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Nguti v. Safeco Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 27, 2017

CHARLES NGUTI, Plaintiff,
v.
SAFECO INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAULA XINIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending in this breach of contract case is Defendant Safeco Insurance Company's motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, to limit facts and issues not in dispute. ECF No. 69. Also pending is Plaintiff Charles Nguti's motion for leave to file surreply. ECF No. 79. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff's motion is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On January 26, 2012, a fire broke out at the home of Plaintiff Charles Nguti (“Nguti”) in Hyattsville, Maryland which destroyed or damaged most of Nguti's personal belongings. ECF No. 2 at 2. Nguti notified his insurance carrier, Defendant Safeco Insurance Company (“Safeco”), of the fire the same day. Id. The fire left Nguti homeless until February 1, 2012, when Safeco, through CRS, a third party agency, provided temporary housing for Nguti and his family. Id.

         Safeco investigated the fire for several months, ultimately disclaiming coverage for the damage on July 29, 2012. According to Nguti, Safeco's disclaimer was without notice or “justifiable reason.” Id. at 4. This denial of coverage led to Nguti's mortgage lender arranging for force-placed insurance. Id. at 5.[2] Nguti then filed a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration (“MIA”) to dispute Safeco's cancellation. Id. Following an MIA investigation, Safeco reinstated the same insurance policy and noted that Nguti suffered “no lapse in coverage.” ECF No. 69-16 at 2; see ECF No. 2 at 5.

         On August 3, 2012, a CRS agent notified Nguti that his temporary housing would come to an end on September 2, 2012. ECF No. 2 at 3. Then, on September 25, 2012, Safeco formally denied coverage of Nguti's insurance claims related to the fire. Id.

         On December 18, 2014, Nguti filed a four-count complaint against Safeco in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland. ECF No. 2. Following timely removal, Safeco filed a partial motion to dismiss on Counts One and Four. ECF No. 13. The Court granted the motion in part. ECF Nos. 28 & 29. It denied the motion as to Count Four and granted it as to Count Two. Id. Thus, Counts One, Three, and Four remain.

         In Count One, Nguti claims that Safeco breached its insurance contract in failing to reimburse Nguti for the personal property lost or damaged as a result of the fire, and for which Nguti seeks damages of $120, 000. ECF No. 2 at 3. Count Three also claims a breach of contract in Safeco's failure to reimburse Nguti for $32, 400 of living expenses arising from Safeco's termination of temporary housing. Id. at 4. Count Four alleges wrongful termination of the pertinent insurance policy. On this count, Nguti seeks a refund for the premiums paid for the force-placed insurance policy that Nguti claims he purchased when Safeco cancelled his homeowner's insurance, or any other relief that the Court deems proper. Id. at 5.

         On December 20, 2016, Safeco filed a motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, a motion to limit facts and issues not in dispute. ECF No. 69. Principally, Safeco seeks summary judgment for a failure of proof on damages, or alternatively, a Court Order limiting the triable issues as to damages and the nature and cause of the fire. Id. For the following reasons, the Court grants Safeco's motion on summary judgment as to Nguti's claimed actual damages.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court may enter summary judgment only if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is inappropriate if any material fact at issue might “reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); JKC Holding Co. LLC v. Washington Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). “Furthermore, a court should not grant summary judgment ‘unless the entire record shows a right to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances.'” Campbell v. Hewitt, Coleman & Assocs., Inc., 21 F.3d 52, 55 (4th Cir. 1994) (quoting Phoenix Sav. & Loan, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty & Sur. Co., 381 F.2d 245, 249 (4th Cir. 1967)).

         Nevertheless, “the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Although “given some latitude . . . even a pro se party may not avoid summary judgment by relying on bald assertions and speculative arguments.” Mansfield v. Kerry, No. DKC 15-3693, 2016 WL 7383873, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 21, 2016) (citing Smith v. Vilsack, 832 F.Supp.2d 573, 580 (D. Md. 2011).

         “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings, ' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). “A mere scintilla of proof . . . will not suffice to prevent summary judgment.” Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 314 (4th Cir. 2003). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). At the same time, the court must construe the facts presented in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Emmett, 532 F.3d at 297.

         Safeco also asks the Court to enter an order limiting the facts and issues not in dispute. Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to move for partial summary judgment by identifying “each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought.” (emphasis added). A motion for partial summary judgment is recognized as a useful pretrial tool; the Advisory Committee Notes to the 1946 amendment to Rule 56 state: “The partial summary judgment is merely a pretrial adjudication that certain issues shall be deemed established for the trial of the case. This adjudication . . . serves the purpose of speeding up litigation by” narrowing the issues for trial to those over which there is a genuine dispute of material fact. Rotorex Co. v. Kingsbury ...


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