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Briggs v. Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 6, 2019

HELEN BRIGGS et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FREEPORT-MCMORAN COPPER & GOLD, INC., et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHARLES B. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 168). Plaintiffs have responded in opposition (Doc. No. 176), and Defendants have replied (Doc. No. 180). After carefully considering the parties' arguments, the relevant authorities, and the evidentiary materials submitted pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court determines that Defendants' Motion should be granted.

         This lawsuit was filed by a putative class of property owners to recover for damages allegedly sustained as a result of pollutants emitted by the Blackwell Zinc Smelter in Blackwell, Oklahoma. See Am. Compl. (Doc. No. 65). The parties agree that the claims at issue are identical to those asserted in an earlier class action filed in the District Court of Kay County, Oklahoma. See Op. Br. (Doc. No. 168) at 8, 15-19; Resp. Br. (Doc. No. 176) at 8-9, 13.[1] The earlier lawsuit-styled Bob Coffey, et al. v. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., et al., No. CJ-2008-68 (Kay Cty. Dist. Ct. filed Apr. 14, 2008) (the “Coffey Litigation”)[2]-was resolved by settlement of the parties, which was converted to judgment on March 26, 2012 (the “Coffey Judgment”). See Ex. 4 to Op. Br. (Doc. No. 168-4). The parties agree that the Coffey Judgment operates to bar the claims asserted in this lawsuit with respect to any owners of real property in the Class Area (defined below) who were not excluded from the Coffey settlement class.[3] See Op. Br. at 8, 15-19; Resp. Br. at 8-9, 13. The parties disagree, however, as to whether certain Plaintiffs-namely, Bradley Snow, Keyra Soto, and Sergio and Teresa Arteaga (collectively, “Remaining Plaintiffs”)[4]-are subject to that bar.

         As for Mr. Snow and Ms. Soto, a class action judgment may preclude a nonparty's subsequent civil claim when there is a “substantive legal relationship” between a party and the nonparty, such as “preceding and succeeding owners of property.” Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 894 (2008) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Hooks v. Rocket Oil Co., 1942 OK 324, 191 Okla. 431, 130 P.2d 846, 847. Because Mr. Snow and Ms. Soto each succeeded to property that was owned by a member of the Coffey settlement class who was bound by the Coffey Judgment, they are bound by the Coffey Judgment.

         As for the Arteagas, they are bound by the Coffey Judgment because the state court in Coffey determined that they were members of the Coffey settlement class. This Court has no authority to disturb that adjudication.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is a means of testing in advance of trial whether the available evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find in favor of the party asserting a claim. The Court must grant summary judgment when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). “An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Id.

         A party that moves for summary judgment has the burden of showing that the undisputed material facts require judgment as a matter of law in its favor. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the movant carries this initial burden, the nonmovant must then “go beyond the pleadings and ‘set forth specific facts' that would be admissible in evidence in the event of trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmovant.” Adler, 144 F.3d at 671 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The Court must then determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Parties may establish the existence or nonexistence of a material disputed fact by:

• citing to “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” in the record; or
• demonstrating “that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.”

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). While the Court views the evidence and the inferences drawn from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, see Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Pittsburg, Inc. v. PepsiCo, Inc., 431 F.3d 1241, 1255 (10th Cir. 2005), “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252.

         Summary of Undisputed Facts

         A. The Coffey Litigation

         The Coffey Judgment defines the “Settlement Class” to include all persons who, as of December 19, 2011, owned real property within a geographical boundary defined as the “Class Area.”[5] Ex. 4 to Op. Br. (Doc. No. 168-4) at 9-10. Putative class members were afforded an opportunity to “opt out” of the Settlement Class by submitting a written request for exclusion to a court-appointed “Settlement Administrator” on or before February 17, 2012. See Ex. 3 to Op. Br. (Doc. No. 168-3) at 12-13. As of March 12, 2012, the Settlement Administrator had received opt-out requests from 870 persons owning 819 properties within the Class Area; however, 192 such forms were found to be deficient. Ex. 4 to Op. Br. (Doc. No. 168-4) at 22-23. The Coffey Judgment directed the Settlement Administrator to review the deficient opt-out forms, work with property owners to resolve curable deficiencies, and submit a final opt-out list to the court at a later date. Id. at 23-24. The Settlement Administrator was further ordered to accept, from property owners who had previously opted out, requests to rejoin the Settlement Class during a six-month “opt-back-in” period. Id. at 24. All owners of property within the Class Area who did not submit a written request for exclusion were “adjudged to be members of the Settlement Class” and thus “bound by [the] Final Judgment . . . .” Id.

         On November 9, 2012, the Settlement Administrator submitted a preliminary opt-out list, along with an affidavit requesting guidance from the state court regarding the status of certain property owners whose requests for exclusion were deficient in some respect. See Ex. 15 to Reply Br. (Doc. No. 180-2). The court supplied such guidance in an order issued April 15, 2013. See Coffey, No. CJ-2008-68 (docket entry of April 15, 2013). As relevant here, the court ruled:

• that “[t]he status of property owners within the Class Area that both opted out and requested to be Class Members [was to] be determined . . . based upon the last timely-filed submission of intent received by the Settlement Administrator, ” with no consideration to be given to late filings; and
• that “[i]ndividuals or entities that own multiple properties within the Class Area that opted out of Class Membership with respect to some, but not all, of their properties . . . are Class Members and are bound by the Settlement ...

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