Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 3, 2019

NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED

Have you ever wondered why this blog is named “tree AND neighbor law?” Primarily, it’s because when I set it up, someone had already taken “Google” and “Amazon.” I had to settle for what was left.

All right, not really. But you may have noticed by now that there are many tree cases that never would have been brought but for the fact that neighbors were involved, or maybe just N-I-N-Os, “neighbors in name only.”

Today’s case is one of those cases. Reading between the lines, the Fleeces and Kankeys appeared to be congenial next-door neighbors. They had agreed on their property boundary, marked as it was by a common fence. When the fence deteriorated, they agreed to share the cost of replacement.

But when the Kankeys bulldozed the old fence and put in a sparkling new edifice, everything went south. It seems that some scrubby trees along the old fence were destroyed in the process. Suddenly, the Fleeces became the aggrieved parties, and not only did not want to contribute to the fence project, but demanded $17,500 to replace trees that lacked any market value. They apparently were anxious to try out Arkansas’s double and treble damage statutes as well.

The trial court made short work of the Fleeces’ attempted fleece, but the court of appeals grudgingly admitted that yes, replacement value counted (even for trees that lacked any market value). The appeals judges seemed to suggest that it would be (or should be) pretty hard to prove the intent needed for application of the multiple damage statutes.

Nevertheless, the court seemed to say, no matter what Bill Kankey’s good intentions in moving the project along, some of those trees – we don’t know how many – appear to have been boundary trees. Thus, the Fleeces and the Kankeys owned those trees as tenants in common. Neither owner had the right to destroy the tree without the consent of the other.

Fleece v. Kankey, 77 Ark. App. 88, 72 S.W.3d 879 (Ct. App. Ark. 2002). Harlan and Nancy Fleece were Bill and Charlotte Kankey’s neighbors. For some time, they had agreed an old fence was the boundary line between them, and when the fence began falling apart, they agreed to share in the cost of replacing the fence. Bill and Char bulldozed the old fence that separated the properties, as well as some trees that stood alongside of the fence.

That’s when the deal fell apart. Harlan and Nancy sued Bill and Char for trespass and for destruction of the trees. The trial court found that, except for two posts that needed to be moved south two feet, the new fence was located in the same position as the old fence. The court held that Harlan and Nancy suffered no loss over the destroyed trees, because they had no market value.

Harlan and Nancy appealed, arguing that they should have been awarded damages for the replacement value of the destroyed trees. Bill and Char replied that because they had no market value and because the removal of the trees and installation of the new fence actually improved the area, Harlan and Nancy had nothing coming.

Held: The case was reversed, and sent back to the trial court for consideration of Harlan and Nancy’s damages due to the trees’ loss.

Arkansas Code Annotated § 18-60-102(a) provides, in part, that “if any person shall cut down, injure, destroy, or carry away any tree placed or growing for use or shade… on the land of another person… the person so trespassing shall pay the party injured treble the value of the thing so damaged, broken, destroyed, or carried away, with costs.” The treble-damages remedy requires a showing of intentional wrongdoing, although intent may be inferred from the carelessness, recklessness, or negligence of the offending party. Less-than-intentional conduct may support double damages under Ark. Code Ann. § 20-22-304, but must be pleaded in order to give a defendant adequate notice of the remedy he would be confronting.

Harlan and Nancy argued that the statute did not require that a tree have a market value in order for a landowner to be entitled to replacement value damages. Larry Morris, a registered forester, gave expert testimony that 35 trees had been bulldozed on the east/west side and 25 more on the north/south side. He explained that the destroyed trees included Post Oak, Black Oak, and Black Jack Oak. He calculated that the replacement value of the trees was $ 17,531.00.

The trial court dismissed Morris’s testimony because it focused on replacement value, not market value. The trial court held that “in view of the rural nature of this area, and the location of the lane over which the Fleeces travel, it seems absurd to award damages on a replacement estimate, because the removal of the old fence and the installation of the new fence has actually improved the area.”

The appellate court found this ruling clearly erroneous, one that suggested that the trial judge failed to consider the number of trees cut down and their replacement value. The appellate court said that the Arkansas rule is that when ornamental or shade trees are injured, the use made of the land should be considered, and the owner compensated by the damages representing the cost of replacement of the trees.

Damages awarded for loss of a shade tree cannot include both replacement costs and consequential damages, but clearly replacement costs are a proper measure of damages.

