Ranolls v. Dewling

Decision Date22 September 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15–CV–111
Citation223 F.Supp.3d 613
Parties Shirley RANOLLS, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of April Dawn Ranolls, and Rhonda Renee Hogan, Plaintiffs, v. Adam DEWLING, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas

Steve Waldman, Terry Bryant PLLC, Houston, TX, Hector Sandoval, Sandoval & Waldman PLLC, Houston, TX, for Rhonda Hogan.

Mitchell A. Toups, Weller Green Toups & Terrell LLP, Beaumont, TX, Gregory Karl Evans, Law Offices of Gregory K. Evans, PLLC, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff.

Raphael Charles Taylor, Johnson, Trent, West & Taylor, LLP, Peter A. Querubin, Daw & Ray LLP, Houston, TX, Michael Barrett Jones, Canterbury, Gooch, Surratt, Shapiro, Stein & Gaswirth, PC, Dallas, TX, for Defendant.



Pending before the court are Defendants Adam Dewling and Rogers Cartage Co.'s (collectively, "Defendants") Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (# 30) and Defendants' Supplement (# 45) to the motion.2 Having reviewed the pending motion and its supplement, the submissions of the parties, the pleadings, and the applicable law, the court is of the opinion that summary judgment should be denied.

I. Background

This lawsuit stems from an automobile accident between Adam Dewling ("Dewling") and April Dawn Ranolls ("Ranolls") on Monday, March 9, 2015, at approximately 6:00 a.m. in Orange, Texas. Ranolls was driving a 2014 Chevrolet Silverado, and Dewling was driving a freightliner tractor with an attached tanker/trailer. The accident occurred while Ranolls was traveling southbound on Highway 62. As Dewling was entering the roadway from the Pilot truck stop heading north, Ranolls's vehicle struck the tanker before it cleared the southbound lane of travel. Ranolls died instantly as a result of the collision.

At the time of her death, Ranolls was not formally married but had previously lived with her same-sex partner, Intervenor-Plaintiff Rhonda Renee Hogan ("Hogan"), for approximately eighteen years. Neither Ranolls nor Hogan had a formal or informal marriage legally recognized either in Texas or any other state. Defendants contend that Ranolls and Hogan ceased living together almost a year before Ranolls's death. According to Defendants, the women "had participated in a same-sex couple's equivalent of a divorce; they had partitioned the property they had purchased together and were living separate lives."

Following Ranolls's death, her mother, Plaintiff Shirley Ranolls, individually and as representative of her daughter's estate, filed suit in the 137th Judicial District Court of Jefferson County, Texas, alleging claims for wrongful death, survival, negligence, and gross negligence pursuant to Texas's wrongful death and survival statutes, TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 71.001 et seq. ("Chapter 71"). The case was removed to federal court on March 13, 2015.

Hogan later intervened in the lawsuit, maintaining that, as Ranolls's surviving common-law spouse, she has standing to sue and recover damages pursuant to Chapter 71 and based upon her status as heir to Ranolls's estate. See Docket No. 52 (Second Amended Petition in Intervention). Shirley Ranolls subsequently settled her claims against Defendants and is no longer a party to this litigation. See Docket Nos. 67 and 68.

During the pendency of this lawsuit, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges , declaring that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of a person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples may not be deprived of that right or liberty. ––– U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 192 L.Ed.2d 609 (2015). In the instant motion, Defendants assert: (1) the Obergefell decision is not retroactive and, therefore, cannot be applied to create a marriage where none previously existed; (2) Hogan is unable to meet the criteria to establish a common-law marriage; and (3) Hogan and Ranolls ended their relationship prior to Ranolls's death. Hogan responds that the Obergefell decision, which is grounded on the Constitutional doctrines of due process and equal protection, is retroactive. Additionally, Hogan proffers affidavits from several individuals in support of her assertion that she was the common-law spouse of Ranolls at the time of the accident.

II. Analysis
A. Summary Judgment Standard

Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment shall 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) ; accord Hefren v. McDermott, Inc. , 820 F.3d 767, 771 (5th Cir. 2016). The parties seeking summary judgment bear the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for their motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which they believe demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) ; Davis v. Fort Bend Cty. , 765 F.3d 480, 484 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2804, 192 L.Ed.2d 847 (2015) ; Tech. Automation Servs. Corp. v. Liberty Surplus Ins. Corp. , 673 F.3d 399, 407 (5th Cir. 2012).

