Hopkins AG Supply LLC v. First Mountain Bancorp
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 203 Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Honorable Robin J. Cauthron on 5/24/17. (lg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
HOPKINS AG SUPPLY LLC,
FIRST MOUNTAIN BANCORP, a
Nevada Corporation, et al.,
Case No. CIV-12-1141-C
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
In June 2012, Plaintiff Hopkins AG Supply LLC entered into a contract with
Defendant Turhan’s Bay Export & Import Co. (“Turhan”) for the sale of wheat. Turhan
agreed to purchase Plaintiff’s wheat for $269,001.52.
Plaintiff required a bond to
guarantee the purchase price so Turhan acted independently to hire Defendant Brunswick
Companies (“Brunswick”), a broker, to locate a surety to supply the guarantee.
Brunswick, working with consultant company Defendant Phenix Services (“Phenix”),
owned by Defendant Larry Wright (“Wright”), selected Defendant First Mountain Bancorp
(“FMB”) as surety.
FMB contractually agreed to guarantee payment of the funds due to Plaintiff, up to
$300,000.00. Although Plaintiff received $25,000.00 from Turhan on August 23, 2012, a
balance of $244,001.52 remains unpaid. FMB subsequently failed to pay the balance
pursuant to the guarantee and Plaintiff brought this suit, alleging breach of contract, fraud,
and conspiracy to commit fraud.
Plaintiff asserted claims of conspiracy and unjust enrichment against Wright,
Phenix, and Brunswick. Plaintiff also brought breach of contract and negligence claims
against Brunswick. Now before the Court is Defendants Wright, Phenix, and Brunswick’s
(collectively, the “moving Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 203).
Plaintiff has responded and the Motion is now at issue.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standard for summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment may
only be granted if the evidence of record shows “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). The movants bear the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of material fact
requiring judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23
(1986). A fact is material if it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If the movants carry this initial burden,
the nonmovant must then set forth specific facts outside the pleadings and admissible into
evidence which would convince a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmovant. Fed. R.
Civ. P. 56(c). All facts and reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475
U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
Plaintiff asserted a claim of civil conspiracy to commit fraud against Wright,
Phenix, and Brunswick. Defendants argue for favorable summary judgment because
Plaintiff cannot prove the claim by clear and convincing evidence.
Defendants believed FMB would honor its guarantee, and therefore they did not participate
in any fraud, if it occurred.
Plaintiff must meet the elements of a civil conspiracy, which is “a combination of
two or more persons to do an unlawful act, or to do a lawful act by unlawful means.”
Brock v. Thompson, 1997 OK 127, ¶ 39, 948 P.2d 279, 294, as corrected (Apr. 3, 1998)
(citation omitted). Unlike criminal conspiracy, a civil conspiracy itself does not create
liability; the conspiracy’s purpose or means must be independently unlawful. Id.
Plaintiff claims the purpose of the conspiracy was to defraud Plaintiff of the funds
owed pursuant to the guarantee. “Actual fraud is the intentional misrepresentation or
concealment of a material fact, with an intent to deceive, which substantially affects
another person,” and constructive fraud is defined as “a breach of a legal or equitable duty
to the detriment of another, which does not necessarily involve any moral guilt, intent to
deceive, or actual dishonesty of purpose.” Croslin v. Enerlex, Inc., 2013 OK 34, ¶ 12, 308
P.3d 1041, 1045-46 (footnote omitted) (citations omitted). Both have the same legal
consequence and are generally questions of fact. Id. Additionally, “[w]hen fraud is
alleged, every fact or circumstance from which a legal inference of fraud may be drawn is
admissible.” Id. at ¶ 11, 308 P.3d at 1045; Berry v. Stevens, 1934 OK 167, ¶ 16, 31 P.2d
950, 955 (stating the court will allow a “great latitude of proof” in regard to fraud claims).
Plaintiff argues Brunswick acted as a communication liaison between Turhan,
Phenix, and FMB, isolating Turhan from the negotiations. Plaintiff shows Turhan paid a
$15,000.00 brokerage fee to Brunswick, who retained $2,250.00 and tendered $12,750.00
to Phenix. Phenix then retained $2,250.00 and tendered the remaining $10,500.00 to
FMB. Plaintiff argues the typical rate for similar services is 10% of the amount of the
performance bond or guarantee, but Brunswick told Phenix the rate was too high and
negotiated the amount to 5%, or $15,000.00. When Plaintiff notified FMB of Turhan’s
nonpayment, FMB provided instructions for Plaintiff to contact Wright or his business,
which was supposedly a brokerage consultant in this transaction.
Plaintiff also offers as evidence a history of lawsuits brought against Wright and his
businesses. Plaintiff states Brunswick must have known about the lawsuits and business
dissolutions; therefore, collaboration with Wright must have occurred. Defendants argue
this evidence is inadmissible pursuant to Rule 56(c)(2). Some of the evidence presented
may be inadmissible, but the Court will make the determination with full briefs on the
issue. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(4). The Court finds there are sufficient facts in dispute
to deny summary judgment on this claim.
