Utah Reverse Exchange, LLC et al v. Donado et al
Order that trial will commence with the parties' opening statements regarding the Mexico property, followed by the presentation of evidence to the jury, closing arguments and jury instructions. Trial will then resume as to the Utah property, with the parties presenting to the Court only evidence not already presented to the jury. The Court elects to permit the defendants to present their case first. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 1/28/2016. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
UTAH REVERSE EXCHANGE, LLC,
LINDA DONADO, et al.,
) CIVIL ACTION 14-0408-WS-B
In the joint pretrial document and at the final pretrial conference, the parties
expressed disagreement as to whether and to what extent this action is to be tried
to a jury and in which order the parties should present their respective cases.
(Doc. 88-1 at 10). The Court therefore ordered the parties to brief this issue.
(Doc. 90 at 2). The parties now have done so. (Doc. 92 at 1-7; Doc. 95 at 1-3).
The parties agree that, to the extent the defendants have legal claims, they
are entitled a jury trial and that the plaintiffs’ mirror-image equitable claim for
declaratory relief cannot deny them that right, either directly (by eliminating the
jury aspect) or indirectly (by allowing the claim for equitable relief to be tried by
the Court before the legal claims are tried to a jury). (Doc. 92 at 1-3; Doc. 95 at
With respect to the Mexico property, the defendants assert claims for
breach of contract and promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance. (Doc. 88-1 at 5,
9). Under both theories, the defendants seek an award of damages and no other
relief. (Id. at 5, 15; Doc. 91 at 1). The plaintiffs admit that the contract claim is
legal and thus to be tried before a jury, (Doc. 92 at 3), but they note that
promissory estoppel “has equitable as well as legal aspects.” (Id. at 5 n.2). They
acknowledge that the promissory estoppel theory, “[t]o the extent [it] may be seen
as a legal claim,” must be heard by a jury, (id.), but they coyly decline to state
whether they believe there is an extent to which it is not a legal claim, much less to
identify wherein the non-legal nature inheres.
“[T]he characterization of [a] state-created claim as legal or equitable for
purposes of whether a right to jury trial is indicated must be made by recourse to
federal law.” Simler v. Conner, 372 U.S. 221, 222 (1963). “Thus, for Seventh
Amendment purposes, a promissory-estoppel claim may be considered equitable
or legal, depending on the context ….” InCompass IT, Inc. v. XO
Communications Services, Inc., 719 F.3d 891, 896 (7th Cir. 2013). “If the claim is
for relief traditionally found at law, such as contract damages, then the availability
of a trial by jury would seem to be at its zenith. On the other hand, if the claim is
to provide relief unavailable at law [such as to avoid the statute of frauds], then the
claim clearly sounds in equity, and the right to jury trial is at its nadir.” Id. The
matter may be put even more strongly: “If the claim for relief [when promissory
estoppel is asserted] is money damages, … the remedy is legal in nature and the
right to a trial by jury must be preserved.” Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller,
Federal Practice and Procedure § 2316 at 203 (3rd ed. 2008).
The defendants’ claimed remedy is damages, and the plaintiffs do not assert
that the defendants are asserting promissory estoppel to avoid an affirmative
defense or to gain any other relief unavailable at law. The Court concludes that
the promissory estoppel theory as to the Mexico property presents a legal claim
triable to a jury.
With respect to the Utah property, the defendants likewise assert claims for
breach of contract and promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance. (Doc. 88-1 at 89). However, under both theories the only relief they seek is specific performance.
(Id. at 8-9, 15; Doc. 91 at 2).1 The defendants concede that their “claim for
The defendants seem to suggest they are seeking damages as well as (or in lieu
of) specific performance, (Doc. 95 at 2), but they have already conclusively abandoned
any demand for damages under any theory with respect to the Utah property. (Doc. 91 at
specific performance as to the Utah property mineral rights is … an equitable
claim.” (Doc. 95 at 1-2). The defendants thus have no right to a trial by jury on
all issues with respect to the Utah property.
