Nguti v. Safeco Insurance Company
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Paula Xinis on 6/27/2017. (c/m 06/27/2017 jf3s, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
Civil Action No. PX 15-742
SAFECO INSURANCE COMPANY,
Pending in this breach of contract case is Defendant Safeco Insurance Company’s motion
for summary judgment or, in the alternative, to limit facts and issues not in dispute. ECF No. 69.
Also pending is Plaintiff Charles Nguti’s motion for leave to file surreply. ECF No. 79. For the
reasons stated below, Defendant’s motion is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff’s motion
On January 26, 2012, a fire broke out at the home of Plaintiff Charles Nguti (“Nguti”) in
Hyattsville, Maryland which destroyed or damaged most of Nguti’s personal belongings. ECF
No. 2 at 2. Nguti notified his insurance carrier, Defendant Safeco Insurance Company
(“Safeco”), of the fire the same day. Id. The fire left Nguti homeless until February 1, 2012,
when Safeco, through CRS, a third party agency, provided temporary housing for Nguti and his
Safeco investigated the fire for several months, ultimately disclaiming coverage for the
damage on July 29, 2012. According to Nguti, Safeco’s disclaimer was without notice or
These facts are taken from Nguti’s Complaint and otherwise construed in the light most favorable to him as the
“justifiable reason.” Id. at 4. This denial of coverage led to Nguti’s mortgage lender arranging for
force-placed insurance. Id. at 5.2 Nguti then filed a complaint with the Maryland Insurance
Administration (“MIA”) to dispute Safeco’s cancellation. Id. Following an MIA investigation,
Safeco reinstated the same insurance policy and noted that Nguti suffered “no lapse in
coverage.” ECF No. 69-16 at 2; see ECF No. 2 at 5.
On August 3, 2012, a CRS agent notified Nguti that his temporary housing would come
to an end on September 2, 2012. ECF No. 2 at 3. Then, on September 25, 2012, Safeco formally
denied coverage of Nguti’s insurance claims related to the fire. Id.
On December 18, 2014, Nguti filed a four-count complaint against Safeco in the Circuit
Court for Prince George’s County, Maryland. ECF No. 2. Following timely removal, Safeco
filed a partial motion to dismiss on Counts One and Four. ECF No. 13. The Court granted the
motion in part. ECF Nos. 28 & 29. It denied the motion as to Count Four and granted it as to
Count Two. Id. Thus, Counts One, Three, and Four remain.
In Count One, Nguti claims that Safeco breached its insurance contract in failing to
reimburse Nguti for the personal property lost or damaged as a result of the fire, and for which
Nguti seeks damages of $120,000. ECF No. 2 at 3. Count Three also claims a breach of contract
in Safeco’s failure to reimburse Nguti for $32,400 of living expenses arising from Safeco’s
termination of temporary housing. Id. at 4. Count Four alleges wrongful termination of the
pertinent insurance policy. On this count, Nguti seeks a refund for the premiums paid for the
force-placed insurance policy that Nguti claims he purchased when Safeco cancelled his
homeowner’s insurance, or any other relief that the Court deems proper. Id. at 5.
Force-placed insurance is an insurance policy placed by a lender, bank or loan servicer on a home when the
insurance on the borrower’s property is cancelled or deemed insufficient, and the property owner does not secure a
On December 20, 2016, Safeco filed a motion for summary judgment or, in the
alternative, a motion to limit facts and issues not in dispute. ECF No. 69. Principally, Safeco
seeks summary judgment for a failure of proof on damages, or alternatively, a Court Order
limiting the triable issues as to damages and the nature and cause of the fire. Id. For the
following reasons, the Court grants Safeco’s motion on summary judgment as to Nguti’s claimed
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A court may enter summary judgment only if there is no genuine issue as to any material
fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a);
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th
Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is inappropriate if any material fact at issue might “reasonably be
resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986);
JKC Holding Co. LLC v. Washington Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001).
“Furthermore, a court should not grant summary judgment ‘unless the entire record shows a right
to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively
that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances.’” Campbell v. Hewitt, Coleman &
Assocs., Inc., 21 F.3d 52, 55 (4th Cir. 1994) (quoting Phoenix Sav. & Loan, Inc. v. Aetna
Casualty & Sur. Co., 381 F.2d 245, 249 (4th Cir. 1967)).
