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GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Utah State University Research Foundation

Supreme Court of Utah

September 12, 2018

GeoMetWatch Corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellant,
v.
Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behunin, Curtis Roberts, Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation, and Scott Jensen, Defendants-Appellees.

          On Certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah The Honorable Jill N. Parrish Case No. 1:14-cv-00060

          James E. Magleby, Peggy A. Tomsic, Adam Alba, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Stanford E. Purser, Deputy Solic. Gen., Peggy E. Stone, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellees Utah State University Research Foundation, Robert T. Behunin, and Curtis Roberts.

          Arthur B. Berger, Beth J. Ranschau, Ryan B. Bell, Salt Lake City, for appellees Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation and Scott Jensen.

          Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Petersen, and Judge Hagen joined.

          Having recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sat.

          OPINION

          Himonas, Justice.

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶1 This case comes to us on certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah. See Utah R. App. P. 41. The district court certified three questions relating to the interpretation of the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah, Utah Code sections 63G-7-101 to 904 (Immunity Act). The certified questions are as follows:

1. Are the Utah State University Research Foundation and the Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation entitled to immunity under the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah . . . as a public corporation and/or an instrumentality of the state?
2. Utah Code sections 63G-7-501 and 502 vest exclusive, original jurisdiction over any action brought under the Immunity Act in the district courts and venue in the county in which the claim arose or in Salt Lake County. Do these provisions reflect an intent by the State of Utah to limit the Immunity Act's waiver of sovereign immunity to suits brought in Utah district courts?
3. If question 2 is answered in the affirmative, does the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Utah or any litigant have authority under Utah law to waive the jurisdictional and venue provisions enacted by the Utah Legislature in the Immunity Act?

         ¶2 These questions raise important, unanswered questions of state law. We therefore provide the applicable legal standard for determining what is an instrumentality of the state. However, "[o]ur authority to answer certified questions . . . is a matter of discretion." Zimmerman v. Univ. of Utah, 2018 UT 1, ¶ 2, 417 P.3d 78 (citations omitted). And we use that discretion here to decline to establish a legal standard for public corporation immunity based on the focus of the parties' briefing.

         ¶3 The second and third certified questions are relevant only if one of the entities involved is an instrumentality of the state or a public corporation. Because that is a decision that must be made by the district court, we forgo answering the second and third questions before the first question has been answered in the affirmative, thereby necessitating answers to these questions. However, we noted significant confusion among the parties about the proper interpretation of the second and third certified questions. In light of this, we highlight this confusion so that, should the district court choose to certify these questions to us again, we can provide guidance in the way that is most helpful to the district court.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶4 GeoMetWatch filed a lawsuit against various defendants in federal district court. Relevant to this certification from the district court, GeoMetWatch brought causes of action against Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) and two of its employees—Robert Behunin and Curtis Roberts—and Utah State University Advanced Weather Systems Foundation (AWSF) and one of its employees—Scott Jensen.[1]

         ¶5 USURF and AWSF are both 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations wholly owned and operated by Utah State University (USU). USURF and AWSF were incorporated to carry out the functions of USU. Additionally, both entities' founding boards are appointed by USU.

         ¶6 The defendants filed motions for summary judgment in federal court on multiple claims, alleging that the district court lacks jurisdiction over the claims because GeoMetWatch had not complied with the notice and undertaking requirements in the Immunity Act. As a result of those motions, the district court "became concerned that it may not have jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the procedural requirements of the Immunity Act have been met due to the jurisdiction and venue limitations in Utah Code sections 63G-7-501 and 502."

