Utah Appellate Highlights, Utah Supreme Court, September 2017

Matter of Adoption of B.B.
2017 UT 59 (August 31, 2017)

In an interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Court rejected the application of state law for acknowledging or establishing paternity, and held that a federal standard applies. Specifically, the Court held that a standard of reasonability applies to the time and manner in which an unwed father may acknowledge or establish his paternity, as ICWA is silent both as to these requirements, and a reasonable standard is consistent with ICWA’s liberal administration.

Boyle v. Clyde Snow & Sessions P.C.
2017 UT 57 (August 29, 2017)

On a petition for certiorari from the Utah Court of Appeals in a case previously mentioned in these appellate highlights, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision that it lacked jurisdiction to divide fees between a lawyer and his former law firm because the law firm had failed to properly intervene in the case.  The supreme court assumed the law firm had failed to properly intervene, but held the lawyer had waived any objection to the propriety of the intervention by “essentially acquiescing in the litigation over the merits of the firm’s fee claim and by actively advancing his own competing claim to an award of fees.”

Penunuri v. Sundance Partners
2017 UT 54 (Aug. 25, 2017)

Plaintiff petitioned for a writ of certiorari to resolve whether a court may grant summary judgment on a gross negligence claim in the absence of a standard fixed by law. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that summary judgment dismissing a gross negligence claim is appropriate where reasonable minds could only conclude that the defendant was not grossly negligent under the circumstances, regardless of whether the standard is fixed by law.

State v. Garcia
2017 UT 53 (August 23, 2017)

In this appeal of a criminal conviction, the supreme court held that trial counsel’s assent to an erroneous jury instruction prejudiced the defendant, but that prejudice cannot be presumed in the case of an erroneous jury instruction.  The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the phrase “an unlawful user of a controlled substance”—the basis of the charge of possession of a firearm by a restricted person—was unconstitutionally vague with respect to him.  In doing so, it adopted an interpretation that has been accepted by many federal courts in connection with the similar federal statute: that there must be a “temporal nexus between the gun possession and regular drug use.”

Marziale v. Spanish Fork City
2017 UT 51 (Aug. 22, 2017)

This appeal centered on whether a payment error affected the timeliness of a personal injury claim against a municipality.  The supreme court reiterated that failure to file a timely undertaking did not present a jurisdictional issue, and held that dishonor of payment did not affect the timeliness of the undertaking under the Governmental Immunity Act.

State v. Francis
2017 UT 49  (August 15, 2017)

The defendant and the State had entered a plea agreement the weekend before trial was set to begin.  Before presenting that agreement to the district court, the State withdrew it on the basis the alleged victim objected to the agreement.   Relying on contract law principles, the court held that “[t]he State may withdraw from a plea bargain agreement at any time prior to, but not after, the actual entry of defendant’s guilty plea or other action by defendant constituting detrimental reliance on the agreement.”  Because there was not sufficient evidence of detrimental reliance in this case, the State could properly withdraw the agreement.

Christensen v. Juab School District
2017 UT 47 (Aug. 11, 2017)

This case involved a claim arising under the Reimbursement Act, which allows public employees to recover fees and costs for criminal charges arising out of or in connection with acts under color of the employee’s authority.  The supreme court held a teacher was entitled to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred in successfully defending charges of aggravated sexual abuse, because the criminal information alleged that the former employee committed the acts while acting in a position of special trust as a teacher.    

In re K.T.
2017 UT 44 (Aug. 8, 2017)

The supreme court held that the juvenile court erred by adopting a per se rule that striking a child with an object (in this case, a belt), without any additional evidence of harm, constituted abuse

Garfield County v. United States
2017 UT 41 (July 26, 2017)

The court answered a certified question from the federal district court regarding whether Utah Code § 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessors are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose.  The court held that these statutes are statutes of repose by their plain language, but it construed them as statutes of limitations with respect to the State’s right of way claims under Revised Statute 2477, because to do otherwise would lead to the absurd result of the State automatically losing title to its rights of way without any opportunity to prevent the loss.

Oliver v. Labor Commission
2017 UT 39 (July 25, 2017)

This case involved a dispute over the interpretation of Utah’s Permanent Disability Statute (Utah Code § 34A-2-413). The statute requires an employee to satisfy six elements to be considered permanently disabled. One of the elements is that the injury “limit the employee’s ability to do basic work activities.” The court of appeals interpreted this to mean any limitation, no matter how slight.  The supreme court overturned, holding that the element is satisfied only when “the impairment meaningfully inhibits the employee from exercising a common core of capabilities.”

Case summaries for Appellate Highlights are authored by members of Snow Christensen & Martineau’s Appellate Practice Group.  For more information, visit our Appellate Highlights page.