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Christ's Legacy Church v. Trinity Group Architects, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division IV

March 19, 2018

CHRIST'S LEGACY CHURCH, a/k/a CORNERSTONE CHURCH, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
TRINITY GROUP ARCHITECTS, INC., Defendant/Appellee, and VAN HOOSE CONSTRUCTION CO., and JAMES VAN HOOSE, Individually, Defendants.

          Mandate Issued: 04/18/2018

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OKLAHOMA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE ROGER H. STUART, TRIAL JUDGE

          Dan L. Holloway, Marissa T. Osenbaugh, HOLLOWAY, BETHEA & OSENBAUGH, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant

          W. Michael Hill, Jeffrey Fields, Jennifer L. Struble, SECREST, HILL, BUTLER & SECREST, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee

          DEBORAH B. BARNES, PRESIDING JUDGE

         ¶1 Plaintiff alleges it sustained damages as a result of Defendants' poor construction and design of its church. In this appeal, Plaintiff seeks review of the trial court's May 2012 order dismissing its negligence theory asserted against Defendant Trinity Group Architects, Inc. (Trinity), and of the trial court's January 2016 order granting summary judgment in favor of Trinity as to Plaintiff's breach of contract theory. Based on our review, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         PRELIMINARY ISSUE

         ¶2 As against Trinity, Plaintiff asserted theories of negligence and breach of contract. As stated, the trial court dismissed Plaintiff's negligence theory and granted summary judgment in favor of Trinity with regard to the remaining theory of breach of contract. In the prior appeal in this case (Case No. 114, 682), Plaintiff appealed from this summary judgment ruling. However, the prior appeal was dismissed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court for lack of an appealable order. As explained by the Supreme Court in the prior appeal, the trial court's January 2016 order "grant[ed] summary judgment in favor of one defendant [i.e., Trinity], leaving claims remaining against the other [two] defendants, and which [did] not contain an express determination that there is no just reason for delay, and an express direction for the filing of judgment[.]" The Supreme Court explained that the trial court's January 2016 order was, therefore, "not appealable at this time, " but that Plaintiff "will have the opportunity to seek review of the January 6, 2016 order in a timely and properly brought appeal from an order which is appealable pursuant to 12 O.S. § 994, or the judgment in the case."

         ¶3 Plaintiff and Defendant Van Hoose Construction Co. subsequently settled their claims and, in addition, Plaintiff dismissed its claims against Defendant James Van Hoose. [1] Plaintiff's "Dismissal With Prejudice" of James Van Hoose was filed on May 16, 2017, and, on the same date, the trial court issued its "Judgment" which states, in pertinent part, as follows:

Plaintiff and Defendant Van Hoose Construction Co. have informed the Court that they have reached an agreement as to the settlement of all issues herein. Judgment is rendered in the above-styled and numbered cause of action in favor of the Plaintiff and against [Van Hoose Construction Co.] only, in the total amount [of the agreed-upon settlement]....

         ¶4 Plaintiff filed its Petition in Error in the present appeal within thirty days of this May 2017 settlement order. However, Trinity asserts on appeal in its Summary of Case as follows:

[Plaintiff] brings this matter before this Court as a Final Order granting summary judgment. The order submitted with the Petition in Error does not meet the definition of a final order under 12 O.S. § 953 as it failed to dispose of all claims and does not contain language making it a final appealable order as required by 12 O.S. § 994. [2]

         ¶5 As in the present case, in Patmon v. Block, 1993 OK 53, 851 P.2d 539, an order granting partial summary judgment was "memorialized... without an express statutorily authorized command for an immediate appeal." Id. ¶ 7 (emphasis omitted). However, the remaining "claim for relief" which was not adjudicated in the partial summary judgment order was later dismissed by the trial court. The Patmon Court explained that the order dismissing the remaining claim for relief "mark[ed] the disposition of all the claims and the settlement of all the issues among the parties, " and, therefore, this later order constituted an appealable event. Id. (emphasis omitted).

         ¶6 Indeed, if some claims (or parties) are not adjudicated in an interlocutory, partial summary judgment ruling, a voluntary dismissal of the remaining claims (or parties) is sufficient to render the partial summary judgment ruling final and reviewable, and the filing of the dismissal triggers the commencement of appeal time. [3] Consequently, we conclude the dismissal of James Van Hoose, combined with the settlement order, both of which were filed on May 16, 2017, marks the disposition of all remaining claims and the settlement of all the issues among the parties. Consequently, the commencement of appeal time was triggered on this date, and Plaintiff has timely appealed. [4]

         ¶7 We therefore turn, in the remainder of this Opinion, to the issues raised by Plaintiff as to whether the May 2012 order dismissing Plaintiff's negligence theory against Trinity, and the January 2016 order granting summary judgment in favor of Trinity with regard to breach of contract, were properly entered. [5]