Nevertheless, “the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary
judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a
showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on
which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Although
“given some latitude . . . even a pro se party may not avoid summary judgment by relying on
bald assertions and speculative arguments.” Mansfield v. Kerry, No. DKC 15-3693, 2016 WL
7383873, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 21, 2016) (citing Smith v. Vilsack, 832 F. Supp. 2d 573, 580 (D.
“A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest
upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,’ but rather must ‘set forth specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club,
Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). “A mere scintilla
of proof . . . will not suffice to prevent summary judgment.” Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 314
(4th Cir. 2003). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary
judgment may be granted.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249–50 (citations omitted). At the same
time, the court must construe the facts presented in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Emmett, 532 F.3d at 297.
Safeco also asks the Court to enter an order limiting the facts and issues not in dispute.
Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to move for partial summary
judgment by identifying “each claim or defense—or the part of each claim or defense—on which
summary judgment is sought.” (emphasis added). A motion for partial summary judgment is
recognized as a useful pretrial tool; the Advisory Committee Notes to the 1946 amendment to
Rule 56 state: “The partial summary judgment is merely a pretrial adjudication that certain issues
shall be deemed established for the trial of the case. This adjudication . . . serves the purpose of
speeding up litigation by” narrowing the issues for trial to those over which there is a genuine
dispute of material fact. Rotorex Co. v. Kingsbury Corp., 42 F. Supp. 2d 563, 570–71 (D. Md.
1999) (internal quotation marks omitted) (noting that “numerous courts have entertained and
decided motions for partial summary judgment addressing particular issues.”).
Choice of Law
Safeco removed this action from the Circuit Court of Montgomery County on the basis of
diversity of citizenship pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Sitting in diversity, this Court applies
the law of the forum state, which is Maryland. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S 64, 78
(1938); Francis v. Allstate Ins. Co., 709 F.3d 362, 369 (4th Cir. 2013) (“A federal court sitting in
diversity is required to apply the substantive law of the forum state, including its choice-of-law
rules.”). Both parties agree that Maryland law governs this case. See ECF No. 2 at 1; ECF No.
69-1 at 12.
Safeco’s Motion for Summary Judgment
Safeco first argues that it is entitled to summary judgment in its favor because the
evidence, even when construed most favorably to Nguti, does not support Nguti’s claimed
damages. See Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 69-1 at 12; id. at 9 n.4 (“Defendant acknowledges
that there is a dispute between the parties as to whether the Plaintiff or those acting in concert
with him started the fire at issue. Defendant is not seeking a motion for summary judgment on
this disputed issue.”).
It is fundamental that the Plaintiff bears the burden of proving alleged damages with
“reasonable certainty.” Kirby v. Chrysler Corp., 554 F. Supp. 743, 752 (D. Md. 1982).
“Speculation or conjecture” is insufficient. Id. Reasonable certainty does not require
“mathematical precision.” David Sloane, Inc. v. Stanley G. House & Assocs., Inc., 311 Md. 36,
41 (1987) (quoting M & R Contractors & Builders, Inc. v. Michael, 215 Md. 340, 349 (1958)).
However, the evidence must “lay some foundation enabling the fact finder to make a fair
and reasonable estimate of the amount of the damage.” PFB, LLC v. Trabich, No. WDQ-070961, 2008 WL 6722764, at *4 (D. Md. Apr. 23, 2008) (quoting Della Ratta, Inc. v. Am. Better
Cmty. Developers, Inc., 38 Md. App. 119 (1977)), rev’d on other grounds, 304 F. App’x 227
(4th Cir. 2008). Where Plaintiff fails to marshal some evidence of damages, the Court may grant
summary judgment on this issue. See, e.g., Kurland v. ACE Am. Ins. Co., No. JKB-15-2668,
2017 WL 354254, at *4 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2017) (“Because Plaintiffs failed to present any
evidence on the extent of the water damage [losses] they suffered, [Defendant] is entitled to
summary judgment on this issue”); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Warns, No. CCB-11-1846, 2013 WL
6036694, at *7 (D. Md. Nov. 12, 2013) (“[I]f [Plaintiff] cannot show with reasonable certainty
what its damages are, its potential recovery is limited to nominal damages.”).