"A fact issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action." Hemphill v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. , 805 F.3d 535, 538 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1715, 194 L.Ed.2d 811 (2016) ; Tiblier v. Dlabal , 743 F.3d 1004, 1007 (5th Cir. 2014) ; accord Poole v. City of Shreveport , 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012) ; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Farese , 423 F.3d 446, 454 (5th Cir. 2005). "Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Tiblier , 743 F.3d at 1007 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) ). "An issue is genuine if it is real and substantial, as opposed to merely formal, pretended, or a sham." Hudspeth v. City of Shreveport , 270 Fed.Appx. 332, 334 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Bazan ex rel. Bazan v. Hidalgo Cty. , 246 F.3d 481, 489 (5th Cir. 2001) ).

Once a proper motion has been made, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials in the pleadings but must present affirmative evidence, setting forth specific facts, to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. , 477 U.S. at 322 n.3, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ; see Beard v. Banks , 548 U.S. 521, 529, 126 S.Ct. 2572, 165 L.Ed.2d 697 (2006) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e) ); Distribuidora Mari Jose, S.A. de C.V. v. Transmaritime, Inc. , 738 F.3d 703, 706 (5th Cir. 2013). The court must "review the record ‘taken as a whole.’ " Black v. Pan Am. Labs., LLC , 646 F.3d 254, 273 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) )); see City of Alexandria v. Brown , 740 F.3d 339, 350 (5th Cir. 2014). All the evidence must be construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and the court will not weigh the evidence or evaluate its credibility. Reeves , 530 U.S. at 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097 ; Tiblier , 743 F.3d at 1007 ; see Hefren , 820 F.3d at 771. The evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, with all justifiable inferences drawn and all reasonable doubts resolved in her favor. Tolan v. Cotton , –––U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (citing Anderson , 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505 ); Hemphill , 805 F.3d at 538 ; Pioneer Expl., L.L.C. v. Steadfast Ins. Co. , 767 F.3d 503, 511 (5th Cir. 2014). Moreover, summary judgment "generally is inappropriate when inferences parties seek to draw deal with questions of motive and intent." Williams v. Upjohn Co. , 153 F.R.D. 110, 116 (S.D. Tex. 1994) ; see United States ex rel. Taylor–Vick v. Smith , 513 F.3d 228, 231 (5th Cir. 2008) (stating that "we hesitate to grant summary judgment when a case turns on a state of mind determination"); Pasco v. Knoblauch , 223 Fed.Appx. 319, 322 (5th Cir. 2007) ("[S]ummary judgment is rarely proper when an issue of intent is involved.").

Nevertheless, "only reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party can be drawn from the evidence." Mills v. Warner–Lambert Co. , 581 F.Supp.2d 772, 779 (E.D. Tex. 2008) (citing Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Tech. Servs., Inc. , 504 U.S. 451, 469 n.14, 112 S.Ct. 2072, 119 L.Ed.2d 265 (1992), cert. denied , 523 U.S. 1094, 118 S.Ct. 1560, 140 L.Ed.2d 792 (1998) ); accord Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin , 700 F.3d 169, 172 (5th Cir. 2012). "If the [nonmoving party's] theory is ... senseless, no reasonable jury could find in its favor, and summary judgment should be granted." Stearns Airport Equip. Co., Inc. v. FMC Corp. , 170 F.3d 518, 528 (5th Cir. 1999) (quoting Eastman Kodak Co. , 504 U.S. at 468–69, 112 S.Ct. 2072 ); accord Shelter Mut. Ins. Co. v. Simmons , 543 F.Supp.2d 582, 584–85 (S.D. Miss.), aff'd , 293 Fed.Appx. 273 (5th Cir. 2008). "Summary judgment may not be thwarted by conclusional allegations, unsupported assertions, or presentation of only a scintilla of evidence." Hemphill , 805 F.3d at 538 (citing McFaul v. Valenzuela , 684 F.3d 564, 571 (5th Cir. 2012) ); see Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n , 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 111 L.Ed.2d 695 (1990) ; accord Stauffer v. Gearhart , 741 F.3d 574, 581 (5th Cir. 2014).

Summary judgment is mandated if the nonmovant fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to her case on which she bears the burden of proof at trial. Nebraska v. Wyoming , 507 U.S. 584, 590, 113 S.Ct. 1689, 123 L.Ed.2d 317 (1993) ; Celotex Corp. , 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548 ; Tiblier , 743...

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