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April 9, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles R. Breyer, United States District Judge

This is an insurance coverage dispute involving an insurance claim filed by the former dean of the Oakland College of Law ("OCL") for coverage of property that was allegedly stolen from his office at OCL. Hartford denied the claim because plaintiff could not prove that he had an insurable interest in the allegedly stolen property because it belonged to OCL. Hartford seeks summary judgment on collateral estoppel grounds, arguing that it was determined in a previous lawsuit that the property at issue did not belong to plaintiff. For the reasons stated herein, Hartford's motion will be granted.


Plaintiff was the dean of the Oakland College of Law. In 1997, the board of OCL voted to replace plaintiff as dean. The board then asked plaintiff to return all records and property belonging to the school.

When plaintiff did not comply to the board's satisfaction, OCL's acting interim dean and a moving crew went to plaintiff's office on August 23, 1997 to retrieve any remaining school property. The landlord met the new dean at plaintiff's office but was unable to open the door because plaintiff had installed a new lock. A locksmith was called to open the door. While the moving crew was removing books and records from plaintiff's office, plaintiff arrived and called the police. The police declined to intervene.

In July 1998, plaintiff filed suit against OCL in state court in Alameda, claiming that OCL and its board took property belonging to him, defamed him, and breached various contracts. See Petersen v. The Oakland College of Law Foundatiow et al., No. 801106-0 (Cal. Super. Ct. filed July 8, 1998). The court dismissed plaintiffs claims for illegal break-in and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. OCL moved for summary judgment and/or adjudication of the remaining claims in April 2000. Among other arguments, OCL maintained that it was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs cause of action for conversion because plaintiff could not prove ownership of the allegedly converted property. The court granted summary adjudication of that claim on June 14, 2000. Following summary adjudication, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the two remaining claims with prejudice.

In October 1997, plaintiff sent a letter to his insurance agent stating a claim for property that he alleged was stolen from his office by OCL. He attached police reports and included an inventory of property that was allegedly stolen. Plaintiff forwarded this inventory to a representative of Hartford Insurance Company as well. In December 1997, plaintiff submitted to Hartford a "Sworn Statement of Proof of Loss" that was virtually identical to a "Sworn Statement of Proof of Loss" that plaintiff appended to the complaint in his civil suit against OCL.

In the course of its investigation of plaintiff's claim, Hartford was advised by OCL's acting dean that the property taken from plaintiff's office belonged to OCL. In subsequent correspondence between plaintiff and Hartford, plaintiff conceded that "[t]he only difference between the claims that have been made against Hartford and against the defendants in [his civil action against OCL], is that the claim made to Hartford was limited to the loss of insured personal property, whereas the Superior Court action was for redress of a much broader scope of grievances." Def's Ex. 10 (Letter from Pl. to Def. Counsel, Feb. 3, 2000).

Hartford denied plaintiff's claim on April 7, 2000. The denial letter stated in part that plaintiff had

failed to discharge his burden of proving that the property, the loss of which he claims, is property that is covered by his insurance with Hartford, because the evidence that he has presented to date to prove his ownership is equivocal, and contradicted by evidence from the parties that he accuses of theft. . . . Mr. Peterson has conceded that he has entrusted the resolution of that very question to a pending civil suit that he is pursuing against the College and dean Knecht.
Def.'s Ex. 11.

Plaintiff filed suit against Hartford and various other defendants in Contra Costa Superior Court in August 2001. After the other defendants were dismissed from the case, Hartford removed to federal court on June 12, 2002 on diversity grounds. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on January 8, 2002. That complaint asserts causes of action for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, fraud, and declaratory judgment. Plaintiff seeks recovery of the property that he alleges was stolen from him. The items that he seeks to recover are the same items that he claimed, in his previous suit, that OCL converted. The same list of items that was appended to plaintiff's complaint against OCL is appended to plaintiff's complaint in this case.

Hartford has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiff's claims are barred by collateral estoppel.


A. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment

Although the party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of pointing to portions of the pleadings and discovery that establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, this burden can be satisfied by "pointing out to the district court . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. ...

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