In breach of contract claims, however, the Plaintiff need not demonstrate specific proof
of actual damages because if a jury finds for Plaintiff on liability, it may always award nominal
damages. Cottman v. Maryland, Dep’t of Natural Res., 51 Md. App. 380, 384 (Md. Ct. Spec.
App. 1982) (“It is well settled that every injury to the rights of another imports damage, and if no
other damage is established, the party injured is at least entitled to a verdict for nominal
damages.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also PFB, LLC v. Trabich, 304
F. App’x 227, 228 (4th Cir. 2008) (“It is not necessary that the plaintiff prove damages resulting
from the breach, for it is well settled that where a breach of contract occurs, one may recover
nominal damages even though he has failed to prove actual damages.”) (citations omitted). Cf.
Planmatics, Inc. v. Showers, 30 F. App’x 117, 118 n.1 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing Stueber v.
Arrowhead Farm Estates Ltd. P’ship, 69 Md. App. 775 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1987)). For this
reason, Nguti’s breach of contract claims will proceed to the jury.
But this does not end the analysis because, in large part, Nguti has failed to generate
sufficient evidence to proceed on actual damages. In Count One, Nguti pleaded in his complaint
$120,000 in personal property damages as a result of the fire. See Complaint, ECF No. 2 at 3.
Nguti’s insurance policy allows for recovery for personal property damage. ECF No. 69-4 at 33.
However, Nguti has generated no evidence to support his claim. Nguti never adequately itemized
such damages in his answers to Safeco’s interrogatories and responses to requests for production
of documents. See Discovery Timeline, ECF No. 69-7.3 Safeco also subpoenaed the records of
American Claims Management Services (“ACMS”), the public adjusting firm hired to prepare
Nguti’s property loss claim, to ascertain the value of his claimed lost property. Gould Dep. 6:1524, ECF No. 83 at 3 (Sealed). Although ACMS inventoried Nguti’s claimed lost property (i.e. “1
Bissell Power Force Bagless Vacuum Cleaner … 1 Heat Press Magic Steam Press 7… [one] 5’
Wooden Buffet 4 Lower Cabinet Doors”), ECF No. 69-9, the inventory did not include any
information about the items’ age, condition, value, or purchase price at the time of acquisition or
destruction. Id. Similarly, David Gould, ACMS’s public adjuster who personally worked on
Nguti’s claim, testified that no evidence existed to place a monetary value on Nguti’s property
loss. See ECF No. 69-1 at 6; Gould Dep. 30:9-17, 69-10 at 5. Finally, not even Nguti himself
could put a dollar value on his lost property. Nguti Dep. 182:16-183:1, ECF No. 69-11 at 6.
Nguti counters that additional information as to damages is “impossible” to provide
because it is “difficult and unreasonable to compute a detail[ed] report of each item in a burned
On November 9, 2016, the Court entered an Order warning Nguti that “failure to provide complete answers and
responses could jeopardize his right to present the relevant evidence at trial.” ECF No. 60. The Order further
mandated Nguti to supplement his previous interrogatory answers and responses by the close of discovery,
specifically, “information, itemization, and documentation” relating to his alleged damages. ECF No. 69-1 at 4; see
also ECF No. 60. Despite the Court Order, Nguti generally failed to respond to Safeco’s interrogatories. He again
objected to Safeco’s request as being “overly broad and burdensome to identify each [i]tem including purchase
price, market value, and location.” ECF No. 70-1 at 16 (Sealed). He did, however, include a generic, categorical list
of items in his response. See id. (“[b]elts, coats & jackets, gloves, hats, shirts, shoes, socks . . . .”).
ho[me].” ECF No. 72 at 9. Nguti points to 330 pictures of the burned items, one receipt,4 and an
invoice for several computers, monitors, and laptops valued at $4,838 as his proof of property
loss. See ECF No. 72-2. This, along with Nguti’s assertion that Safeco expended “above $70,000
in structural restoration” on his damaged residence, is all of the evidence he offers of his actual
damages sustained. ECF No. 72 at 9.
