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Koehler v. Allen; Gold’s Gym International v. Chamberlain; State v. Blackwing; State v. Law; State v. Percival; Taylor v. University of Utah; Harrison v. SPAH Family Ltd.; CochegrusSRB Investment Co. v. Orson presented by The Appellate Group

CIVIL STALKING

Koehler v. Allen, 2020 UT App 73 (Hagen, J.)

A woman sought a civil stalking injunction against a man in 2016. The injunction stated that it lasted three years and could only be changed by the court. The man’s attorney erroneously told him that the injunction had been dismissed, but the man never received any official paperwork from the court. The man also entered a plea in abeyance for violating the injunction in 2017; although the criminal case was dismissed in 2018, the court said nothing about dismissing the injunction. In December 2018—while the injunction was still in force—the man emailed the woman. He claimed that he was on medication at the time he sent the email. The district court determined that the man knew the injunction was in place, had the ability to comply, and intentionally violated the injunction or was voluntarily intoxicated when he sent the email. The court, then, held him in contempt for violating the civil stalking injunction. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, holding:

  1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the district court’s ruling, the finding that the man knew what was required of him by the injunction was not against the clear weight of the evidence. The man was served the injunction, which informed him that the injunction was in place for three years and could only be changed by the court. And although he received misinformation from his attorney about the injunction being dismissed, he entered a plea in abeyance to violating the injunction in 2017, admitting that he knew the injunction was still in place. And the record in the plea in abeyance case did not include any information that that injunction was modified. 
  2. The district court did not make a finding about one element of contempt—that the man intentionally violated the stalking injunction. The court instead found that the man “acted intentionally, or . . . was voluntarily intoxicated.” This alternative ruling fails to account for the potential of voluntary intoxication to negate a person’s ability to form the intent required for a finding of contempt. The Court of Appeals remands for the district court to determine whether the man intentionally violated the injunction. 

CONTRACT

Gold’s Gym International v. Chamberlain, 2020 UT 20 (Pearce, J.)

An LLC entered into a licensing agreement with a gym. Years later, one of the members of the LLC entered into a franchising agreement with the gym and sold it. The other members of the LLC became aware of the sale and sued the gym. During the litigation, the members asserted that they had personally entered into the licensing agreement with the gym when, in fact, only the LLC had entered into the licensing agreement. The gym moved for summary judgment on the members’ claims, arguing that they lacked standing because they were not parties to the licensing agreement. Although the reasoning was unclear, the district court denied the motion. The gym won at a bench trial and sought attorney fees from the members. The district court denied the fees because the members were not a party to the licensing agreement. The gym appealed. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed, holding:

  1. The substantial benefit doctrine does not provide a basis for a fee award. The doctrine grants attorney fees to derivative plaintiffs who succeed in an action and confer a substantial benefit on the entity on whose behalf they sued. But the gym did not offer any authority that this rule extends to a defendant who prevails against derivative plaintiffs. 
  2. Depending on the circumstances, a nonsignator suing on a contract may or may not assume all the risks and obligations under the contract. But the gym did not provide the Court with authority or reasoning for why plaintiffs who bring unsuccessful derivative actions would be on the hook for the burdens of the contract.
  3. The gym’s other arguments were not preserved in the district court.

CRIMINAL

State v. Blackwing, 2020 UT App 72 (Appleby, J.)

The defendant, a martial arts and survival training “Shen lord,” entered into a sexual relationship with his seventeen-year-old student. The student eventually became the defendant’s third putative wife. The two engaged in multiple acts of sexual intercourse, including in Texas. At one point, DCFS caught wind of the relationship and the two stopped having intercourse until the student turned eighteen. Months later, the defendant was charged with and convicted of seven counts of rape on the theory that the student could not consent because of her age and because of the special relationship of trust the defendant held. The defendant appealed because, among other things, the State could not prove that one of the sexual acts took place in Utah. The Utah Court of Appeals reversed one of the rape charges and affirmed the rest, holding:

  1. The State did not meet its evidentiary burden that the defendant and the student engaged in seven sex acts in Utah before the student turned eighteen. The student testified that the two engaged in seven distinct sexual acts before her eighteenth birthday, none of which occurred after the two returned from Texas—a visit that occurred in April. Considering the evidentiary picture, the jury would have to find that three sex acts occurred in April before the visit to Texas. Testimony that the two engaged in sexual intercourse “more than one time” in April lends a reasonable inference that sexual intercourse occurred at least two times in April. But without more information, speculation is required in order to find that sexual intercourse occurred at least three times in April based upon the testimony that it occurred “more than one time.” Taking the other evidence into account, the testimony of the seven sex acts therefore includes the act in Texas, which the Utah court does not have jurisdiction over.
  2. The issue of criminal jurisdiction need not be raised at trial. An appellate court may dismiss a charge for lack of criminal jurisdiction at any time, regardless of when the issue is raised. The charge based upon that act must be reversed. 
  3. The Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction over the defendant’s remaining claims arising from his motion for a new trial. The defendant filed a motion for a new trial on October 3, 2017, and on October 16, 2017, he filed his notice of appeal. The Court of Appeals remanded the defendant’s case to the district court to resolve the new trial motion. The motion was denied. The defendant did not thereafter file a new or amended notice of appeal under rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. The Court of Appeals, therefore, lacked jurisdiction to consider whether the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial. 

