Justia Delaware Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Appellant-defendant Steven Baynum and Manisha Baynum married in 2009. In 2012, the couple experimented with having an “open marriage” and shared an intimate experience with Dakota Holdren (“Dakota”). Thereafter, Manisha was romantically involved with Dakota. In 2013, Manisha filed for divorce. Manisha was granted a Family Court Order affording her exclusive use a property owned by Steven's grandparents. The Order prohibited Baynum from accessing the residence and, as a result, he often stayed with his grandparents at another residence, located on the same property the house now occupied by Manisha. In the early hours of October 24, Dakota and Manisha were at Manisha's home. Interested in “check[ing] out the place,” Baynum communicated with Manisha via text messages and phone calls regarding whether he could come. After being dissuaded by Manisha, Baynum temporarily refrained from going to the house, although he “decided to put a ladder at the base of [28 Harvest Lane’s] driveway . . . .” Later that evening, Manisha was awakened by noises emanating from the bathroom, later discovering Baynum, who jumped on the bed, pulled a blanket off of Dakota, and started punching him. After convincing Baynum to join her in the kitchen, Manisha dialed 9-1-1, but was unable to speak with an operator because Baynum “took the phone out of [her] hands” and “took the battery out of the phone.” Thereafter, Baynum “dragged” Manisha back to the bedroom, where he proceeded to “tie up” Dakota utilizing an ethernet cord. Baynum then pushed Manisha onto her stomach and attempted to tie her hands together using an iPhone charging cord. Manisha testified that she bit Baynum on his arm during the struggle. Baynum responded by punching her in the face and holding a knife to her throat. New Castle County police officers were dispatched to Manisha's house. The next day, Baynum appeared at his grandparents’ residence, explaining to his grandmother that “he had beat the crap out of the man that was living -- sleeping with his wife. And [Baynum] said [he] was just trying to defend [his] -- [his] wedding vows, reaffirming his marriage.” After Baynum left, his grandmother informed the police. The Superior Court denied Baynum’s Motion in Limine prior to his trial on charges stemming from the incident at Manisha's house. The ruling was issued following an evidentiary hearing conducted in connection with Baynum’s Motion, which sought dismissal of his case before trial or, in the alternative, a "Lolly" jury instruction, on the theory that the State failed to collect or preserve potentially material evidence. Baynum appealed his convictions and argued that the Superior Court erred in denying his Motion. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court. View "Baynum v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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While off-duty, out of uniform, driving his own car, and under the influence of alcohol, Wilmington Police Officer Michael Spencer ran a red light and collided with a car driven by Morgan McCaffrey. After the accident, Officer Spencer asked McCaffrey to handle the matter without police involvement and to move their damaged cars out of the roadway and into parking spaces in front of McCaffrey’s nearby apartment. Officer Spencer and McCaffrey then went into the apartment, where Officer Spencer undressed and made sexual advances toward McCaffrey, which she refused. McCaffrey called the police after Officer Spencer passed out in her bed. The responding officers took Officer Spencer to the hospital, and later to the police station, where after a delay of five hours, Officer Spencer supposedly passed field tests for intoxication. The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) disciplined Officer Spencer for his conduct that evening. McCaffrey filed suit against Officer Spencer, the WPD, and others, including former Chief of Police Michael Szczerba, stemming from the car accident and Officer Spencer’s admitted inappropriate conduct with McCaffrey. In a series of opinions, the Superior Court dismissed all claims against the defendants other than Officer Spencer, and entered a final judgment excluding Officer Spencer. McCaffrey raised two issues on appeal: (1) the Superior Court erred by dismissing Count I of her complaint arguing that she sufficiently alleged that Spencer was acting within the scope of his employment as a Wilmington Police Officer when he ran into McCaffrey’s car and made inappropriate sexual advances after the accident; (2) that the Superior Court erred in dismissing Count IV, against Chief Szczerba and the City because the County and Municipal Tort Claims Act did not immunize them from suit for Officer Spencer’s actions. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court. View "McCaffrey v. City of Wilmington, et al." on Justia Law

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Manuel Morales was found not guilty of Offensive Touching, but guilty of Robbery First Degree, relating to a 2013 incident at a cell phone store in Elsmere. Morales jumped over the counter and demanded money, indicating that, if the store's clerk did not comply, he would kill her. When the clerk opened the register, Morales took money out of it. As he ran out of the store, Morales collided with another woman who was entering the store through the front door. He was sentenced to ten years of incarceration at Level V, suspended after three years for decreasing levels of supervision. Seeking reversal of his conviction and sentence, Morales argued for the first time on appeal that the prosecutor’s statement to the jury during summation that he was “clearly guilty” denied him a fair trial. The Supreme Court concluded the prosecutor’s improper comment did not amount to plain or repetitive error requiring reversal, and therefore, affirmed Morales’s conviction and sentence. View "Morales v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit certified a question of law arising out of an appeal of a decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida to the Delaware Supreme Court. Paulson Advantage Plus, L.P. (the “Investment Fund”) was a Delaware limited partnership that invested in corporate securities. Paulson