Nguti misses the mark. Although ascertaining property loss may prove difficult, it still
remains Nguti’s burden to so prove. Cf. Yacoubou v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 901 F. Supp. 2d
623, 637 (D. Md. 2012), aff’d sub nom. Adam v. Wells Fargo Bank, 521 F. App’x 177 (4th Cir.
2013) (granting summary judgment for defendant because “[t]he law requires a plaintiff to
provide concrete proof of damages for breach of contract . . . .”). Nguti provides little to no
evidence customary of demonstrating property loss such as receipts, copies of checks, or any
other means of computation that would allow a factfinder to value his claimed loss. Cf. Allstate
Ins. Co. v. Warns, No. CCB-11-1846, 2013 WL 6036694, at *8 (D. Md. Nov. 12, 2013)
(granting summary judgment for defendant after plaintiff, “after discovery,” was unable to place
a number value on the damages it sought). Simply put, there is no way to ensure that Nguti’s
damages are the product of anything more than guesswork. Accordingly, summary judgment on
actual damages, apart from the one receipt and invoice he has submitted, is granted.
Similar to Nguti’s personal property damages claim, Nguti’s claim for $32,400 in living
expenses in Count Three also lacks evidentiary support. After Safeco stopped paying for Nguti’s
temporary residence, Nguti moved to another home. Safeco learned in discovery that this new
home was owned by Court Judgment Enforcement, LLC, which is itself owned and operated by
Nguti and his wife. See Nguti Dep. 187:8–10, ECF No. 69-11 at 7; Nguti Dep. 99:20–100:18,
The price on this receipt is illegible. ECF No. 72-2 at 54.
ECF No. 69-11 at 4. Nguti further admitted in deposition that while he claims to have executed a
lease agreement on the new residence, he never actually paid rent during the time he lived in his
property. Nguti Dep. 186:20–188:5, ECF No. 69-11 at 7. Nguti admitted that his claim is based
on little more than the age-old adage “nobody lives for free.” Nguti Dep. 187:19-22, ECF No.
69-11 at 7. The purported leasing agent for this same property also refused to answer in his
deposition whether Nguti ever paid rent for the residence. Bangarie Dep. 41:4-6, ECF No. 69-14
at 3. Accordingly, Nguti’s claimed additional living expenses of $32,400 are without foundation.
Safeco’s partial motion for summary judgment to damages as to Count Three is granted.5
In Count Four, Nguti seeks damages related to the force-placed insurance policy that he
claimed to have incurred for the interim period when Safeco’s policy lapsed. Nguti’s Complaint
seeks a Court order requiring Safeco to “refund” an unspecified amount as compensation for
obtaining the force-placed policy. ECF No. 2 at 5. Nguti has produced no evidence of any
monies that he actually paid to obtain this insurance. Nguti admitted at deposition that he did not
recall whether he paid anything for this insurance, adding that he believed the payments were
“included in [his] mortgage.” Nguti Dep. 196:12-15, ECF No. 69-11 at 9. Indeed, the only
document on which Nguti relies is correspondence from his mortgage holder, Indymac, stating
that it had purchased force-placed insurance on his property in the absence of “acceptable
evidence of fire insurance coverage.” ECF No. 69-15 at 2; see also ECF No. 72-4 at 2. This
Indymac correspondence notes an “annual charge” of $1,331.00 that was “charged to your
account.” ECF No. 69-15 at 2. But the Indymac correspondence also notes that should Nguti
produce proof of insurance, Indymac will “cancel the insurance that we purchased as of the
Nguti initially claimed $32,400 in additional living expenses in his complaint, but then later asserted the same loss
was $35,100, raising additional suspicion that he could not prove loss with “reasonable certainty.” See Nat. Prod.
Sols., LLC v. Vitaquest Int’l, LLC, No. CCB-13-436, 2014 WL 6383482, at *8 (D. Md. Nov. 13, 2014).
effective date of your coverage and credit any unearned premium to your account.” Id. at 3.