“Because the trial court appears to have relied entirely on the question of market value,” the appeals court said, “we are unable to determine whether the court considered other factors besides the market value in assessing appellants’ damages, including replacement value and the number of trees lost. Therefore, we reverse and remand.”

The appeals court included a final observation, “that it appears uncontroverted that many of the trees were located in the boundary line. Other jurisdictions have held that owners of boundary line trees are considered tenants in common, and neither tenant possesses the right to destroy the commonly held property without consent of the other.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, December 2, 2019

A NICE DAY FOR A FROLIC

apple_tree140217Seems like not so long ago, a class of sharp-witted grade school students at Western Reserve Elementary School asked us a question, one which seemed simple but is deceptively complex. Inquisitive kids that they are, they wanted to know whether it would be an act of theft for the owner of an apple tree to go onto neighboring property to retrieve apples fallen from the owner’s tree.

Turns out it’s a darn good question. Not much has been decided on this, requiring us to read an 1870 New York case for an answer. In that decision, a logger lost his logs in a flood. They came to rest on the riverbank, making a mess of the riverbank owner’s land. A fast talker convinced the log owner to let him negotiate with the landowner, pay the guy’s damages and retrieve the logs. He made a deal with the landowner and hauled the logs away, but he never made the promised payment. The Court ordered the logger to pay the damages, holding that the owner of property that ends up on the lands of another has a choice: abandon the property and have no liability to the landowner, or retrieve the property and pay for any damages caused by the property’s coming to rest.

Of interest to our intrepid 6th graders (after whether someone is going to help pay for their lunches) was this: the Court noted in passing that it was settled law that one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground doesn’t lose ownership, but instead “may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property.”

There you go, sixth grade! Who says adults don’t listen to you? And as for the rest of us, isn’t it curious how contrary the holding is to the Massachusetts Rule of self-help, that was handed down some 55 years later? And at the same time, isn’t it interesting how consistent the New York court’s decision is with the North Dakota Supreme Court opinion in Herring v. Lisbon, that the portion of the tree overhanging a neighbor’s land still belongs to the tree’s owner, thus imposing on the owner a duty to ensure that the tree does not cause harm.

Sheldon v. Sherman, 3 Hand 484, 42 N.Y. 484, 1870 WL 7733 (Ct.App.N.Y. 1870), 1 Am.Rep. 569. Sherman’s logs were swept away in a spring flood on the Hudson River, coming to rest on Sheldon’s property where — Sheldon complained — they caused great damage. A third party, Mayo Pond, told Sherman he’d pay Sheldon’s damages, have the logs cut into lumber and deliver the boards to Sherman for a set fee. But then the double-dealing Pond told Sheldon he was agent for Sherman in settling the damages, and that Sherman would pay the damages agreed upon. This was news to Sherman, who refused to pay the damages because he already had a deal with Pond that Pond would pay. Landowner Sheldon sued log owner Sherman for the agreed-upon damages, and the trial court found for Sheldon. Sherman appealed.

upcreek140217Held: Sherman was up a creek without a paddle. The Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — held that Sherman had a choice. One whose property ends up on the lands of another by an inevitable accident (such as a flood), without the owner’s fault or negligence, may elect either (1) to abandon the property, in which case he is not liable to the landowner for any injury caused by the property; or (2) to reclaim it, in which case he is obligated to make good to the landowner the damages caused by the property. Here, once Pond agreed with Sherman that he’d settle with the landowner and retrieve the logs. Pond’s authority from Sherman to remove the logs was clear, whatever his right to promise payment might have been. Thus, the law implied the existence of a promise by the log owner to pay damages.

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere ...

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere …

Of interest in the decision is the Court’s discussion of what it called “a large class of cases” in which injury is suffered by a party, but the law gives no redress. The Court said, “If a tree growing upon the land of one is blown down upon the premises of another, and in its fall injures his shrubbery, or his house, or his person, he has no redress against him upon whose land the tree grew. If one builds a dam of such strength that it will give protection against all ordinary floods, the occurrence of an extraordinary flood by which it is carried away, and its remains are lodged upon the premises of the owner below, or by means whereof the dam below is carried away, or the mill building is destroyed, gives no claim against the builder of the dam.” In this case, the Court said, the logs were carried down the river and deposited on Sheldon’s land without fault on the part of the defendant. Thus, Sherman was not responsible for damages, and a promise by him to Sheldon to make it good would be unenforceable.

