• August 22, 2016

Crystal_ball_by_Ron_BodohUpdated post (August 22, 2016): Minnesota Litigator notches another successful prediction in a posted prediction last March in the Storms v. Mathy Construction case discussed below after the break. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the intermediate Court of Appeals last week.

The point of my original post was that I believed that the trial court reached the right result for the wrong reason, the intermediate court failed to reach the right result with flawed reasoning, and the Minnesota Supreme Court, I predicted, would reach the right result with better reasoning than the trial court did, reversing the Court of Appeals.

We do not know the legal fee arrangement between Plaintiff Storms and its lawyers but, if Storms paid hourly for this, it seems they may have paid dearly for its ultimately unsuccessful $327,064.42 claim. Imagine Storms had started with omniscient lawyers who studied the legal issues and reached the conclusion that the Minnesota Supreme Court eventually reached . Counseled by the “omniscient lawyers,” presumably Storms would have walked away from the lawsuit before even bringing it. Presumably “omniscient lawyers” would be the better lawyers, the best lawyers, in fact. But which lawyers would make more money?

Chess-kingOriginal post (March 23, 2016): An appellate judge and a trial judge are duck-hunting. A bird appears, flying across the sky. The appellate judge says to the trial judge, “Brown and white head. Intermittent wing-flaps…I think that might be a duck. I will call my clerk to research it….” Of course, the bird is long gone before the appeals judge gets off a shot. (It was a spectacled eider, by the way, which is a duck.)

Another bird flies over. BAM! The trial judge has shot it and it falls to the ground 75-feet away. “You got a duck!” the appellate judge yells. “I don’t know yet,” says the trial judge, “let’s go have a look and see….”

This well-worn joke illustrates the different ways that trial judges and appeals court judges do their jobs. Trial judges have precious little time to deliberate. Appellate judges, on the other hand, have loads of time to mull over their next moves.Duck spectacled-eider-male-in-flight-close-view-725x544

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently granted a petition for review of a Court of Appeals decision in Storms v. Mathy Construction. The intermediate court of appeals has reversed the underlying trial court decision. I predict the case will ultimately be a great example of the distillation process of our appellate system — the repeated iterative process that we often need to reach just results. I predict reversal of the Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court getting to the same outcome as the trial court but taking a different and more fully reasoned path.

The case is fairly straight-forward. Mathy Construction won a Minnesota Department of Transportation (DOT) contract to repair a section of state highway. Mathy hired Storms to perform part of the contract. Storms’ compensation was based on the DOT’s estimate. The DOT overestimated the amount of work to be done. On conclusion of the project, the DOT revised its estimate downward and, because less work was needed, also revised the dollar amount to be paid downward.

Storms then sued Mathy claiming it was entitled to the entire contract amount under Storms’ sub-contract with Mathy, essentially arguing, “Too bad, so sad. A deal’s a deal. So you have to pay us for work we did not do.”

There were state regulations involved that are a little confusing about when the DOT can change contract terms and how it can change contract terms. The trial court ruled that these confusing regulations did not permit the DOT to change the terms after the project had concluded, ruling in favor of Storms on that point. However, the trial court ruled that Storms’ damages had to be proven at trial and, after a trial, ruled that Storms suffered no losses or damages.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s finding that the DOT could not change the contract terms after conclusion of the contract but disagreed with how the trial court had determined Storms’ damages. The Court of Appeals reversed on that basis and sent the case back to the trial court to re-determine Storms’ damages.

In my opinion, the trial court got to the right answer but took the wrong route. It is incorrect as a matter of law and logic that Storms should be paid for work it did not do or for supplies that it did not provide. Have a look at the Mathy petition for Supreme Court review vs. the Storms petition. Which do you think is more persuasive? The Minnesota Supreme Court has the time to give the intermediate court a hard look. It has more judges, of course, and it will have the benefit of advocates of other interested players, like representative of the Asphalt Pavement Association. It is unfortunate that getting to a just result can take a lot of time and there can be detours along the way but I expect this case will be one that vindicates our justice system.

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