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GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Hall

United States District Court, D. Utah

February 4, 2019

ALAN E. HALL, et al., Defendants.


          Jill N. Parrish District Judge

         Before the court are two motions for summary judgment based upon the Utah Governmental Immunity Act (UGIA). [Docket 398, 404.] Utah State University Research Foundation (USURF) and Advanced Weather System Foundation (AWSF) argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on certain non-contractual claims because they are immune from suit under the UGIA. Defendants Robert Behunin, Curtis Roberts, and Scott Jensen also assert that they are entitled to governmental immunity because they were employees of governmental entities.

         The court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART the motions for summary judgment. The court agrees that USURF and AWSF are governmental entities and grants the motions for summary judgment as to these parties. The court also grants summary judgment in favor of Roberts because he was acting within the scope of his employment with a governmental entity. The court denies summary judgment in favor of Behunin and Jensen because there is a dispute of material fact as to whether these defendants were acting within the scope of their government employment.


         USURF is a nonprofit corporation created and wholly owned by Utah State University. It is controlled by Utah State University and the State Board of Reagents. USURF's mission is to bridge the gap between discovery research and beneficial applications of this knowledge. It specializes in developing space-based sensors and satellite systems. USURF furthers Utah State University's education objectives by giving students hands-on experience directly related to their fields of study. About twenty percent of USURF's employees are students. USURF also sponsors senior projects for engineering and science students, collaborates with faculty on research projects, funds scholarships, and provides a lecture series that allows faculty and students to hear the latest in space science engineering and technologies. Finally, USURF employees teach at Utah State University as adjunct lecturers.

         In the early 2000s, USURF developed a new weather system sensor for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Around late 2009 or early 2010, GeoMetWatch Corporation (GeoMet) initiated discussions with USURF about developing a commercial weather sensor. Utah State University later decided to move the proposed commercial weather sensor project to a new corporate entity. In 2013, Utah State University created AWSF, a nonprofit corporation wholly owned by the university and controlled by the university and the State Board of Reagents. The parties anticipated that AWSF would assume the responsibility for designing and building the proposed weather sensor.

         GeoMet's weather sensor venture subsequently failed. It sued USURF and two of its employees-Behunin and Roberts-and AWSF and one of its employees-Jensen. GeoMet asserted a number of causes of action against these defendants, including claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, intentional interference with economic relations, unjust enrichment, violations of the Utah Truth in Advertising and Utah Unfair Practices Act, fraudulent inducement, breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent non-disclosure, and civil conspiracy.

         USURF, AWSF, and the employees moved for summary judgment on these causes of action. They argue that since they are Utah government entities or employees of Utah government entities, the UGIA required GeoMet to file a timely notice of claim and an undertaking. See Utah Code §§ 63G-7-401, -402, -601. Because GeoMet did neither, the defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on the state-law, non-contract claims against them. GeoMet does not dispute that it neglected to file a notice of claim or an undertaking. Instead, it argues that the requirements of the UGIA do not apply to this case because USURF and AWSF are not Utah government entities and the individual defendants' tortious conduct did not occur within the scope of their employment with a Utah government entity.

         Upon reviewing the parties' briefs, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental briefing on this issue of whether Utah Code section 63G-7-501, which provides that “[t]he district courts have exclusive, original jurisdiction over any action brought under” the UGIA, requires claims against state entities to be brought in state court. This court subsequently certified three questions to the Utah Supreme Court: (1) whether USURF and AWSF are entitled to immunity under the UGIA; (2) whether Utah Code section 63G-7-501 vests exclusive, original jurisdiction over any action brought under the UGIA in state courts; and (3) whether the Attorney General for the State of Utah or any other litigant has the authority to waive the jurisdictional provision contained in Utah Code section 63G-7-501. The Utah Supreme Court issued an opinion providing some guidance, although it did not definitively answer these questions. See GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Utah State Univ. Research Found., 428 P.3d 1064 (Utah 2018).


         The motions for summary judgment filed by USURF and ASWF turn on two threshold issues: (1) whether these nonprofit corporations are governmental entities entitled to immunity under the UGIA and, if so, (2) whether Utah Code section 63G-7-501 permits governmental entities to be sued in federal court on state-law claims. The court addresses each of these issues in turn. The court then addresses whether the individual employee defendants are entitled to summary judgment on any of the claims against them.


         The UGIA “governs all claims against governmental entities or against their employees or agents arising out of the performance of the employee's duties, within the scope of employment, or under color of authority.” Utah Code § 63G-7-101(2)(b). “‘Governmental entity' means the state and its political subdivisions . . . .” Id. § 63G-7-102(4). The two components of “governmental entity”-“state” and “political subdivision”- are further defined by the UGIA. The term “state” means “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).

         The parties dispute whether USURF and ASWF, nonprofit corporations owned by Utah State University, are governmental entities covered by the UGIA. USURF and ASWF do not fit neatly into any of the categories listed under the definitions of “state” or “political subdivision” found in the UGIA. But the defendants argue that USURF and ASWF qualify as both the “state” and a “political subdivision” under the catch-all provisions found within the definition of each of these terms. In other words, they assert that they are entitled to immunity both as an “other instrumentality of the state” and as an “other governmental subdivision or public corporation.” The court first examines the “other instrumentality of the state” catch-all provision.

         The first step in determining whether USURF and ASWF qualify as an “instrumentality of the state” is to look at the dictionary definition of “instrumentality.” GeoMetWatch Corp. v. Utah State Univ. Research Found., 428 P.3d 1064, 1072 (Utah 2018). The Utah Supreme Court has noted that this term has a both a general definition and a specific definition that relates to government operations. Id. That court further held that the Utah Legislature “intended a meaning focused on government operations.” Id. Therefore, relevant definitions of “instrumentality” include: “A means or agency through which a function of another entity is accomplished, such as a branch of a governing body” Id. (quoting Instrumentality, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

         Because “other instrumentality of the state” is a catch-all term that appears at the end of an exemplary list, the court must next apply the ejusdem generis canon of construction to the relevant definitions of “instrumentality.” Id. at 1073. In other words, the court must determine whether the listed examples inform or modify the dictionary definition of “instrumentality.” Id.

         Taking these two interpretive steps together, “the ultimate inquiry is whether [USURF or ASWF] is a branch of the state that carries out state functions, and, if so, whether that branch and its functions are ‘of the same general kind, class, character, or nature'” as the twelve enumerated terms listed under the definition of “state” in the UGIA. Id. at 1074.

         A. “Instrumentality of the State”

         Under the first step of this inquiry, the court must determine whether USURF and ASWF fit within the definition of “instrumentality of the state.” In other words, are these public corporations “branch[es] of the state that carr[y] out state functions”? See GeoMetWatch, 428 P.3d at 1074. In answering this question, the court notes that Utah State University is “the state” under the UGIA. This statute explicitly includes state-operated universities within the definition of this term. Utah Code § 63G-7-102(10). Thus, ...

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