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The United States of America v. David Mednansky

March 8, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorablelarryalanburns United States District Judge


On June 30, 2010, the United States filed a motion styled as a motion for summary judgment (the "Motion"). In fact, the Motion does not seek complete adjudication of all issues; rather, it asks the Court to issue an order of ejectment and find the Mednanskys are liable for damages, but to leave the issue of the amount of damages to a later time. The Motion did not specifically seek dismissal of the Mednanskys' counterclaims, though it appears these will be moot if the motion is granted. The Motion is therefore a motion for partial summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

After several continuances, and an order granting the Mednanskys' relief from their failure to file an opposition, the Motion is now fully briefed. At the time the Mednanskys failed to oppose the Motion, the hearing was vacated and the Motion deemed submitted on the papers. The Court has reviewed the briefing and has determined no hearing is necessary on this Motion. See Civil Local Rule 7.1(d)(1).

I. Background

The Mednanskys occupy a cabin located on Lot 7 of the Pine Creek Tract in the Cleveland National Forest. They previously had a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. They acquired their permit and bought the cabin in 1999, but the permit expired December 31, 2008 and, in spite of extensions of time in which to seek renewal, has not been permanently renewed.*fn1

The Mednanskys and employees of the United States were parties to two earlier related actions for alleged civil rights violations. The first, Mednansky v. Gillett, 07cv1425-LAB (CAB), was dismissed on the merits. The Ninth Circuit found the appeal to be frivolous, denied leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and summarily affirmed. Mednansky v. Metz, 09cv1478-LAB (BGS), which was dismissed in part with prejudice and in part without prejudice, is now on appeal. The order of dismissal is Mednansky v. Metz, 2010 WL 3418376 (S.D.Cal., Aug. 26, 2010). The Ninth Circuit docket for this case shows nothing has been filed in the docket and no action has been taken since the appeal was docketed on September 27, 2010. In Mednansky v. Metz, the Mednanskys sought relief from the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to renew their permit, because of unresolved disputes concerning conditions on the property.

In this action, the United States seeks an order ejecting the Mednanskys from the lot, an order compelling cleanup and reclamation of the property, an order enjoining the Mednanskys from using the property further, and an award of damages for the Mednanskys' alleged trespass on the lot.

II. Legal Standards

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) empowers the Court to enter summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Transp. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001). A fact is material if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). An issue is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. "Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary [are] not counted." Id.

The movant has the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no issue of material fact and that summary judgment is proper. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Arpin, 261 F.3d at 919. If the movant met his or her burden, the burden then shifts to the non-movant to show that summary judgment is not appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 324 (1986).

In considering the motion, the non-movant's evidence is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his or her favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. In this case, the United States is the moving party seeking summary adjudication of its claim for relief. As the party with the burden of persuasion at trial, the United States must establish "beyond controversy every essential element of its . . . claim." S. Cal. Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana, 336 F.3d 885, 888 (9th Cir. 2003) (quoting W. Schwarzer, California Practice Guide: Federal Civil Procedure Before Trial § 14:124--127 (2001)). If a rational trier of fact could find in the Mednanskys' favor on these claims, summary judgment will be denied.

Inadmissible evidence is not considered when ruling on a motion for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Beyene v. Coleman Sec. Services, Inc., 854 F.2d 1179, 1181--82 (9th Cir. 1988). Nor may a party resist summary judgment by relying on mere allegations or denials of the moving party's evidence. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

III. Eviction Claim

There is no dispute that the special use permit under which the Mednanskys were permitted to occupy the lot has expired,*fn2 and that they are still occupying the cabin on that lot. Under the permit, the Mednanskys were required to pay an annual fee, to be determined by assessments. A copy of the permit is attached as Exhibit 1 to the Motion. The Mednanskys rely on this document as well, and don't question its authenticity. They agree they signed this permit and that it constitutes a contract (see Opp'n to Motion, 1:6 (describing the permit as "a binding contract")), but argue that they are not bound by all its terms, and were not in violation of the terms they consider valid. In their counterclaim they seek its renewal for a term of 20 years, and other relief to help them continue occupying the property.

The Mednanskys' defenses focus on whether the United States, through its officials, was right to refuse to renew the permit.

A. Whether All Terms of the Permit Are Binding

1. The Alleged Oral Agreement

The Mednanskys argue that in 1999, they discussed with a U.S. Forest Service representative Rich Tobin what the terms of the permit would be. They argue that this constituted a valid oral agreement. (Opp'n to Motion, 3:16--17; 21:10--20.) The evidence submitted in support of this argument consists of Mr. Mednansky's declaration (Id., Document number 26-2.) The Mednanskys also point to a complaint letter written by Mr. Mednansky in January, 2001 saying what he thought Tobin had told him. (Opp'n, 3:17--22 (citing Ex. 6).)

The Mednanskys allege they closed escrow, relying solely on Tobin's representations in reaching their decision to buy the cabin from its previous private owners. (Id., 3:22--24.)

