GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Utah State University Research Foundation, 091218 UTSC, 20170264

Docket Nº:20170264
Opinion Judge:Himonas, Justice.
Party Name:GeoMetWatch Corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellant, v. Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behunin, Curtis Roberts, Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation, and Scott Jensen, Defendants-Appellees.
Attorney:James E. Magleby, Peggy A. Tomsic, Adam Alba, Salt Lake City, for appellant. Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Stanford E. Purser, Deputy Solic. Gen., Peggy E. Stone, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellees Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behuni...
Judge Panel:Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Petersen, and Judge Hagen joined. Having recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sat.
Case Date:September 12, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Utah
 
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2018 UT 50

GeoMetWatch Corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellant,

v.

Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behunin, Curtis Roberts, Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation, and Scott Jensen, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 20170264

Supreme Court of Utah

September 12, 2018

On Certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah The Honorable Jill N. Parrish Case No. 1:14-cv-00060

James E. Magleby, Peggy A. Tomsic, Adam Alba, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Stanford E. Purser, Deputy Solic. Gen., Peggy E. Stone, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellees Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behunin, and Curtis Roberts.

Arthur B. Berger, Beth J. Ranschau, Ryan B. Bell, Salt Lake City, for appellees Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation and Scott Jensen.

Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Petersen, and Judge Hagen joined.

Having recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sat.

OPINION

Himonas, Justice.

INTRODUCTION

¶1 This case comes to us on certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah. See Utah R. App. P. 41. The district court certified three questions relating to the interpretation of the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah, Utah Code sections 63G-7-101 to 904 (Immunity Act). The certified questions are as follows:

1. Are the Utah State University Research Foundation and the Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation entitled to immunity under the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah . . . as a public corporation and/or an instrumentality of the state?

2. Utah Code sections 63G-7-501 and 502 vest exclusive, original jurisdiction over any action brought under the Immunity Act in the district courts and venue in the county in which the claim arose or in Salt Lake County. Do these provisions reflect an intent by the State of Utah to limit the Immunity Act's waiver of sovereign immunity to suits brought in Utah district courts?

3. If question 2 is answered in the affirmative, does the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Utah or any litigant have authority under Utah law to waive the jurisdictional and venue provisions enacted by the Utah Legislature in the Immunity Act?

¶2 These questions raise important, unanswered questions of state law. We therefore provide the applicable legal standard for determining what is an instrumentality of the state. However, "[o]ur authority to answer certified questions . . . is a matter of discretion." Zimmerman v. Univ. of Utah, 2018 UT 1, ¶ 2, 417 P.3d 78 (citations omitted). And we use that discretion here to decline to establish a legal standard for public corporation immunity based on the focus of the parties' briefing.

¶3 The second and third certified questions are relevant only if one of the entities involved is an instrumentality of the state or a public corporation. Because that is a decision that must be made by the district court, we forgo answering the second and third questions before the first question has been answered in the affirmative, thereby necessitating answers to these questions. However, we noted significant confusion among the parties about the proper interpretation of the second and third certified questions. In light of this, we highlight this confusion so that, should the district court choose to certify these questions to us again, we can provide guidance in the way that is most helpful to the district court.

BACKGROUND

¶4 GeoMetWatch filed a lawsuit against various defendants in federal district court. Relevant to this certification from the district court, GeoMetWatch brought causes of action against Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) and two of its employees—Robert Behunin and Curtis Roberts—and Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWSF) and one of its employees—Scott Jensen.1

¶5 USURF and AWSF are both 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations wholly owned and operated by Utah State University (USU). USURF and AWSF were incorporated to carry out the functions of USU. Additionally, both entities' founding boards are appointed by USU.

¶6 The defendants filed motions for summary judgment in federal court on multiple claims, alleging that the district court lacks jurisdiction over the claims because GeoMetWatch had not complied with the notice and undertaking requirements in the Immunity Act. As a result of those motions, the district court "became concerned that it may not have jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the procedural requirements of the Immunity Act have been met due to the jurisdiction and venue limitations in Utah Code sections 63G-7-501 and 502."

¶7 Based on these concerns, the district court certified three important but unresolved questions of state law for our review. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(1).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8 "A certified question from the federal district court does not present us with a decision to affirm or reverse a lower court's decision; as such, traditional standards of review do not apply." Garfield Cty. v. United States, 2017 UT 41, ¶ 6, ---P.3d--- (citation omitted). When presented with a certified question, "we merely answer the question presented, leaving resolution of the parties' competing claims and arguments . . . up to the federal courts, which of course retain jurisdiction to decide [the] case." Id. (alterations in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

ANALYSIS

¶9 The federal district court has certified three questions of state law. The first question is focused on whether the defendants are public corporations or instrumentalities of the state and are thereby covered governmental entities for the purposes of the Immunity Act. We set out the applicable legal standard for determining whether an entity is an instrumentality of the state, but we do not address whether the defendants meet this criterion. Instead, we leave this determination to the district court. We also decline to address the appropriate legal standard for determining whether an entity is a public corporation.

¶10 The second and third certified questions require us to interpret the jurisdiction and venue provisions of the Immunity Act. The parties disagree about the proper interpretation of the thrust of these questions. And, based on the contents of the certification order, we see additional potential interpretations not addressed by the parties. Because these questions are relevant only if the defendants are governmental entities under the Immunity Act, we decline to answer these questions before the district court determines whether the defendants are covered by the Immunity Act.

¶11 Nonetheless, we view certification orders as a dialogue between our court and the federal courts. So we discuss the relevant interpretations presented by the parties or contemplated by this court. By doing so, we hope to provide the district court with the opportunity to clarify the true nature of the question posed to both the parties and to this court should the district court choose to certify these questions to us again.

I. GOVERNMENT ENTITY UNDER THE GOVERNMENT IMMUNITY ACT

¶12 The Immunity Act is a "comprehensive chapter" containing "waivers and retentions of immunity" that "appl[y] to all functions of government" and "govern[] all claims against governmental entities or against their employees or agents [under specific conditions]." Utah Code § 63G-7-101(2).2 Unless immunity is waived by the Immunity Act, "each governmental entity and each employee of a governmental entity are immune from suit for any injury that results from the exercise of a governmental function." Id. § 63G-7-201(1).

¶13 The defendants contend that they are governmental entities or employees of a governmental entity covered by the Immunity Act. The term "[g]overnmental entity" means "the state and its political subdivisions as" defined in the Immunity Act. Id. § 63G-7-102(4). The "[s]tate" is defined as "the state of Utah, and includes each office, department, division, agency, authority, commission, board, institution, hospital, college, university, Children's Justice Center, or other instrumentality of the state." Id. § 63G-7-102(10) (emphasis added). "Political subdivision" is defined as "any county, city, town, school district, community reinvestment agency, special improvement or taxing district, local district, special service district, an entity created by an interlocal agreement adopted under Title 11...

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