State v. Law, 2020 UT App 74 (Pohlman, J.)

The defendant got in a scuffle with a police officer at a hospital and was eventually charged with and convicted of disarming a peace officer. He contested his conviction, arguing that insufficient evidence supports a required finding that he intentionally tried to disarm the officer. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, holding:

  1. Sufficient evidence supports a finding of intent. The jury heard evidence that the defendant made statements that he was suicidal and would “kill himself” before being admitted to a certain hospital. The officer and a medical technician both testified that while being admitted at the hospital, the defendant attempted to remove the officer’s gun from the officer’s holster. A guard further testified that he saw the defendant “going for the officer’s gun,” even though he did not see his hand on the gun. The jury also heard audio of the incident, including defendant stating that he was trying to kill himself, not the officer. The defendant’s statements and the other testimony support an inference that he was intentionally trying to take the officer’s firearm.
  2. Even if it was equally reasonable to find that the defendant accidentally jostled or brushed up against the firearm under State v. Cristobal, 2010 UT App 228, identification of an equally plausible alternative inference is not enough to set a verdict aside under State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5. Cristobal’s statement regarding equally plausible inferences is effectively invalid.
  3. On review, it is not the function of an appellate court to determine the credibility of conflicting evidence. Contradictory testimony alone is not enough to disturb a jury’s verdict. The fact that officer’s, the technician’s, and the guard’s testimonies were not completely consistent with each other and with the audio recording is not a basis to reverse.
  4. The technician’s testimony is not inherently improbable under a Robbins-Prater analysis. This issue is unpreserved and is reviewed for plain error. A Robbins-Prater objection is a narrow exception to the general rule that appellate courts do not reweigh evidence already considered by a jury. Inconsistencies alone between the technician’s testimony and the other evidence do not provide a basis to discredit the testimony on review. The trial court did not plainly err when it did not sua sponte discredit the technician’s testimony. And even without the technician’s testimony, the jury had before it plenty of other evidence to provide it a basis to find intent.

State v. Percival, 2020 UT App 75 (Pohlman, J.)

The defendant, leader of a local gang, hosted a party on Friday the Thirteenth. A fight broke out, and multiple people were stabbed. One victim suffered permanent cognitive damage. Other victims had stab wounds on their legs, hips, shoulders, and backs. The defendant started the fight and was the only person seen with a knife that night. The defendant was convicted of one count of aggravated assault resulting in serious bodily injury for stabbing the victim resulting in a brain injury and another count of aggravated assault for stabbing the three other victims resulting in less serious injuries. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed, holding:

  1. Assuming trial counsel erred in not requiring a special verdict form for count two, the defendant cannot show prejudice because he cannot show that the jury would not have agreed on any one victim for the aggravated assault charge. What’s more, the defendant’s entire prejudice argument is limited to announcing the prejudice standard without discussing the evidence. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the charge as to all three victims and that the defendant was the cause of their injuries. 
  2. The defendant did not show that admission of the gang evidence prejudiced him. The defendant concedes that some gang evidence was warranted but that the amount entered was prejudicial. The defendant did not identify the line at which the gang evidence crossed the threshold from warranted to unfairly prejudicial. 
  3. Even assuming that entering the amount of gang evidence that was admitted was needlessly cumulative and perhaps prejudicial to a point, the defendant did not meet his burden of showing that the omitting the gang evidence would have led to a different result. First, there was overwhelming evidence that the defendant was involved in a fight where he stabbed and injured multiple people. And second, the jury’s rejection of the more serious charge of attempted murder and entry of the lesser charge of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury shows that the jury did not merely punish the defendant for being a gang member.

EVIDENCE

Taylor v. University of Utah, 2020 UT 21 (Himonas, J.)

A patient had a disorder that caused spasticity, and she had an implanted medication pump to control the spasticity. When she suffered severe shaking in her legs, a hospital treated her over a two-day period, first giving her oral medication (which she vomited) and then replacing her medicine pump. Afterwards the patient sued the hospital, alleging that under the hospital’s treatment, she suffered from withdrawal from the medicine that caused her permanent cognitive injuries. The patient’s expert testified in a deposition that there was no reported case of the medicine withdrawal that exhibited the symptoms and injuries the patient suffered. The hospital sought to exclude the expert from testifying under Utah R. Evid. 702, and the district court granted the motion. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed, holding:

  1. The expert’s facts are insufficient to support her method of logical deduction. The expert relied on three broad facts to logically deduce that the medicine withdrawal caused the patient’s injuries: (1) the medicine withdrawal can cause a metabolic disturbance, (2) metabolic disturbance can cause encephalopathy, and (3) encephalopathy can result in permanent deficits. But these facts are extremely broad, and it is undisputed that the terms “metabolic disturbance” and “encephalopathy” can encompass numerous situations. The expert’s logical deduction, then, suffers from the fallacy of equivocation, which exploits the ambiguity of a term and uses one meaning of a term at one point in the argument and another meaning of the term at another point in the argument. Here, the expert failed to account for whether the types of “metabolic disturbances” that can be caused by the medicine withdrawal are the same types of metabolic disturbances that can cause encephalopathy, and the expert did not support the analytical leap to the conclusion that the types of encephalopathy caused by metabolic disturbances can cause permanent injuries. The district court, then, did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert’s testimony under Utah R. Evid. 702. 

PROPERTY: PRESCRIPTIVE EASEMENTS

Harrison v. SPAH Family Ltd., 2020 UT 22 (Durrant, C.J.)

A neighbor and a landowner disputed whether the neighbor had established a prescriptive easement over the landowner’s property. On summary judgment, the district court determined that the neighbors had established a prescriptive easement, but the case went to a jury trial on the scope of that easement. After the jury trial, the landowners appealed. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, holding:

  1. The district court did not err when it determined that the neighbor’s prescriptive use was continuous for 20 years. Although the landowner informed the neighbor that he did not acquiesce to the neighbor’s use of the easement a few months before the 20-year period had run, a landowner’s lack of acquiescence in a prescriptive use does not interrupt the running of a prescriptive period. Rather, in analyzing whether the use of a prescriptive easement is continuous, the focus is on the prescriptive user—whether the prescriptive user halts his actual use of the easement or alters her mental state. It is the prescriptive user’s submission to the landowner that interrupts the prescriptive period—not the landowner’s grant of permission. Because the landowner presented no evidence that the neighbor submitted to the landowner’s ownership of the easement or that the neighbor stopped using the easement, the district court did not err in concluding that the use of the easement had not been interrupted.
  2. The district court did not err when it concluded that the neighbor’s use was adverse rather than permissive. The easement was initially created without the landowner’s predecessor’s knowledge or permission. And even the predecessor later gave her permission, there is no evidence that the neighbor accepted that permission.
  3. The jury instruction on the scope of the easement was erroneous. The instruction treated the nature and extent of the 20-year historical use as a factor in determining the scope of the easement rather than the ultimate issue to be decided. Rather than requiring the jury to determine what was reasonably necessary for the neighbor to continue his historically established use, the instruction required the jury to determine what was reasonably necessary for the neighbor to access his property, with historical use being just one factor. The Court remanded for a new trial on this issue.
  4. The district court properly allowed the neighbor’s expert to testify. The expert testified about the physical dimensions of the road in 2016, which provided information to the jury about the upper limits of the permissible scope of the easement.
  5. The district court properly excluded the landowner’s rebuttal expert. The expert was going to provide testimony about the dimensions of the prescriptive easement, rather than the dimensions of the road, it was reasonable for the district court to conclude that the expert might usurp the court’s role in instructing the jury regarding the legal requirements of prescriptive easements.

CochegrusSRB Investment Co. v. Orson, 2020 UT 23 (Durrant, C.J.) v. Herriman, 2020 UT 14 (Peterson, J.)

A neighbor used a road crossing the landowner’s property for over 20 years. A company purchased the neighbor’s land and continued using the road. The landowner objected. After a bench trial, the district court determined that the company acquired a prescriptive easement over the landowner’s property and the scope of the easement was limited to its historical usage. Many of the company’s uses of the property were outside the easement’s historical usage. The company appealed. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding:

  1. The extent of the prescriptive easement is measured and limited by its historical use during the prescriptive period. But there is a difference between the easement’s type (or purpose) and the easement’s scope. A prescriptive easement’s type should be categorized broadly based on the general purpose for which the easement over the servient estate has been historically used. A prescriptive easement’s scope should be defined with particularity based on the nature, or extent, or that historical use. The limitations imposed by the type and the scope should be analyzed separately. 
  2. When analyzing the scope of the easement, the ultimate aim of courts should be to preserve the utility of the prescriptive right without materially adding to the burden imposed on the servient estate. The focus in a court’s analysis should be on the burden historically imposed on the servient estate by the easement’s use. In conducting this analysis, courts should almost always consider the physical dimensions of the prescriptive use, the frequency and intensity of the use, and the effect of the use on the aesthetic and economic value of the property. Courts may consider the subjective purpose for using the easement, as well as the nature of the use of the dominant estate, but only to the extent those factors are helpful in determining the nature of the burden on the servient estate. Courts should take a flexible approach that permits changes of use so long as those changes do not materially burden the servient estate or materially interfere with the prescriptive right.
  3. Here, the district court incorrectly limited the use of the easement to those people who would use it for the purposes that the neighbor originally used the easement. The Court remands the case for the district court to reexamine the scope of the easement.

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