Safeco ultimately reinstated its insurance policy but denied Nguti’s claim related to the fire,
which means that from time of reinstatement, Nguti would not have needed to incur the forceplaced insurance expense. In this regard, Nguti marshals no evidence that he actually paid for
force-placed insurance for any time frame. Without any proof that Nguti actually paid for this
insurance, no credible evidence exists that this constitutes an actual loss to Nguti arising from
Safeco’s cancellation of coverage. Summary judgment as to Count Four on actual damages,
therefore, is granted.
Nature and Origin of the Fire
Finally, Safeco requests that the Court effectively direct the jury to find that the fire was
set by human hands. ECF No. 69-1 at 20. Safeco claims that both the Prince George’s County
Fire Department and its own expert concluded that the fire was incendiary, ignited by human
hands, and intentional. Id. Safeco further contends that Nguti does not challenge these
conclusions, and so he should be precluded from arguing the contrary at trial.
The Court disagrees. First and most troubling, Safeco mischaracterizes the experts’
reports. Although the Fire Department concluded that the fire was the result of human error, it
did not conclude that the fire was set intentionally. ECF. No. 69-17 at 9. Safeco’s expert would
not even go that far, opining only that “[t]he specific ignition sequence and cause of the fire was
inconclusive at the time of [the] inspection.” ECF No. 69-18 at 5. That the expert noted “the
probability of human intervention and the application of an open-flame device could not be
eliminated” is not the same as concluding the fire was set by a person. Id.
Second, contrary to Safeco’s representations, Nguti does not agree that the fire was set by
a person. Throughout his deposition, Nguti in fact testifies that “I don’t know what caused the
origin of the fire” and “I don’t know how it started.” Nguti Dep. 125:2-6, ECF No. 69-11 at 5.
When Safeco asked Nguti, “you have no reason to dispute the conclusion that it was intentionally
set . . . correct,” Nguti responded specifically: “I don’t know about the intentional part, that it
was intentionally set. Who said it was intentionally set?” Nguti Dep. 126:6-12, ECF No. 84 at 33
(Sealed). Again, when asked if he disputes that someone intentionally set the fire, Nguti testifies
“I don’t know the cause and the origin. So I can’t dispute what I don’t know.” Nguti Dep.
126:20–21, ECF No. 84 at 33 (Sealed). See also ECF No. 70-1 at 8 (Sealed) (“plaintiff has no
knowledge of nature [sic] of the occurrence and how it started.”). Thus, in the Court’s view, the
nature and origin of the fire remain in dispute. Accordingly, Safeco’s motion is denied in this
Nguti’s Motion for Leave to File Surreply
On March 22, 2017, Nguti filed a “Motion For Leave to File a Sur-Reply In Opposition
to Defendant’s Motion For Summary Judgement and/or In The Alternative, Motion To Limit
Facts and Issues Not In Dispute.” ECF No. 79. Surreply memoranda are disfavored in this
District. See Chubb & Son v. C & C Complete Servs., LLC, 919 F. Supp. 2d 666, 679 (D. Md.
2013); see also Local Rule 105.2.a (D. Md. July 2016) (“Unless otherwise ordered by the Court,
surreply memoranda are not permitted to be filed.”). The Court may grant leave to file a surreply
“when the moving party would be unable to contest matters presented to the court for the first
time in the opposing party’s reply.” Khoury v. Meserve, 268 F. Supp. 2d 600, 605 (D. Md. 2003),
aff’d, 85 F. App’x 960 (4th Cir. 2004) (per curiam). In his motion, Nguti asserts that Safeco’s
reply contains “various factual errors” and believes that a “sur-reply brief may be [his] only
opportunity to correct the inaccuracies in Defendants’ reply brief.” ECF No. 79 at 2. However,
Safeco’s reply does not contain allegations or arguments that it did not present it its initial brief.
Accordingly, the motion is denied.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant Safeco Insurance Company’s motion for summary
judgment is granted with respect to actual damages and denied in all other respects. Plaintiff’s
Charles Nguti’s motion for leave to file surreply is denied. A separate order follows.
United States District Judge
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