Hamilton v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT

Decision Date05 November 2001
Docket NumberPLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES,No. 00-55530,00-55530
Citation270 F.3d 778
Parties(9th Cir. 2001) LAWRENCE HAMILTON,, v. STATE FARM FIRE & CASUALTY COMPANY, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION; DAVID'S RESTAURANT SUPPLY,
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Bruce Adelstein, Los Angeles, California, for the appellant.

John T. Brooks, Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP, San Diego, California, for the appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Virginia A. Phillips, Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-99-00440-VAP

Before: Brunetti, Rymer, and Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

Brunetti, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Lawrence Hamilton appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment for Defendant-appellee State Farm Fire and Casualty Company on Hamilton's bad faith and breach of contract claims. We hold that Hamilton is judicially estopped from asserting these claims, and affirm.

FACTS

This action arises out of a claim that Hamilton filed under his State Farm homeowners' insurance policy. Hamilton purchased a house in Los Angeles in 1992 and insured the house with State Farm. Pursuant to California Insurance Code § 2070, the insurance policy contained a "concealment or fraud" provision, which renders coverage null and void if the policyholder should intentionally conceal or misrepresent any material fact or circumstance relating to the insurance policy. In January 1996, Hamilton completed an ambitious and expensive remodel of the house. He then rented the house to Dr. Edwin Floyd and family.

The Floyds experienced financial difficulties and stopped paying Hamilton rent in February 1997. Hamilton initiated eviction proceedings against the Floyds, and they vacated the house on May 28, 1997. On the morning of May 29, 1997, Hamilton reclaimed possession of the house and performed an inspection accompanied by a Sheriff's deputy, finding the house to be in good condition. Hamilton then left the house and claimed that he did not return until the following morning.

At 6:22 a.m. on May 30, 1997, Westec Security Company responded to a short-circuit signal from the alarm system in the house, and found that the house was partially flooded because several second floor water supply lines had been disconnected. Hamilton made a claim to State Farm for the water damage and the loss of numerous items he claimed were stolen from the house, including: 1) four uninstalled Viking and Sub-Zero brand appliances; 2) uninstalled marble counter-tops; and 3) various installed fixtures, including four valuable "Strauss" brand chandeliers. From the outset of the claim, Hamilton blamed the Floyds for vandalizing the house and stealing his property.

State Farm was apparently suspicious of the claim and conducted an investigation to determine its validity. A State Farm adjuster toured the house with Hamilton and took his recorded statements on both June 18, 1997 and July 1, 1997. State Farm also interviewed and took statements from many other witnesses in June through September 1997. During the time State Farm was investigating Hamilton's claim, Hamilton was experiencing his own financial difficulties. He had been unable to make his mortgage payments on the house without the rent income from the Floyds, and had also accumulated significant credit card debt. Because of Hamilton's mortgage default, the house was set to be sold at a trustee's sale on November 10, 1997.

Hamilton needed the insurance money from State Farm in order to keep the house, and enlisted the help of several lawyers to put pressure on State Farm to pay his claim. Hamilton's lawyers wrote letters to State Farm on August 4, 1997 and October 16, 1997; both letters emphasized the importance of prompt settlement to avoid foreclosure, claimed that State Farm might be handling the claim in bad faith, and threatened litigation if the claim were not quickly paid. State Farm made no attempt to pay Hamilton's claim in response to the letters. The investigation of the circumstances surrounding the claim had convinced State Farm that Hamilton was probably responsible for the vandalism and theft, and that he had at least violated the policy's concealment or fraud provision, voiding coverage. On October 31, 1997, Hamilton filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. State Farm denied the claim and voided coverage under the policy's concealment or fraud provision only a few days after Hamilton filed for bankruptcy. In a November 3, 1997 letter, State Farm advised Hamilton that the claim was denied on the basis that Hamilton had failed to produce documents in support of his claim, that Hamilton had misrepresented the extent of his financial difficulties, his whereabouts on May 29, 1997, and the existence or location of the allegedly stolen appliances.