If Sherman chose to abandon his property, he had the right so to do and no one could call him to account. He was not compelled, however, to abandon it, but had the right to reclaim it. The Court said the case was “like one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground, the ownership is not thereby lost, but the owner may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property. When he does so reclaim or recapture, his liability to make good the damage done by his property arises. He then becomes responsible. Before he can reclaim or recapture the property thus astray, justice and equity demand that he should make good the injury caused by its deposit and its continuance.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Friday, November 29, 2019

WHEN IS FEE SIMPLE NOT SIMPLE?

Potatotruck140220Nothing light today, boys and girls. We have work ahead of us. Sure, Thanksgiving is a memory (except for all of the leftovers stacked in the refrigerator), but Black Friday is here, and we have a few more days of the long weekend (and Ohio State v. Michigan) ahead of us. But as that great educator M.C. Hammer once said, “Yo, sound the bell, school is in, sucker …

So listen up. When land is conveyed from one party to another without any limitations whatsoever, the conveyance is done in “fee simple absolute,” or just “fee simple” for short. The conveyance usually says that the land is conveyed “unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” or words to that effect.

At the time the railroad came through a part of Idaho (think “Famous Potatoes”) in the late 19th century, a lot of landowners thought they were conveying their land to the railroad in fee simple. But their deeds had not just the magic “fee simple” language, but also a “habendum clause.” A “habendum clause” is a clause in a deed that defines the extent of the interest being granted and any conditions affecting the grant.

Legal mumbo-jumbo? Not when the facts changed.

Legal mumbo-jumbo? Not when the facts changed.

In the case of the Idaho deeds, the conveyance language transferred title to the railroad “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Yeah… yadda, yadda, yadda, how lawyers like to natter on and on… None of this gibberish seemed important for a century, during which time the trains puffed up and down the track. But when the rail line was torn up, suddenly the old documents became very interesting.

Under the National Trails System Act, the government can convert an old railroad right-of-way into a recreational trail without the rail line being deemed to be abandoned. That’s what happened in Idaho. But some of the landowners whose properties were transected by the abaondoned right-of-way, talked to a smart lawyer. She said, “these old documents aren’t deeds, they’re just easements for a railroad.” That was an important distinction: the easements weren’t for the benefit of some granola-munching hikers, but rather for rolling stock.

The Federal Court of Claims had a tough task. The Idaho Federal District Court had already ruled that such deeds were conveyances in fee simple, which meant that the owners who abutted the railroad had no means of reclaiming the land. The problem was that the interpretation of the deeds was a matter of Idaho law, and the Idaho Supreme Court had never reached the precise issue. The Court of Claims carefully parsed other Idaho decisions and decided that, based on its treatment of other cases, the Idaho Supreme Court would rule — if it had been asked to  — that the references in the deeds to the “perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line” limited the purpose of the conveyance, and therefore made the deed a grant of a mere easement, not perpetual ownership.

With two federal courts disagreeing on what Idaho jurists would say if asked, it’s likely that the state courts themselves ultimately will have to resolve the issue by ruling definitively on the question.  They have not done so yet.

Abandoned right-of-way

Abandoned right-of-way

Blendu v. United States, 79 Fed.Cl. 500 (2007). Owners of land abutting or traversing an abandoned railroad right-of-way contested the government’s using the right-of-way as a recreational trail pursuant to the National Trails System Act, claiming that the government’s action effected a taking of their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The predecessor landowners had deeded land to the railroad about a hundred years before, with deeds that contained language in the granting clauses that convey all estate, right, title and interest in the property to the railroad, but also contained habendum clauses “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Under the Act, the government could convert abandoned railroad rights-of-way to trails without the use constituting an abandonment of the right of way. However, Blendu and the plaintiff property owners argued that under their deeds, they had really just given easements – not a deed in fee simple – and the cessation of rail service did not permit the government to use the easement of a trail. They moved for summary judgment in the U.S. Court of Claims, and the government cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that the deeds were a conveyance of the property in fee.

Held: Under Idaho law, a deed which contained a granting clause which quitclaimed certain real estate to the railroad and a habendum clause stating that railroad held the real estate “as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” the deed only conveyed an easement and not fee simple title.

