Memorandum Opinion and Order Granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment
JANICE MILLER KARLIN, Bankruptcy Judge.
This adversary proceeding involves a story line that could be lifted from a western movie set in Kansas' storied wild west; unfortunately, the facts and players are real, resulting in this second lawsuit between the parties. In state court, Plaintiff William Schoonover successfully sued Defendants/Debtors John and Bernadine Hayworth for battery, stemming from an altercation over the Hayworths' grazing cattle on Schoonover's land. That dispute escalated, resulting in Mr. Hayworth shooting Schoonover in the chest and Ms. Hayworth repeatedly kicking Schoonover. He now seeks to except that judgment from the Hayworths' Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge, under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6) (debts for "willful and malicious injury"),
Schoonover has filed a summary judgment motion, claiming that all elements of collateral estoppel are present. In support, he has provided the pertinent portions of the state court record. Because all elements of collateral estoppel are present, the Court grants Schoonover's motion for summary judgment,
I. Findings of Fact
Schoonover has established the following uncontroverted facts. In 2012, Schoonover sued the Hayworths in state court. His petition generally alleged that Mr. Hayworth intentionally shot Schoonover and that Ms. Hayworth intentionally injured Schoonover by repeatedly kicking him, causing severe and permanent injuries. The parties' altercation was apparently the latest in a long-standing dispute between these rural neighbors over fencing and cattle.
Schoonover's petition stated two counts. The first count alleged that Mr. Hayworth committed a battery upon Schoonover "by intentionally causing great bodily harm to Schoonover as a result of shooting Schoonover with [Mr. Hayworth's] firearm."
Ultimately, the state court entered a pretrial order that expressly identified whether a battery was committed against Schoonover as an issue to be determined by the factfinder.
A jury heard the evidence at a trial in December 2015. The jury received instructions indicating that Schoonover complained he was injured due to battery by the Hayworths, and those instructions defined battery as "the unprivileged touching or striking of one person by another, done with the intent of bringing about either a contact or an apprehension of contact that is harmful or offensive."
The jury instructions also instruct as to the Hayworths' defenses; those defenses included Mr. Hayworth's belief that he acted in self-defense and that he acted reasonably based on his belief that his life was in danger. Those defenses also included that Ms. Hayworth denied completely that she committed any battery on Schoonover.
Finally, as relevant here, the jury instructions include an instruction on damages, instructing that if the jury found Schoonover "suffered an injury or injuries and more than minimal discomfort as a result of the occurrence," then they "must compensate" Schoonover.
The state court entered judgment in January 2016, and the Hayworths did not appeal or file any post-trial motion. When Schoonover initiated collection efforts, the Hayworths filed their Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition.
In response to Schoonover's motion for summary judgment, Mr. Hayworth alleges additional facts and filed an affidavit in support of the response.
The Court notes that the statements contained in Mr. Hayworth's affidavit are in direct conflict with the Hayworths' position in the state court pretrial order—a pretrial order that reflects all parties were represented by counsel. There, Mr. Hayworth affirmatively pleaded that he shot Schoonover to stop Schoonover from attacking him (i.e., admitting to an intentional act, not inadvertent). The state court pretrial order also states that Mr. Hayworth's position (at that time) was that he reasonably believed his use of force against Schoonover "was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or his wife"
The jury instructions reflect the same, and nowhere does the Court see a mention in the state court documents that the gunshot was "inadvertent." Significantly, in responding to the summary judgment motion, the Hayworths did not controvert the authenticity or content of the state court documents setting out these facts.
II. Conclusions of Law
The parties stipulate to this Court's jurisdiction over them and this matter, and consent to the entry of a final order by this Court.
A. Legal Standard for Assessing a Motion for Summary Judgment
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires a court to grant summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating—by reference to pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, or affidavits—the absence of genuine issues of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.
The Hayworths filed an opposition brief to Schoonover's motion for summary judgment, agreeing that most facts were uncontroverted but adding additional references to the pretrial order, jury instructions, and Mr. Hayworth's affidavit, all reflected above. The Court has noted above the established facts, and will focus its analysis on the sole issue of whether the uncontroverted facts entitle Schoonover to judgment as a matter of law.
B. Plaintiff's § 523(a)(6) Claim
Although a Chapter 7 discharge is generally designed to be a relatively quick method of discharging debts and providing debtors a fresh start, there are certain debts that are not dischargeable. Under § 523(a)(6), a Chapter 7 discharge does not discharge debts for "willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another." "A wrongful act done intentionally, which necessarily produces harm or that has a substantial certainty of causing harm, and is without just cause or excuse, is `willful and malicious' within the meaning of § 523(a)(6)."