Hamilton filed his bankruptcy schedules on November 14, 1997, listing a $160,000 residential vandalism loss against his estate in his Chapter 7 Financial Statement, but failing to list the corresponding claims against State Farm as assets of the estate. On Schedule B, Question 20, under the heading "Other contingent and nonliquidated claims of every nature, including tax refunds, counterclaims of the debtor, and rights to setoff claims," Hamilton listed "None," ignoring his insurance and bad faith claims against State Farm as assets of the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court discharged Hamilton's debts on April 6, 1998 based on the false information he provided in his Chapter 7 schedules and Financial Statement.

The bankruptcy trustee noticed that Hamilton had listed a large vandalism loss and wrote Hamilton a May 30, 1998 letter to determine whether Hamilton was pursuing any insurance claims to recover the amount of the loss. The trustee requested "correspondence or other writings concerning said vandalism, including any correspondence with insurance companies to recover the amount of the vandalism. " The trustee sent Hamilton another letter on April 21, 1998 requesting information regarding the vandalism loss. Hamilton wrote a letter in return, but did not provide any additional information about the vandalism loss or claims against State Farm.

Consequently, the trustee filed a motion to dismiss Hamilton's bankruptcy. The trustee's motion listed bad faith, lack of truthfulness under oath, and failure to cooperate as the bases for dismissal. In July 1998, the court dismissed Hamilton's Chapter 7 bankruptcy and vacated the discharge of his debts.

On October 27, 1998, Hamilton filed suit against State Farm in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and breach of contract, and State Farm removed the action to the district court. State Farm filed a motion to dismiss for summary judgment on December 29, 1999, arguing that it was entitled to summary judgment because Hamilton had misrepresented numerous material facts, several of which voided Hamilton's coverage under the concealment or fraud provision. State Farm also argued that Hamilton's claim was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel, because he had failed to list his insurance claim and pending lawsuit against State Farm on his Chapter 7 Bankruptcy schedules, and the bankruptcy court had discharged Hamilton's debts because of his omissions.

The district court granted State Farm's motion, finding that Hamilton had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to the falsity of his representations. The court also held that Hamilton's claim was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel because Hamilton took contradictory positions by first failing to amend his bankruptcy schedules to include his insurance claim and pending bad faith action against State Farm, and then persisting in his attempts to recover on the claims against State Farm.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Clicks Billiards Inc. v. Sixshooters, Inc., 251 F.3d 1252, 1257 (9th Cir. 2001). We will only affirm if, viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact and the district court correctly applied the relevant substantive law. Balint v. Carson City, 180 F.3d 1047, 1050 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc). We review the district court's application of the doctrine of judicial estoppel to the facts of this case for an abuse of discretion. Broussard v. University of California, 192 F.3d 1252, 1255 (9th Cir. 1999).

DISCUSSION

Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine that precludes a party from gaining an advantage by asserting one position, and then later seeking an advantage by taking a clearly inconsistent position. Risetto v. Plumbers & Steamers Local 343, 94 F.3d 597, 600-601 (9th Cir. 1996); Russell v. Rolfs, 893 F.2d 1033, 1037 (9th Cir. 1990). This court invokes judicial estoppel not only to prevent a party from gaining an advantage by taking inconsistent positions, but also because of "general consideration[s] of the orderly administration of justice and regard for the dignity of judicial proceedings," and to "protect against a litigant playing fast and loose with the courts." Russell, 893 F.2d at 1037.

The United States Supreme Court recently listed three factors that courts may consider in determining whether to apply the doctrine of judicial estoppel:

[S]everal factors typically inform the decision whether to apply the doctrine in a particular case: First, a party's later position must be "clearly inconsistent" with its earlier position. United States v. Hook, 195 F.3d 299, 306 (C.A.7 1999); In re Coastal Plains, Inc., 179 F.3d 197, 206 (C.A.5 1999); Hossaini v. Western Mo. Medical Center, 140 F.3d 1140, 1143 (C.A.8 1998); Maharaj v. Bankamerica Corp., 128 F.3d 94, 98 (C.A.2 1997). Second, courts regularly inquire whether the party has succeeded in persuading a court to accept that part...

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