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Squires v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

February 28, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 60].

         I. Factual Background

         This is a breach of contract action arising out of a fire loss which occurred on July 14, 2015, at Plaintiffs' property in Canton, Georgia. Plaintiffs submitted a personal property claim due to the fire loss to their insurer, Defendant State Farm, which provided insurance coverage to the property pursuant to policy number 11-CZ-D447-3 [Id., ¶¶ 1-3, admitted].

         At the time of the fire, Plaintiffs were in bankruptcy proceedings and making payments pursuant to a Chapter 13 reorganization plan [Id., ¶ 5, admitted]. On July 14, 2015, Plaintiffs initiated a claim for damages to their real and personal property as a result of the fire loss [Id., ¶ 21, admitted]. During the course of the claim, Plaintiffs submitted five sworn inventories and proofs of loss to Defendant [Id., ¶ 38, admitted]. Plaintiffs' inventories claimed substantial damage to personal property items, including damages totaling $32, 844.88 in one guest room (primarily clothing), $13, 195 in another guest bedroom (primarily clothing), $18, 957 in a third guest bedroom (primarily clothing), $8, 887, 51 in the master bedroom, $10, 527 in the great room, $4, 927.97 in the basement, and $14, 146 in “other” building expenses, including $10, 000 in landscaping and a new hot water heater [Id., ¶ 42, admitted]. Two of the inventories (from September 21 and December 8, 2015) were submitted while the bankruptcy was pending, and they sought damages to personal property assets totaling $144, 881.81 or $91, 815 respectively. These amounts were substantially more than the $2, 925 of personal property assets disclosed in the bankruptcy action.

         Ultimately, Defendant denied Plaintiffs' personal property claim on the basis that Plaintiffs concealed and misrepresented material information in conjunction with their claim. Plaintiffs then filed this action on July 11, 2017 [Doc. No. 1]. Plaintiffs seek damages for breach of contract and for bad faith failure to pay their insurance claim pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 33-4-6. Defendant has now moved for summary judgment [Doc. No. 60]. The Court will provide additional facts as necessary below.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires that summary judgment be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The moving party bears ‘the initial responsibility of informing the . . . court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotations omitted)). Where the moving party makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the non-movant, who must go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of material fact does exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (1986). The applicable substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. at 248. A fact is not material if a dispute over that fact will not affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 249-50.

         In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the court must view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Patton v. Triad Guar. Ins. Corp., 277 F.3d 1294, 1296 (11th Cir. 2002). But, the court is bound only to draw those inferences that are reasonable. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 (once the moving party has met its burden under Rule 56(a), the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”).

         III. Analysis

         Defendant contends that Plaintiffs are judicially estopped from seeking more than the amount of personal property assets asserted in their bankruptcy action. Defendant also contends that Plaintiffs' bad faith claim is procedurally and substantively deficient. The Court will address these arguments in turn.

         A. Judicial Estoppel

         “Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine invoked at a court's discretion.” Burnes v. Pemco Aeroplex, Inc., 291 F.3d 1282, 1285 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 750 (2001)). “Under this doctrine, a party is precluded from asserting a claim in a legal proceeding that is inconsistent with a claim taken by that party in a previous proceeding.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). “The purpose of the doctrine is to protect the integrity of the judicial process by prohibiting parties from deliberately changing positions according to the exigencies of the moment.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).

         The Eleventh Circuit considers two primary factors in the application of judicial estoppel. “First, it must be shown that the allegedly inconsistent positions were made under oath in a prior proceeding. Second, such inconsistencies must be shown to have been calculated to make a mockery of the judicial system.” Id. (quoting Salomon Smith Barney, Inc. v. Harvey, M.D., 260 F.3d 1302, 1308 (11th Cir. 2001). The Eleventh Circuit also considers secondary factors, including (1) whether a party persuaded a court to accept a position based on inconsistent statements; and (2) whether the party seeking to assert an inconsistent position ...

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