         ¶7 Based on these concerns, the district court certified three important but unresolved questions of state law for our review. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(1).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8 "A certified question from the federal district court does not present us with a decision to affirm or reverse a lower court's decision; as such, traditional standards of review do not apply." Garfield Cty. v. United States, 2017 UT 41, ¶ 6, ---P.3d--- (citation omitted). When presented with a certified question, "we merely answer the question presented, leaving resolution of the parties' competing claims and arguments . . . up to the federal courts, which of course retain jurisdiction to decide [the] case." Id. (alterations in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         ¶9 The federal district court has certified three questions of state law. The first question is focused on whether the defendants are public corporations or instrumentalities of the state and are thereby covered governmental entities for the purposes of the Immunity Act. We set out the applicable legal standard for determining whether an entity is an instrumentality of the state, but we do not address whether the defendants meet this criterion. Instead, we leave this determination to the district court. We also decline to address the appropriate legal standard for determining whether an entity is a public corporation.

         ¶10 The second and third certified questions require us to interpret the jurisdiction and venue provisions of the Immunity Act. The parties disagree about the proper interpretation of the thrust of these questions. And, based on the contents of the certification order, we see additional potential interpretations not addressed by the parties. Because these questions are relevant only if the defendants are governmental entities under the Immunity Act, we decline to answer these questions before the district court determines whether the defendants are covered by the Immunity Act.

         ¶11 Nonetheless, we view certification orders as a dialogue between our court and the federal courts. So we discuss the relevant interpretations presented by the parties or contemplated by this court. By doing so, we hope to provide the district court with the opportunity to clarify the true nature of the question posed to both the parties and to this court should the district court choose to certify these questions to us again.

         I. GOVERNMENT ENTITY UNDER THE GOVERNMENT IMMUNITY ACT

         ¶12 The Immunity Act is a "comprehensive chapter" containing "waivers and retentions of immunity" that "appl[y] to all functions of government" and "govern[] all claims against governmental entities or against their employees or agents [under specific conditions]." Utah Code § 63G-7-101(2).[2] Unless immunity is waived by the Immunity Act, "each governmental entity and each employee of a governmental entity are immune from suit for any injury that results from the exercise of a governmental function." Id. § 63G-7-201(1).

         ¶13 The defendants contend that they are governmental entities or employees of a governmental entity covered by the Immunity Act. The term "[g]overnmental entity" means "the state and its political subdivisions as" defined in the Immunity Act. Id. § 63G-7-102(4). The "[s]tate" is defined as "the state of Utah, and includes each office, department, division, agency, authority, commission, board, institution, hospital, college, university, Children's Justice Center, or other instrumentality of the state." Id. § 63G-7-102(10) (emphasis added). "Political subdivision" is defined as "any county, city, town, school district, community reinvestment agency, special improvement or taxing district, local district, special service district, an entity created by an interlocal agreement adopted under Title 11, Chapter 13, Interlocal Cooperation Act, or other governmental subdivision or public corporation." Id. § 63G-7-102(8) (emphasis added).

         ¶14 The defendants do not argue that they fall under one of the specifically enumerated categories in the definitions of state or political subdivision. Instead, they contend that they are covered under the catchall provisions of "other instrumentality of the state" and "other . . . public corporation." The first certified question asks us to interpret these broad terms so that the district court may determine whether USURF and AWSF fall into one of these sweeping categorical expressions.

         ¶15 When interpreting a statute, "our primary objective is to ascertain the intent of the legislature." Scott v. Scott, 2017 UT 66, ¶ 22, ___ P.3d ___ (citation omitted). "Because [t]he best evidence of the legislature's intent is the plain language of the statute itself, we look first to the plain language of the statute." Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 15, 301 P.3d 984 (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the legislature has not defined a term, we must look to other sources "to derive its meaning—to either the ordinary meaning of the word, or to its technical sense as a legal term of art." State v. Bagnes, 2014 UT 4, ¶ 13, 322 P.3d 719 (citations omitted).

         ¶16 A term of art is a "specialized legal term[] that carr[ies] an extra-ordinary meaning." State v. Canton, 2013 UT 44, ¶ 28, 308 P.3d 517. "[W]hen a word or phrase is transplanted from another legal source, whether the common law or other legislation, it brings the old soil with it." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). To be a term of art, there must be "a firmly rooted . . . notion" of the word or phrase. Id. ¶ 29; see also In re Adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 55, 417 P.3d 1 ("A term of art has one established meaning . . . ." (citations omitted)).