The easement was for rolling stock, not for Birkenstocks.

The easement was for rolling stock …

... not for Birkenstocks.

… not for Birkenstocks.

The Court said that the use of the term “right of way” in the habendum clause unambiguously reflected an intention to convey an easement, overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest. The Court of Claims concluded the distinction between the granting clause and the habendum clause had not been made by the Supreme Court of Idaho, but the Court of Claims believed that the Idaho Supreme Court cases found the presence of the term “right of way” in any substantive part of the deed to be determinative. The deeds in this case contained the term “right of way” in the habendum clause, thus unambiguously reflecting an intention to convey an easement and overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest.

As further evidence of the conveyance of an easement, the Court said, the deeds contained a designation for use of the right of way for the Railroad’s “railway line.”

The easement was for rails, not trails.

Oh, and Go, Bucks!

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, November 27, 2019

IN THE VAST WORLD OF LAW…

… there’s plenty of half-vast lawyering going on.

I found myself thinking that in connection with a case I was reviewing, one that had nothing to do with trees (but a lot to do with plants, those being Cannabis sativa, and involving trucks and conspiracies and the pesky Controlled Substances Act.

Potheads or not, I thought, the defendants deserved better lawyering than they got. There’s a lot of that substandard, just-barely-enough-to-prevent-a-malpractice-suit representation, not only in the criminal courts but in civil practice a well.

Today’s case is an excellent example of phone-it-in representation on both sides of the courtroom. The plaintiff’s lawyer seems to simply have loaded a civil action blunderbuss and fired away. It was obvious that the defendant’s tree roots were destroying the boundary wall by pushing against it from the defendant’s side of the edifice, and therefore, the roots were located on the defendant’s property. So why would the lawyer include a trespass count? Any first-year law student could tell you that the roots were not on his client’s land, and being on someone else’s land without permission is the sine qua non of trespass.

And before the defendant starts to feel smug about the plaintiff’s pleading miscue, she should look at her counsel’s performance. That lawyer spent the defendant’s money on a couple of experts, who may or may not have rendered solid, helpful opinions. We’ll never know, because the defendant’s lawyer did not bother to put the expert’s opinions in affidavit form – a pure rookie mistake.

The defendant might have walked away from this lawsuit relatively inexpensively, by getting the plaintiff’s whole complaint dismissed. But she never had a chance to make her substantive argument, because her lawyer overlooked something everyone knows – that statements by experts and witnesses have to be in affidavit form.

Half-vast lawyering all around…

1212 Ocean Ave. Housing Development Corp. v. Brunatti, 50 A.D.3d 1110, 857 N.Y.S.2d 649 (Sup.Ct.N.Y. 2008). 1212 Ocean Avenue Housing Development Corp., a soulless, faceless corporation if ever there was one, owned property next to Debbie Brunatti’s place. The two properties are separated by a 10-foot high retaining wall, which was built in 1924 when an apartment building was constructed on 1212’s premises. The heartless corporate suits alleged that an elm tree planted on Debbie’s property more than 40 years ago grew over the course of time so that its trunk came to rest atop the retaining wall. The roots of this tree also damaged the retaining wall, causing it to crack and curve. In December 2004, the New York City Department of Buildings issued a summons to 1212, requiring it to fix the defective retaining wall. Shortly later, 1212 sued Debbie to recover damages for nuisance, trespass, and negligence.

Debbie had the tree removed about four months after being sued. She argued, among other things, that the defective condition of the retaining wall had not been caused by tree roots, and that 1212 could not maintain an action for damages because it had not engaged in self-help to remedy the situation. The trial court denied Debbie’s motion.
Debbie appealed.

Held: The trial court properly denied Debbie’s motion to dismiss for nuisance and negligence.

The unsworn reports from two engineers she submitted in support of her application were insufficient to establish, as a matter of law, that the tree roots did not damage 1212’s retaining wall. “Furthermore,” the court said, “while it has been recognized that a property owner may resort to self-help to remove tree roots encroaching upon his or her property, and that this may constitute a sufficient remedy in some circumstances, the defendant failed to demonstrate that self-help would have been practicable here, where it is undisputed that the tree roots rested entirely on her property.”