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND AS TO TRINITY

         ¶8 Plaintiff originally filed suit against Defendants on January 31, 2011. However, the trial court dismissed Plaintiff's original petition without prejudice and, in January 2012, Plaintiff re-filed its petition. As stated above, Plaintiff asserted theories of breach of contract and negligence against Trinity. However, in March 2012, Trinity filed a motion to dismiss in which it argued, among other things, that Plaintiff's negligence theory is barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations. Trinity pointed out that, in the petition filed in January 2012, Plaintiff alleged it "learned, in the late Spring of 2006, " that Trinity had not fulfilled its contractual duties and was "proceeding with no intention to perform according to the contract and associated building plans, and instead... wholly failed to perform as contracted and in a good and workmanlike manner[.]" [6] Trinity asserted that because the original petition was not filed until January 2011 -- almost five years after Plaintiff "learned" of the above allegations -- the negligence theory was asserted well outside the two-year limitations period and is, therefore, barred.

         ¶9 In Plaintiff's response to the motion to dismiss, it asserted that a question of fact was nevertheless presented as to precisely when Plaintiff discovered Trinity's alleged negligence -- in particular, a question of fact remained as to when Plaintiff learned of Trinity's failure to ensure that the construction conformed to Trinity's design plans. However, in an order filed in May 2012, the trial court dismissed Plaintiff's negligence theory as barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court granted Plaintiff "leave to amend [its] Petition in respect to this claim." Plaintiff did not file an amended petition.

         ¶10 In October 2015, Trinity filed a motion for summary judgment as to the remaining theory of breach of contract. Trinity correctly asserted that while a five-year statute of limitations applies to an allegation of breach of a written contract, a three-year limitations period applies to an alleged breach of any other contract, whether oral or implied. Trinity asserted that, in the present case, "[t]here is no written contract, only an oral agreement between the parties" and, thus, Plaintiff was required to file its petition within three years of either the discovery of the alleged breach in the late spring of 2006, or within three years of the completion of the construction project in February 2007. Thus, according to Trinity, because Plaintiff did not file its petition until 2011, its breach of contract theory is also barred.

         ¶11 The trial court granted Trinity's motion for summary judgment in the January 2016 order. Plaintiff appeals from both the dismissal [7] and summary judgment rulings entered in favor of Trinity.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶12 The standard of review for a district court's decision granting a motion to dismiss is de novo. Dani v. Miller, 2016 OK 35, ¶ 10, 374 P.3d 779. When reviewing a dismissal ruling, we "test the law that governs the claim, not the underlying facts." Id. (citations omitted). That is, we take as true all factual allegations made by the plaintiff in its petition, together with all reasonable inferences, and if relief is possible under any set of facts that can be gleaned from the petition, the motion to dismiss will be denied. Id. ¶¶ 10 & 11.

         ¶13 This appeal also concerns the trial court's order granting Trinity's motion for summary judgment.

Summary judgment is proper only if it appears to the court that there is no substantial controversy as to the material facts and that one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Only when the evidentiary materials eliminate all factual disputes relative to a question of law is summary judgment appropriate on that issue. The trial court's ruling on the legal issue is reviewed de novo as a question of law. However, an appellate court will reverse the grant of summary judgment if the materials submitted to the trial court indicate a substantial controversy exists as to any material fact.

Plano Petroleum, LLC v. GHK Exploration, L.P., 2011 OK 18, ¶ 6, 250 P.3d 328 (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). "When this Court reviews the trial court's grant of summary judgment, all inferences and conclusions drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Geyer Bros. Equip. Co. v. Standard Res., L.L.C., 2006 OK CIV APP 92, ¶ 7, 140 P.3d 563 (citation omitted).

         ANALYSIS

          I. Negligence

         ¶14 A two-year statute of limitations applies to Plaintiff's negligence theory. "The statute of limitations applicable to an action for negligence is found in 12 O.S. 2011 § 95 (A)(3) and it provides that such a claim must be filed two (2) years after the cause of action shall have accrued." Calvert v. Swinford, 2016 OK 100, ¶ 6, 382 P.3d 1028 (footnote omitted). [8] As to the accrual date, "Oklahoma... follows the discovery rule allowing limitations in certain tort cases to be tolled until the injured party knows or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of the injury." Calvert, ¶ 11 (footnote omitted). However, even when applying the discovery rule to this case, it is clear -- pursuant to Plaintiff's own allegations in its petition -- that the negligence theory is barred under the two-year statute of limitations.

         ¶15 As set forth above, Plaintiff alleges in its petition that it "learned, in the late Spring of 2006, " that Trinity had not fulfilled its alleged duties and was "proceeding with no intention to perform according to the contract and associated building plans, and instead... wholly failed to perform as contracted and in a good and workmanlike manner[.]" The time period during which Plaintiff alleges it learned Trinity had "wholly failed" in this regard (i.e., the late spring of ...


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