III. UNJUST ENRICHMENT
Plaintiff asserted an unjust enrichment claim against Wright, Brunswick, and
Phenix, arguing the commission paid by Turhan should be awarded to Plaintiff on an
equitable basis. The moving Defendants argue such an award would be unjust because
Plaintiff should not be reimbursed for a fee it did not pay.
Oklahoma law describes unjust enrichment as a theory of recovery where the
claimant must show “enrichment to another coupled with a resulting injustice.” Cnty.
Line Inv. Co. v. Tinney, 933 F.2d 1508, 1518 (10th Cir. 1991) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff must “show either an expenditure adding to the
property of another or one that saves the other from expense or loss.” Id. (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted).
Here, the $15,000.00 commission and its division among the Defendants is
undisputed. Plaintiff did not pay the fee, and it therefore did not make an expenditure
adding to the moving Defendants’ property, nor would the requested recovery save Plaintiff
from expense or loss of the fee. Regardless of the nature of Defendants’ relationship,
Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim must fail as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Motion
is granted on this claim.
IV. BREACH OF CONTRACT
Plaintiff brought a breach of contract claim against Brunswick, who argues for
favorable summary judgment because Plaintiff cannot show it was the intended third-party
beneficiary of the contract. Oklahoma law states “[a] contract, made expressly for the
benefit of a third person, may be enforced by him at any time before the parties thereto
rescind it.” 15 Okla. Stat. § 29. The Oklahoma Supreme Court explained, “[i]t is not
necessary that the party be specifically named as a beneficiary[,] but only that the contract
be made expressly for the benefit of a third person.” Keel v. Titan Constr. Corp., 1981
OK 148, 639 P.2d 1228, 1231 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
“[E]xpressly simply means in an express manner; in direct or [unmistakable] terms;
explicitly; definitely; directly.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). This
remedy is available to a third-party beneficiary even if he was a stranger to the contract,
had no knowledge of it, and was not identified when it was made. The intention of the
contracting parties is the determinative factor.
A mere “incidental benefit is
insufficient.” Copeland v. Admiral Pest Control Co., 1996 OK CIV APP 119, 933 P.2d
937, 939 (citation omitted).
Here, the agreement at issue was between Turhan, the buyer of wheat, and
Brunswick, the broker, for the procurement of a guarantee for the purchase price of the
wheat. Plaintiff’s challenge to the agreement is narrow: Plaintiff argues it was the
intended beneficiary of the Turhan/Brunswick brokerage relationship. The claim is not
against all Defendants involved in the surety transaction where Plaintiff’s benefits were
The parties have not presented written terms between Turhan and Brunswick, but
there is a Short Form Guaranty Application completed by Turhan and submitted to
Brunswick for the surety’s consideration. (Dkt. No. 209-6.) The Short Form Guaranty
Application requests information related to the guarantee including the obligee name and
address, but this does not indicate to the Court that the parties intended the guarantee to be
for Plaintiff’s benefit; it is merely information pertinent to the guarantee Turhan sought.
Plaintiff has not provided any evidence indicating the Turhan/Brunswick agreement
was made “expressly for the benefit” of Plaintiff. At best, the benefit Plaintiff received
from the Turhan/Brunswick agreement was an improved selling experience because
Turhan located a surety by employing a broker. This is an incidental benefit. The Motion
is granted on this claim.
Plaintiff brought a negligence claim against Brunswick, arguing Brunswick
breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiff as a third-party beneficiary to the agreement
between Brunswick and Turhan. Even where the Oklahoma Supreme Court found a
plaintiff was not a third-party beneficiary to a contract, it has considered negligence claims
brought by third parties. See Copeland, 1996 OK CIV APP 119, 933 P.2d at 939. The
elements of a negligence claims are “1) a duty of care owed by defendant to plaintiff,
2) defendant’s breach of that duty, and 3) injury to plaintiff caused by defendant’s breach
of that duty.” Lowery v. Echostar Satellite Corp., 2007 OK 38, ¶ 12, 160 P.3d 959, 964
(citations omitted). Whether a duty of care extends between the parties is both a threshold
issue and a question of law. See Copeland, 1996 OK CIV APP 119, 933 P.2d at 939.
Here, there was no contractual relationship between Plaintiff and Brunswick.
Plaintiff argues Brunswick owed a duty of care to Plaintiff as a third-party beneficiary, but,
as explained above, Plaintiff derived no express benefit from the Turhan/Brunswick
brokerage relationship and was not a third-party beneficiary. While Brunswick did owe
an implied duty “to perform [the contract] skillfully, carefully, diligently, and in a
workmanlike manner,” the duty was not owed to Plaintiff. Keel, 1981 OK 148, 639 P.2d
at 1231 (citation omitted). The Motion is granted on this claim.
For the reasons stated, Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 203)
is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Summary judgment is granted in favor of
Defendants on the unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and negligence claims. The
conspiracy claim against Wright, Phenix, and Brunswick remains. Judgment shall issue
at the conclusion of the case.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 24th day of May, 2017.
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