However, the Court said, the trial judge should have granted that part of Debbie’s application for summary judgment on the trespass count. Since the tree roots rested entirely upon Debbie’s property, there was no intentional intrusion or entry onto the 1212’s property which could constitute trespass.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, November 26, 2019

LET’S LEAVE GOD OUT OF THIS

AOGcartoon150828There’s plenty of talk about old-time religion around these days.  The Supreme Court just heard a case about crosses in public places. The Virgin Mary and a sheep get into a tussle over Baby Jesus at a nativity scene. The Colorado bake shop case, temporarily resolved by the Supreme Court, is far from over. If there’s a lesson for us here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to enlist the Almighty too easily as justification for falling trees.

But the folks at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are all too willing to overlook the separation of church and state when it’s especially convenient to do so. When one of ODNR’s decrepit cottonwoods fell on Mr. Vondrell’s seawall (or perhaps “lakewall,” because there’re only freshwater lakes in Ohio), the State said, “oops, an act of God.” The winds were blowing pretty fiercely that day, but the DNR figured that was enough to claim that the tree fell in a storm. Just a capricious Almighty, don’t you know? Which of course meant that the DNR wasn’t liable.

It may have been breezy, Mr. Vondrell countered, but the cottonwood that crushed his concrete wall fell because it was good and dead, and had been for a long time. Perhaps so, DNR responded, but we didn’t know it was dead.

The Court of Claims sided with Mr. Vondrell. An act of God has to be all God, the Court said. If the cause of the falling tree is aided at all by the agency of man, even the fact that the deadfall resulted primarily from an act of God won’t relieve a defendant from liability.

Still, for a defendant to be negligent, he, she or it had to be on actual or constructive notice of the hazard posed by the tree. Here, the fact that tree had been dead for over five years and DNR employees had been seen in the area of the tree was enough for the Court to conclude that DNR reasonably should have known about the defective tree.

So when there’s an act of God, it better be all God… and no man (or woman). 

cottonwood150828Vondrell v. Ohio Dept. Natural Resources, 2007 Ohio 7232, (Ohio Ct. Claims, Dec. 4, 2007), 2007 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 503. Mr. Vondrell had a seawall on his lakefront property. A cottonwood tree next door in a state park fell during a windstorm and damaged the concrete. The agency managing the park, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, argued that the damage was due solely to an “act of God,” the high winds that caused the tree to fall. Mr. Vondrell argued the damage-causing tree was dead, that DNR personnel had years of prior knowledge the tree was dead, and that DNR knew or should have known the dead tree presented a falling hazard. Photographic evidence showed the tree was clearly dead.

Mr. Vondrell argued the tree that fell was very tall and was dead when he had bought his adjacent property in 1999, five years before the collapse. Additionally, he said, DNR personnel were seen in the area around the dead cottonwood trees many times between 1999 and 2005. He contended his property damage was proximately caused by negligence on the part of DNR in maintaining a known hazard on park premises and not merely by high winds falling a healthy tree.

Mr. Vondrell sued in the Ohio Court of Claims, which has jurisdiction over claims against the State.

Held: DNR was negligent, and had to pay. The agency adduced all sorts of evidence as to high wind speeds on the day in question, but high winds alone do not an act of God make.

AOG150828It’s true, the Court said, that no liability can attach to an act of God. However, an act of God must proceed from the violence of nature or the force of the elements alone: the agency of man must have nothing to do with it.

The Court held that Mr. Vondrell proved that DNR had constructive notice of the condition of the tree. The tree stood dead for over five years, and DNR employees were seen around it often. Under Ohio law, the Court said, it wasn’t enough that DNR argued it didn’t know about the condition of the tree. It was on constructive notice of the condition of the tree.

In a situation such as this one, where two causes contributed to an injury, one cause which is a defendant’s negligence and the other cause an act of God, defendant may be held liable if a plaintiff’s damage would not have happened but for defendant’s negligence. If proper care and diligence on the part of DNR had avoided the act, it is not excusable as an act of God. Essentially, if DNR’s negligent act concurs with an act of God to cause damage, defendant cannot escape liability.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, November 25, 2019

WRITE ME UP A VERBAL CONTRACT

putt150827OK, what’s a little New York case about a miniature golf course construction contract doing on a tree law blog? It’s here as a cautionary tale …

A miniature golf operation called Oasis Park hired Bill Oberholtzer – who was both a miniature golf course owner and a mini golf course builder – to jazz up Oasis Park before the mini golf season started up in the Troy, New York, area. Disregarding the universally-accepted good practice in construction of starting with a nice, neat signed agreement setting out the scope of the work, payment terms, time to completion and other such details, the Oasis Park people and Bill pretty much sketched out their agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin. And that was a mistake.