They argue that they didn't receive the written permit until March, 2000, although they requested it repeatedly. (Id., 4:1--2.) When they examined it, they allege they saw it contained terms contrary to what Tobin had represented. (Id., 4:2--4.) They say they protested to Tobin, but signed the permit anyway, believing that if they did not, they would lose their investment. (Id., 4:4--7.) They now argue that they are not bound by terms in the permit that conflict with what Tobin told them.

Mr. Mednansky's declaration identifies only one specific representation made by Tobin, pertaining to whether the cabin could be used as a full-time residence. (Document number 26-2, ¶ 1.) Other than this, he just mentions "representations regarding the terms of the Special Use Permit" without saying what those representations were. (Id.) Even assuming the written permit could be modified by an earlier oral agreement, this vague declaration doesn't create a triable issue of fact about the terms of that agreement, or even whether there was such an agreement.

The letter says Tobin gave them reason to believe the lot wouldn't be inspected more than once per year, and they would be allowed to use the cabin as their full-time residence, as long as they had another residence available to them. The letter isn't admissible as evidence against the Forest Service, but even if it were, it undercuts the Mednanskys' argument. It says Tobin told Mr. Mednansky over the phone there wasn't a "rule book . . . for the buyers of the cabins,"*fn3 and that Mednansky "was verbally, over the phone, given the rules governing ownership." (Opp'n, Ex. 6.) The rules, the letter says, were "very informal and essentially minimal in content." (Id.) It also mentions "various repairs and upgrades" to the cabin that Tobin allegedly told Mr. Mednansky he would be able to do. (Id.) These repairs and upgrades are unidentified, but it is clear they didn't include replacing destroyed buildings (a point Mr. Mednansky later disputed). (Id.) This account contradicts the Mednanskys' current position that they thought at the time they had entered into an oral contract with Tobin.

Furthermore, accepting Mr. Mednansky's report as true, and assuming such a contract were even enforceable, important elements of contract formation are missing, such as a manifestation of mutual assent, and consideration or an exchange of promises. See Restatement (Second) Contracts, §§ 17, 18; Steinberg v. United States, 90 Fed.Cl. 435, 444 (Fed. Cl. 2009). Though the Mednanskys allege they considered Tobin's representations to constitute a binding oral contract (Opp'n, 3:16--17), their belief doesn't make it so. See Solid Host, NL v. Namecheap, Inc., 652 F. Supp. 2d 1092, 1110 (C.D.Cal., 2009) (declining to accept "legal conclusions cast as factual allegations" (citing Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007))).

There is also no evidence that Ms. Mednansky was a party to this conversation. Mr. Mednansky describes it as a conversation between himself and Tobin. Although the Opposition references Ms. Mednansky's "declaration," no such declaration is attached. Rather, what appears to be intended as her declaration is a typewritten, unsigned, undated, and unattested-to timeline of events bearing a title saying they were prepared for the benefit of Ms. Mednansky's psychologist. The timeline is written in summary and conclusory fashion (e.g., "Verbal contract led us to believe we will have privacy and independence (only once a year inspection) as well as an acceptable level of rules, regulations, and risks.") (Opp'n, Document number 26-1 at 1.) Though the Mednanskys have also attached a copy of Ms. Mednansky's psychological diagnosis, there is no showing this timeline was submitted for that diagnosis, and it is inadmissible if offered by the Mednanskys. Most of the remarks give no indication whether they were based on Ms. Mednansky's personal knowledge. To the degree it might be admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 803(4) if foundation were provided, it only serves to show Ms. Mednansky's perceptions, not the legal assertions embodied in it.

Even if the conversation with Tobin had created an oral contract, the signing of a new, conflicting written agreement would have effectively repudiated that agreement. The law doesn't countenance the reformation or partial rescission theory suggested by the Mednanskys. Even if the Mednanskys thought they had an oral contract with the Forest Service in 1999, they knew as of no later than March 1, 2000 (the date they signed the written permit) that the Forest Service had repudiated that agreement and presented them with a new one. Their remedy, assuming they had one, would have been, within the limitations period, to sue the Forest Service in the U.S. Court of Claims for breach of contract,*fn4 or to sue Tobin for misrepresenting facts or violating his duty to them in other ways.*fn5 The course of action they chose - signing the new agreement, accepting benefits under it, and only years later, after it expired, challenging its validity - did not preserve any rights they may have had.

Even assuming an oral agreement of the type the Mednanskys allege could modify the later written agreement, or be enforceable against the United States, no such contract existed. There is no triable issue of fact on this point.

2. Duress

The Mednanskys also argue they didn't consent to the written permit at all, because they signed under duress. But what the Mednanskys have described was not duress. The factual allegations don't show Tobin intended for them to close escrow without having seen the terms of the permit. That they did so, and then found themselves in a predicament afterwards, does not amount to coercion or duress. There are no allegations, much less evidence, that Tobin pressured the Mednanskys to sign the permit. And even if there were duress, it would merely render the contract voidable by prompt disaffirmance, not void and subject to challenge years later. Barnette v. Wells Fargo Nevada Nat'l Bank of S.F., 270 U.S. 438, 444 (1926).

The United States points out another fundamental problem with this argument, which is that the permit either is a binding agreement or it isn't. If the permit was never validly entered into, the Mednanskys never had a valid agreement and have been in trespass since 2000. What is more, they could ...

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