Advisers, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, and Paulson & Co., a Delaware corporation (the Investment Fund Managers) were the general partners and managers of the Investment Fund. One of the Investment Fund’s limited partners was HedgeForum Paulson Advantage Plus, LLC, (the “Feeder Fund”). The Feeder Fund was managed and sponsored by Citigroup Alternative Investments, LLC. AMACAR CPO, Inc. was the Feeder Fund’s managing member. Along with other investors, Plaintiff-appellant Hugh Culverhouse was a member of the Feeder Fund, not a limited partner in the Investment Fund. Culverhouse filed a putative class action against the Investment Fund Managers in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The first amended complaint alleged that between 2007 and 2011, the Investment Fund invested about $800 million in a Chinese forestry company. Following another investment firm’s report claiming that the forestry company had overstated its timber holdings and engaged in questionable related-party transactions, the Investment Fund sold its holdings for about a $460 million loss. On appeal of the dismissal for lack of standing, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit determined that resolution of the appeal depended on an unsettled issue of Delaware law. The Eleventh Circuit posited the question to the Delaware Supreme Court on whether the diminution in the value of a limited liability company, serving as a feeder fund in a limited partnership, provides a basis for an investor’s direct suit against the general partners when the company and the partnership allocated losses to investors’ individual capital accounts and did not issue transferrable shares and losses were shared by investors in proportion to their investments. The Delaware Court answered in the negative. View "Culverhouse v. Paulson & Co., Inc." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, Mary DiFebo argued that the Superior Court erred by dismissing her amended petition seeking review of a Board of Adjustment decision that granted a variance application for two land plots located near DiFebo's home to be subdivided into four flag lots. The Superior Court had two related reasons for dismissing the amended petition: (1) that DiFebo had not named the owners of the two properties that were the subject of the Board's proceeding within the thirty-day statute of limitations for commencing a petition challenging a Board decision, and for that reason alone she was foreclosed from proceeding; (2) alternatively, the court found that DiFebo had not met the requirements for relation back under Superior Court Civil Rule 15(c)(3). The Supreme Court concluded that the Superior Court correctly determined that DiFebo did not satisfy all of Rule 15(c)(3)'s requirements to have her amended petition relate back to her initial filing. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of DiFebo's amended petition. View "DiFebo v. Board of Adjustment of New Castle County, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs-appellants DeShaun Ketler and Brittany Ketler appealed a Superior Court order granting Defendant-appellee PFPA, LLC’s (“PlanetFitness”) motion for judgment on the pleadings. DeShaun Ketler was injured while using exercise equipment in a Planet Fitness facility. The Ketlers claim that the injuries were caused by negligence on the part of Planet Fitness. The Superior Court found that the Ketlers claim was barred by a signed release of liability. It determined that a release which allowed a party to avoid liability for its own negligence was permissible under Delaware Law if the release is unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. It further determined that the release satisfied all three criteria. On appeal, the Ketlers argued the Superior Court erred because the release is ambiguous, unconscionable, and against public policy. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Ketler v. PFPA, LLC" on Justia Law

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The plaintiffs both have policies with State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and both submitted claims that State Farm failed to pay within the statutory thirty-day period. The plaintiffs earlier alleged that State Farm had failed to make the required statutory interest payments to them and other claimants whose PIP claims had not been processed within thirty days. When that theory did not pan out and they faced summary judgment, the plaintiffs reformulated their pursuit of class-wide relief by proposing to file an amended complaint seeking a declaratory judgment from the Superior Court that State Farm must process all PIP claims within thirty days. The Superior Court denied the motion for leave to amend, reasoning that amending the complaint would be futile because no case or controversy existed because the plaintiffs had been paid the required statutory interest. The court then granted summary judgment to State Farm. In this appeal, the plaintiffs alleged that the Superior Court was wrong to dismiss their claim, arguing that they have a ripe disagreement with State Farm over its failure to comply invariably with the thirty-day deadline set forth in 21 Del. C. 2118B(c). After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court, but on a somewhat different ground. The plaintiffs were correct that absent declaratory (or injunctive) relief, it may be that they and other class members will have a claim in the future processed by State Farm in more than thirty days. But, the Court agreed with the Superior Court that the amended complaint is futile because as plainly written, section 2118B(c) did not impose an invariable standard that every PIP claim must be processed within thirty days and, in fact, contemplated that will not be the case by establishing a statutory consequence for the failure to do so. View "Clark v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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In 1992 Jermaine Wright was convicted of first degree murder, first degree robbery, and related weapons offenses for his involvement in what was known as the "Hi-Way Inn murder/robbery." The Superior Court imposed the death penalty for his murder conviction. Prior to trial, Wright moved to suppress a statement he had given to police. He alleged that his waiver of Miranda rights