For an injury to be willful, "a creditor must demonstrate that the debtor intended not only to commit the act that caused the damage, but must also intend its consequences."
"Discharge provisions are strictly construed against the objecting creditor and, because of the fresh start objectives of bankruptcy, doubt is to be resolved in favor of debtors."
Schoonover seeks summary judgment on the basis that the state court judgment against the Hayworths should be given preclusive effect on his § 523(a)(6) claim, through collateral estoppel. "Collateral estoppel principles apply in bankruptcy cases and can be used in nondischargeability actions to prevent re-litigation of issues already decided."
Under Kansas law, collateral estoppel applies when the movant shows:
Schoonover alleges his state court judgment is based solely upon the civil tort of battery, that the parties are identical, and that the willful and malicious elements of his § 523(a)(6) claim are established by the civil judgment for battery.
The first and second elements of collateral estoppel are satisfied based on the uncontroverted facts and record supporting Schoonover's motion for summary judgment. The parties are the same: Schoonover and the Hayworths were the only parties in the state court litigation and are the only parties in this adversary proceeding herein. The parties fully litigated the issue of Schoonover's civil tort claim for battery, all with assistance of counsel. At the conclusion of a full trial, the state court entered a jury verdict for Schoonover on the merits. The judgment that resulted is final.
Only the third element of collateral estoppel—whether the issue litigated was necessary to support the judgment—is really disputed here. The civil tort of battery in Kansas is well defined: it is "the unprivileged touching or striking of one person by another, done with the intent of bringing about either a contact or an apprehension of contact, that is harmful or offensive."
The task for this court, therefore, is to determine whether both the willful and malicious elements were necessary to Schoonover's state court judgment. Regarding willfulness, or intent, the Court finds this element easily satisfied. The Hayworths unpersuasively argue that because the judgment from the Kansas state court does not expressly state the grounds for the damages awarded, the judgment cannot be given preclusive effect. But the jury instructions required the jury to award damages if Schoonover was injured from the occurrence between the parties. Schoonover sought damages for battery, the jury instructions specifically defined battery as an intentional act, and that was the only cause of action Schoonover pleaded.
Battery, as defined in the jury instructions, was the only ground upon which any damage award could be based, and after hearing those instructions, the jury awarded him damages. The pretrial order shows that Mr. Hayworth intended to testify that he actually intended to discharge his gun (i.e., the act) and intended to shoot Schoonover (i.e., the consequence of that act). There can be no other conclusion than that the willfulness element found within the Kansas civil tort of intentional battery has been satisfied.
A Kansas jury thus found, in awarding damages, that Schoonover had proved the "willful" element. While Mr. Hayworth's affidavit now attempts to change the facts upon which that state court judgment was rendered—now claiming his shooting of the gun was not, in fact, intentional, but was instead the result of an inadvertent discharge, he is not entitled to a second bite of this apple. If he had wished to rely on this defense at trial instead of the one contained in the final pretrial order, he could have. But it does not change the fact that intent was already clearly established by the state court judgment, and it is that judgment upon which Schoonover is moving for summary judgment. If the Court were to find that collateral estoppel did not apply, then Mr. Hayworth could argue the facts again. Now is not the time.
The Hayworths next argue that neither the petition, pretrial order, or the jury instructions in the state court case allege that the acts of the Hayworths were malicious. The malicious element requires a showing of "an intentional act [that is] performed without justification or excuse."
The definition of battery in Kansas is an "unprivileged," "harmful or offensive" act.
The Hayworths argue that "[t]he best that can be said" from the jury verdict against them is that "the jury found that an act occurred and that [Mr. Schoonver] was injured and that he was to be compensated for those injuries." They rely on Jenkins v. IBD, Inc.
Schoonover seeks to avoid retrying the same issues based on the same facts between the same parties, and that is exactly what the doctrine of collateral estoppel is designed to do. A jury has already found that Schoonover met his burden to prove the Hayworths battered him, as that term is defined under state law, and to make that finding, the jury necessarily had to assess the "willful and malicious" elements in the 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6) claim. The Hayworths are not entitled to relitigate the facts surrounding the unfortunate incident. As a result, Schoonover's motion for summary judgment
Both parties mention an issue that was not briefed, and is not a basis for Schoonover's motion for summary judgment—namely, whether the parties agreed to settle their dispute with a nondischargeability judgment in the Hayworths' bankruptcy case. Because Schoonover does not move for summary judgment based on this alleged potential settlement, the Court will not address it further.