concluded with this parting shot: 

One could hardly be more encouraging of the posting of such content than by saying to one’s fans (known not coincidentally as “the Dirty Army”): “I love how the Dirty Army has war mentality.”

 – Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

Man who posted ex-girlfriend’s nude photos escapes conviction

Here’s a story that should give pause to any woman who blindly trusts that a husband or boyfriend will forever keep private those intimate photographs taken in a moment of whimsy.

Yesterday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the harassment conviction of James Charles Pegelow Jr., who in an ugly attempt at revenge posted nude photos of his ex-girlfriend, K.Z., in the men’s restroom of her place of employment.

According to the court, the state failed to prove that the resident of Columbus, Minn., actually committed a crime by posting the photos. The court held that, without the predicate offense, there could be no violation of the state’s harassment law.

“[T]he jury’s determination that Pegelow committed an unlawful act necessarily was based on speculation, rather than evidence, and the conviction must be reversed,” the court said.

Presumably, at one time there was genuine affection between Pegelow and K.Z. However, their relationship ended for reasons unclear in August 2009.

Unfortunately for K.Z., before their relationship ended she made a couple of really bad decisions. First, K.Z. had nude and partially nude photographs taken of herself. Then, she gave the photos to Pegelow in a sorry expression of love.

All too predictably, Pegelow was bitter over the breakup and made plans to exact his pound of flesh by using K.Z.’s revealing photos.

K.Z. worked at a store in Forest Lake. At around 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2010,  an employee of the store found the photographs of K.Z. posted in the men’s restroom. The store manager notified K.Z. and returned the photographs to her.

Naturally, K.Z. was upset and embarrassed. She called the police and named Pegelow as the probable perpetrator of the foul act. Sure enough, the store’s security tape showed Pegelow walking into the store at approximately 5:18 p.m., entering the men’s restroom, and leaving the store at approximately 5:26 p.m.

The state charged Pegelow with gross-misdemeanor harassment under §2(a)(1) of the state’s harassment law. The law makes it a crime when an individual “directly or indirectly manifests a purpose or intent to injure the person, property, or rights of another by the commission of an unlawful act.”

A jury convicted Pegelow, but it turns out that there was a fatal flaw in the state’s case.

In Pegelow’s appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals had to decide in the first instance whether §2(a)(1) obligated the state to prove that he committed “an unlawful act” distinct from the offense of harassment as defined in other parts of the law.

The court held that the state indeed was required to prove the commission of a predicate crime, observing that “if the unlawful-act requirement is satisfied by an act that only meets the definition of harass, the statutory language [in §2(a)(1)], ‘by the commission of an unlawful act,’ is rendered superfluous.”

The court’s holding that §2(a)(1) requires evidence of an independent unlawful act left the state’s case against Pegelow flapping in the wind.

“The state here was required to introduce some evidence from which the jury could reasonably find that Pegelow’s act was unlawful,” the court said. “We offer no opinion as to whether such evidence could have been presented because it is undisputed that the state did not indicate if or how the act of posting photographs was unlawful and offered no evidence from which the jury could so conclude.” (Minnesota v. Pegelow)

So under this court’s rendering, it’s up to the state legislature to come up with a law that would make criminal Pegelow’s act of posting K.Z.’s embarrassing photos in a public restroom.

But is such legislative action really necessary?

As the reversal of Pegelow’s conviction points out, there will always be gaps in the law that leave us unprotected from our poor choices. Rather than adding another chapter to the code books, perhaps it’s high time to reemphasize that the burden is on the individual to avoid engaging in behavior that opens the door to such embarrassment.

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com