was invalid and his statement was involuntary because he was high on heroin at the time. The Superior Court denied the motion, finding that Wright had been given the Miranda rights three times, by three different police officers, and that the State had “met its burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant’s waiver of his Miranda rights was voluntary, knowing and intelligent, and that his confession was voluntarily made.” Wright then filed a second pretrial motion to suppress his confession on other grounds. In its opinion denying that motion, the Superior Court again found that Wright had been given his Miranda rights three times. The confession was admitted into evidence at trial. On direct appeal, Wright’s convictions and sentences were affirmed. Between then and 2009, Wright filed four motions for post conviction relief. In the second postconviction proceeding, the Superior Court again rejected Wright’s contention that his waiver of Miranda rights was not valid. In 2014, in the fourth postconviction proceeding, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Wright’s convictions on the ground that the State violated his rights under "Brady v. Maryland." The case was remanded to the Superior Court for a new trial. By the time the fourth motion for postconviction relief was filed, the original trial judge had retired and the case had been assigned to her successor. In the new trial proceedings, the successor judge granted a motion to suppress Wright’s confession on the ground that the Miranda rights he was given were inadequate, and that his waiver was, therefore, not valid. The last ruling was presented for the Delaware Supreme Court's review. The Court concluded that the original Superior Court judge’s determination that Wright’s waiver of his Miranda rights was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent necessarily included an implied determination that the warnings were adequately given. Those determinations are the law of the case. For this reason, the successor judge erred in reviewing the admissibility of Wright’s confession. The State also appeals the successor judge’s denial of a motion that he recuse himself. At oral argument, the State conceded that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction under 10 Del. C. 9902 to review that order. Therefore, the Court did not address the Superior Court’s ruling on recusal or express any opinion on recusal. View "Delaware v. Wright" on Justia Law

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In the first appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Chancery’s finding that SIGA Technologies, Inc. in bad faith breached its contractual obligation to negotiate a license agreement consistent with the parties’ license agreement term sheet, known throughout this litigation as the “LATS.” The Supreme Court also held that where parties have agreed to negotiate in good faith, and would have reached an agreement but for the defendant’s bad faith conduct during the negotiations, the plaintiff could recover contract expectation damages, so long as the plaintiff can prove damages with reasonable certainty. Because the Court of Chancery ruled out expectation damages in its first decision, the case was remanded for consideration of damages to SIGA ("SIGA I”). On remand, the Court of Chancery reevaluated the evidence, and held that PharmAthene, Inc. met its burden of proving with reasonable certainty expectation damages and awarded PharmAthene $113 million. The parties once again appealed to the Supreme Court. SIGA raised two claims of error in this appeal: (1) the Court of Chancery was not free to reconsider its prior holding that lump-sum expectation damages were too speculative; and (2) if reconsideration was permitted, the expectation damages awarded following remand were too speculative. After careful consideration of SIGA’s arguments, the Supreme Court found that the law of the case doctrine did not preclude the Court of Chancery from reconsidering its earlier determination that lump-sum expectation damages were too speculative. The Court also found that the court did not abuse its discretion when it awarded PharmAthene lump-sum expectation damages, and its factual findings supporting its new damages determination were not clearly erroneous. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Chancery. View "SIGA Technologies, Inc. v. PharmAthene" on Justia Law
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A masked gunman went into a Wilmington barbershop, shot his intended victim, and also shot and killed a five-year-old boy. The police arrested Chauncey Starling one month after the shooting, when the State’s key witness, Alfred Gaines, identified Starling as the shooter. In 2003, the State tried Starling for first degree murder, conspiracy, and related weapons charges. No physical evidence linked Starling to the crime. Instead, the State relied primarily on Gaines’ testimony and statements made to police by Starling’s brother and girlfriend. The State also relied on testimony from the victim’s girlfriend, who identified Starling as the shooter based on his eyes. A Superior Court jury convicted Starling of all charges, and the judge sentenced him to death. On direct appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the conviction but remanded the case for resentencing. After remand, the Superior Court again sentenced Starling to death. The Supreme Court again affirmed the death sentences. Starling then moved for postconviction relief, claiming that his trial counsel was ineffective, that the State failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and that the prosecution engaged in misconduct at trial. Following years of discovery, evidentiary hearings, and briefing, the Superior Court denied Starling’s motion and this appeal followed. Starling renewed the same constitutional arguments on appeal. The Delaware Supreme Court's review of the record lead it to conclude that mistakes were made that "undermine[d] confidence in the fairness of the trial." The cumulative effect of these errors lead the Court to conclude that there was a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different without the errors. Therefore Starling’s conviction was reversed and his case remanded for a new trial. View "Starling v. Delaware" on Justia Law