         ¶17 Citing two cases from other states, GeoMetWatch argues that we should treat instrumentality of the state and public corporation as terms of art for the purposes of the Immunity Act. However, those two cases are unhelpful here—they hold that instrumentality of the state and public corporation are terms of art in their respective states based upon the use of one of those terms in the state's constitution, code, or caselaw. See Hagman v. Meher Mount Corp., 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 192, 195 (Cal.Ct.App. 2013) (deeming public corporation a term of art based on its usage in California's constitution, code, and caselaw); Slowinski v. Eng. Econ. & Indus. Dev. Dist., 828 So.2d 520, 523, 528 (La. 2002) (concluding that when the legislature expressly labels a body an instrumentality of the state, the legislature is using the phrase as a term of art that is defined in a constitutional provision).

         ¶18 And GeoMetWatch makes no argument that instrumentality of the state and public corporation are terms of art in Utah based upon this state's code, constitution, or caselaw.[3] Nor does GeoMetWatch make any attempt to compare Utah's use of these terms to the other states' uses to support a determination that they are terms of art in this state. In fact, when GeoMetWatch discusses how instrumentality of the state and public corporation should be defined as terms of art in Utah, it does not reference their use as terms of art in California and Louisiana or even mention those cases to buttress its argument.

         ¶19 Additionally, GeoMetWatch fails to provide a definition that each term should have when used as a term of art in Utah. In fact, GeoMetWatch fails to analyze each term separately at all. Instead, GeoMetWatch cites more than a dozen cases from other jurisdictions that deal with terms different than the ones that are at issue here. For example, many of the cases cited attempt to define "arm of the state," which is a term relevant for Eleventh Amendment immunity purposes. But the governmental immunity provided under the Eleventh Amendment is not coextensive with the coverage provided by the Immunity Act. See Ambus v. Granite Bd. of Educ., 995 F.2d 992, 995 (10th Cir. 1993) (holding that school districts are not "arms of the state" for Eleventh Amendment immunity purposes despite being expressly included as a "political subdivision" under the Immunity Act); see also infra ¶¶ 52-54. Moreover, the cited cases use tests that apply widely variant criteria.[4] GeoMetWatch asks us to take these tests, notwithstanding their disparity and analysis of terms other than public corporation or instrumentality of the state, and create a single six-part test for both public corporation and instrumentality of the state. This request runs contrary to our settled principles of statutory construction, and we refuse to undertake an analysis that would do such an injustice to the statute.[5]

         ¶20 We are unconvinced by GeoMetWatch's arguments that we should treat public corporation or instrumentality of the state as terms of art in the Immunity Act. And our own review of these terms convinces us that they are not terms of art consistently used throughout our law.[6] Therefore, we focus our attention on the ordinary meaning of those terms as used in the Immunity Act. See Bagnes, 2014 UT 4, ¶ 13 (stating that we derive a term's meaning either from its "ordinary meaning" or from "its technical sense as a legal term of art").

         ¶21 Dictionaries provide a useful starting point when assessing the ordinary meaning. Id. ¶ 14. "The dictionary is useful in cataloging a range of possible meanings that a statutory term may bear. It provides an historical record, not necessarily all-inclusive, of the meanings which words in fact have borne." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). But "the dictionary alone is often inadequate to the task of interpretation" because different definitions may support different interpretations. Id. Accordingly, when the dictionary is inconclusive, we turn to other canons of statutory construction to focus our interpretation. See id. ¶¶ 14-21.

         ¶22 We do so here for the term "other instrumentality of the state"—we begin with the dictionary definitions and then turn to other canons as necessary. We would undertake the same mode of analysis for public corporation, but the lack of briefing on the appropriate method of analysis for this term leads us to decline to answer this part of the first certified question. Importantly, we limit our analysis to the question certified to us and leave the ultimate ...


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