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Home Service Oil Company v. Cecil

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

March 23, 2017

HOME SERVICE OIL COMPANY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
NORMA CECIL, Defendant-Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF DUNKLIN COUNTY Honorable Stephen R. Mitchell

         REVERSED AND REMANDED

          MARY W. SHEFFIELD, C.J. JUDGE

         Norma Cecil ("Defendant") appeals from the trial court's summary judgment in favor of Home Service Oil Co. ("Plaintiff") on the basis that Defendant was judicially estopped from denying Plaintiff's claims because Defendant did not dispute Plaintiff's claim in a previous bankruptcy proceeding. Applying a de novo standard of review, see ITT Commercial Finance Corp. v. Mid-America Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993), we reverse the trial court's judgment because Plaintiff did not meet its burden under Rule 74.04.[1] Specifically, Plaintiff's statement of uncontroverted material facts did not demonstrate that there was no dispute about each of the facts supporting each element of the claims upon which Plaintiff would have had the burden of proof at trial.

         Procedural Background

         The following information is drawn from Plaintiff's statement of uncontroverted material facts as supplemented by the docket sheets and pleadings in this case, viewed in the light most favorable to Defendant.[2] See ITT, 854 S.W.2d at 376. At some time prior to the litigation in this case, Defendant executed a credit agreement with Plaintiff under which Plaintiff agreed to provide fuel products to Defendant for resale at Defendant's convenience store. In August 2014, Plaintiff sued Defendant, alleging claims of action on account and unjust enrichment in order to recover $32, 359.31 due under the agreement, plus interest and attorneys' fees.

         In October 2014, Defendant filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition requesting discharge of multiple debts including the one Plaintiff alleged was owed. Defendant's bankruptcy discharge was denied.

          In February 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment in the present action, arguing Defendant was "judicially estopped from denying the claim which she admitted was undisputed and valid in other judicial proceedings." The trial court granted that motion. This appeal followed.

         Discussion

         Defendant raises three points on appeal. Each of these points discusses one of the three factors courts use to evaluate claims of judicial estoppel. However, judicial estoppel does not control the outcome of this appeal. Rather, the trial court's judgment must be reversed because Plaintiff did not meet its burden under Rule 74.04 for summary judgment.

         Appellate review of a summary judgment "is essentially de novo." ITT, 854 S.W.2d at 376. That is, "[t]he criteria on appeal for testing the propriety of summary judgment are no different from those which should be employed by the trial court to determine the propriety of sustaining the motion initially." Id. "As the trial court's judgment is founded on the record submitted and the law, an appellate court need not defer to the trial court's order granting summary judgment." Id.

         "The language of Rule 74.04 establishes the boundaries of Missouri's summary judgment practice." Id. at 380. "The key to summary judgment is the undisputed right to judgment as a matter of law; not simply the absence of a fact question." Id. Moreover, under the rule, "[a] 'claimant' must establish that there is no genuine dispute as to those material facts upon which the 'claimant' would have had the burden of persuasion at trial." Id. at 381. Importantly, "[w]hen considering appeals from summary judgments, the Court will review the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered." Id. at 376. And, "[w]e accord the non-movant the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the record." Id.

         We must also look to the elements of the claims pleaded in the petition and determine whether the facts in the statement of uncontroverted material facts meet those elements to ascertain whether Plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Here, Plaintiff sought relief under two theories: action on account and unjust enrichment. The elements of a successful claim for action on account are "that 1) defendant requested plaintiff to furnish merchandise or services, 2) plaintiff accepted defendant's offer by furnishing such merchandise or services, and 3) the charges were reasonable." Helmtec Indus., Inc. v. Motorcycle Stuff, Inc., 857 S.W.2d 334, 335 (Mo. App. E.D. 1993). "To establish the elements of an unjust enrichment claim, the plaintiff must prove that (1) he conferred a benefit on the defendant; (2) the defendant appreciated the benefit; and (3) the defendant accepted and retained the benefit under inequitable and/or unjust circumstances." Howard v. Turnbull, 316 S.W.3d 431, 436 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010). Plaintiff's statement of uncontroverted material facts did not show the elements of either of these claims without the need for inferences in its favor.

         Here, Plaintiff's statement of uncontroverted material facts included ...


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