However, “[w]hen legal and equitable claims are joined in the same action,
the right to jury trial on the legal claim, including all issues common to both
claims, remains intact.” Lytle v. Household Manufacturing, Inc., 494 U.S. 545,
550 (1990) (emphasis added, internal quotes omitted). The plaintiffs say there are
no common questions of fact between the Mexico and Utah branches of this
lawsuit, (Doc. 92 at 4), while the defendants suggest there are. (Doc. 95 at 2).
The parties’ presentations are insufficiently detailed to permit the Court to rule
definitively on which factual issues arising on the Mexico side are likewise
implicated on the Utah side, but it would appear that some such common issues
exist. Specifically, and perhaps most importantly, the alleged oral agreements of
Charles Breland binding the plaintiffs to satisfy all indebtedness to the defendants,
(Doc. 74 at 2-3), would seem to apply to both the Mexico and Utah aspects of the
case.2 To the extent there are such common issues,3 the Court will be bound on
the Utah side by findings made by the jury on the Mexico side.4
As shown above, there must be both a jury aspect and a bench aspect to the
trial of this action. The plaintiffs propose that the jury first hear all evidence
regarding the Mexico side of the action and that the Court, once the jury retires to
2 (“[O]n the breach of contract, detrimental reliance or promissory estoppel concerning
the Utah property, the Donados will seek only specific performance of the agreement to
transfer 25% of the property’s mineral interests to them.”) (emphasis added)).
The plaintiffs suggest Breland’s alleged agreements are relevant only to the Utah
property, (Doc. 92 at 5 n.1), but the defendants identify this as an issue as to the Mexico
property. (Doc. 88-1 at 7).
The Court expects the parties’ cooperation in identifying such common issues
for the Court.
To be sure of the jury’s findings on such common issues, special interrogatories
may be necessary, which should be included with the parties’ proposed jury charges.
(Doc. 90 at 3).
deliberate, hear all remaining evidence regarding the Utah side of the action.
(Doc. 92 at 6). The defendants respond that the Court should not hold two trials
but should consolidate all claims for trial. (Doc. 95 at 2). To the uncertain extent
the defendants suggest the jury should hear all the evidence, including evidence
relevant only to the Utah property, the Court rejects the suggestion as inefficient
and potentially confusing for the jury.
Accordingly, trial will commence with the parties’ opening statements
regarding the Mexico property, followed by the presentation of evidence to the
jury regarding the Mexico property, closing arguments and jury instructions. Trial
will then resume as to the Utah property, with the parties presenting to the Court
only evidence not already presented to the jury.
As the parties are aware, the undersigned will not preside over jury
selection. Unless the presiding judge rules otherwise, the parties are ordered to
limit any comments before the venire, panel and jury during this process to the
Mexico property aspect of the case.
The plaintiffs, who seek only a declaration “that they do not owe
Defendants” what the defendants demand, (Doc. 88-1 at 2), nevertheless propose
that they present their case first. (Doc. 92 at 6). They offer no authority for this
unusual proposal, to which the defendants object. (Doc. 95 at 2-3).
“The court should exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of
… presenting evidence so as to … make those procedures effective for
determining the truth [and] avoid wasting time ….” Fed. R. Evid. 611(a). Thus,
“[a] trial court has broad discretion to exercise control over the order of
presentation at trial.” Brough v. Imperial Sterling Ltd., 297 F.3d 1172, 1181 (11th
Cir. 2002); accord United States v. Williams, 837 F.2d 1009, 1014 (11th Cir. 1988)
(“As the Supreme Court has explained, the order of proof in a trial is in the
discretion of the trial court.”). Allowing the plaintiffs to present evidence
challenging the defendants’ contentions before the defendants have made or
supported those contentions is not a recipe for effectively determining the truth
(not least because of likely jury confusion) and avoiding the waste of time
(including time spent refuting matters the defendants never assert). In the exercise
of its broad discretion, the Court elects to permit the defendants to present their
case first. This ruling applies to both the jury and the bench segments of trial.
DONE and ORDERED this 28th day of January, 2016.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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