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Bertelsen v. Channel Bio, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

December 7, 2017

RALPH RICHARD BERTELSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CHANNEL BIO, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This diversity matter is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment of Defendants Channel Bio, LLC, Channel Bio Corp., and Channel Bio (collectively, “Channel”). Plaintiff Ralph Richard Bertelsen filed his opposition, and Channel filed a reply. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         This matter arises out of a dispute between Plaintiff and Channel regarding an oral contract allegedly made between Plaintiff and Chris Bertelsen, a local Channel seed salesman.[1] The record establishes the following for purposes of the motion before the Court. In 2011, Plaintiff purchased Channel seed corn, which he planted on 462.5 acres of his land and 71 acres of his son's land. Plaintiff also planted four to five acres of DeKalb corn seed at the edge of one of his fields. The crops were sprayed with herbicide in the spring, which Plaintiff contends caused the Channel corn to curl up. Plaintiff claims the DeKalb corn did not have the same reaction to the herbicide.

         In July 2011, Plaintiff contacted Chris Bertelsen regarding the problems with the Channel corn. Chris Bertelsen inspected the corn and documented his visit in Channel's CODI system, [2] reporting that 25-30% of the field had wrapped upon itself in a “buggywhipped looking type of corn.” ECF No. 46-19. Chris Bertelsen's report did not include any mention of DeKalb corn. Chris Bertelsen then had a Channel agronomist inspect the fields.

         Plaintiff has presented evidence, by way of his deposition testimony and his declaration, that after Chris Bertelsen and Channel's agronomist inspected Plaintiff's fields, Chris Bertelsen told Plaintiff that he would “take care of” Plaintiff and try to make it right by paying Plaintiff the difference in the yield of the DeKalb corn and the Channel corn, multiplied by the year's price of corn in 2011, in exchange for Plaintiff not making public his complaints about the performance of Channel seed.[3] Plaintiff further presented evidence that Chris Bertelsen was present during the harvest and participated in weighing the DeKalb corn and Channel corn for purposes of fulfilling the oral contract. Specifically, Brian Bertelsen, Plaintiff's son, testified by deposition that he recalled Chris Bertelsen riding in the combine harvester with Plaintiff during harvest and measuring the Channel and DeKalb corn. Brian Bertelsen's understanding was that Chris Bertelsen was taking measurements of both the DeKalb and Channel corn to determine the difference in yield, which would then govern the compensation calculation. Brian Bertelsen also testified that he was told by Chris to “kept quiet, ” and Chris Bertelsen would “make it right.” ECF No. 50-3.

         It is undisputed that Chris Bertelsen completed a field service call report dated December 1, 2011, in which he indicated that Plaintiff's corn yield was 136 bushels per acre, but that other corn in the area yielded 175 bushels per acre. ECF No. 46-4. It is further undisputed that the report indicated that Plaintiff's entire field was Channel corn, and the “cost” category indicated $30, 000, which reflected the approximate total cost of the Channel seed Plaintiff purchased in 2011.

         Channel presented evidence that in December 2011, Chris Bertelsen sought a refund from Channel for the price Plaintiff paid for the seed (approximately $30, 000) and offered Plaintiff a 50% discount on his 2012 seed, which Channel contends was rejected by Plaintiff. Plaintiff told Chris Bertelsen that the DeKalb corn planted on his field had a higher yield than the Channel corn, and Plaintiff asked Chris Bertelsen to propose the difference between the Channel yield and the DeKalb yield as compensation. This offer was rejected by Chris Bertelsen's supervisors. Chris Bertelsen testified that December 2011 was the first time he heard about DeKalb corn being planted in Plaintiff's field. Channel contends this is consistent with Chris Bertelsen's CODI entries regarding Plaintiff's corn.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Warren County, Illinois, asserting claims of breach of oral contract and breach of implied warranty against Channel. Channel removed the action to the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, and the matter was subsequently transferred to this Court based on an applicable choice-of-forum clause. On November 29, 2016, this Court granted Channel's motion to dismiss as to the count of breach of implied warranty, leaving only the count for breach of oral contract. ECF No. 34.

         Channel now argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff's claim for breach of contract fails, in that the parties did not have a meeting of the minds about the terms of the oral contract, and that the terms, if any, were too indefinite to constitute an enforceable contract. Plaintiff responds in opposition that he entered into an oral contract with Chris Bertelsen in July 2011 and that they established clear terms at that time: Plaintiff would refrain from making his complaints about Channel corn public, in exchange for Channel paying the difference between the yield of DeKalb corn and Channel corn. Therefore, Plaintiff argues that the terms of the contract were sufficiently definite to survive summary judgment and there are questions of fact that require resolution by a jury.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard for summary judgment is well settled. In determining whether summary judgment should issue, the Court must view the facts and inferences from the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Littrell v. City of Kansas City, Mo., 459 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2006). The moving party has the burden to establish both the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party may not rest on the allegations in his pleadings but by affidavit or other evidence must set forth specific facts showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Littrell, 459 F.3d at 921.

         “To survive a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must ‘substantiate his allegations with sufficient probative evidence that would permit a finding in his favor based on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy.'” Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 733 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Davidson & Assocs. v. Jung, 422 F.3d 630, 638 (8th Cir. 2005). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and giving the nonmoving party the benefit of all ...


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