Later, Oasis Park needed a more formal document in order to get its bank to release financing. Bill, of course, accommodated Oasis Park by signing one. You can guess what happened. When the parties’ working relationship soured, Oasis claimed that the accommodation document – and not the “cocktail napkin” – was the real deal between the parties covering the scope of the work. Bill countered that he had already been working for weeks, and the plans had changed.

You probably need a little more contract detail than you can fit on a napkin.

You probably need a little more contract detail than you can fit on a napkin.

Nevertheless, within six weeks after some fateful April 29 “thing” occurred — and even the Court couldn’t tell what the “thing” was — Oasis fired Bill amid claims that he hadn’t adhered to some nonexistent schedule, hadn’t provided workers, and hadn’t provided materials. For good measure, Oasis claimed that Bill’s work was substandard.

Bill naturally argued just the opposite, asserting that he couldn’t buy supplies because Oasis Park wouldn’t pay him. The whole mess ended up in federal court, where the Judge threw up his hands and said no one was getting summary judgment. The entire kerfluffle was going have to be sorted out at trial.

So now, let’s all grab our calculators and figure out how Bill saved by not wasting money on a lawyer preparing a contract with Oasis Park up front. Not much, we guess. And you arborists, tree trimmers, loggers and owners – let’s remember this: No contract, no winners.

sign150827Paone, Inc. v. Oberholtzer, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75092, 2007 WL 2455074 (N.D.N.Y., Aug. 23, 2007). Oberholtzer agreed to provide all labor and materials necessary to remodel Paone’s miniature golf course. Beyond that fact, the parties could agree on nothing.

Paone said that under a contract dated April 29, 2004, Oberholtzer to build a bumper boat pond, including walls, docks, light fixtures, a cave, a filter system, a perimeter walkway, and a staging-area deck. As well, Paone said, the contract required Oberholtzer to renovate the course’s clubhouse entrance, the third hole, and the practice green. Paone said that under to the contract, Oberholtzer began working in May 2004, but its laborers did not show up for work, causing the project to fall behind schedule. To rectify the situation, Paone claims that it hired temporary workers.

Even with these outside laborers, the project did not move forward because Oberholtzer failed to provide supervision and direction. Paone said it had to supply all materials to the site and hire various construction professionals to inspect the work. Paone contended that these professionals found that Oberholtzer’s work violated building-code requirements and was below the industry standard. After the project had gone on about a month, Paone notified Oberholtzer that it was in default of the contract.

Oberholtzer, on the other hand, claimed that he reached an agreement to perform work for Paone well prior to April 29, 2004. Oberholtzer said he began preparatory work in March. The April 29th document, Oberholtzer contended, was merely an estimate prepared at Paone’s request,intended by both parties to help Paone get a bank loan released. The April 29, 2004, agreement was conformed to an earlier budget from the winter of 2003-2004, which Paone had submitted to the bank to support its initial loan application.

golf150827Consequently, Oberholtzer argued, the estimate did not reflect intervening changes of which both parties were aware, including a different location for the bumper boat pond, changes in site elevations for the clubhouse and parking lot which required alteration of a ramp and deck, and additional concrete walkways on the course.

Oberholtzer said, he had already made significant progress before April 29, 2004, including filling in traps, reconfiguring the practice green, removing an existing sidewalk near the old practice green, building a deck between the seventh and eighth holes, and removing fixtures and equipment from the old clubhouse. What’s more, Oberholtzer asserted, he had also cleared and trimmed trees for a new picnic area, built retaining walls for a walkout basement, constructed a deck attached to the clubhouse, erected bumper boat pond walls and skimmer baskets, and backfilled the pond.

As far as the schedule went, Oberholtzer argued that the April 29, 2004, document did not contain a schedule or other time-related requirements. Oberholtzer said that Paone knew Oberholtzer would be opening and operating his own miniature golf course in Georgia at the end of May. Therefore, Oberholtzer claimed, Paone knew that Oberholtzer would not be available to work on the project on a regular basis. Furthermore, Oberholtzer argued that several weeks of delay resulted from the actions of an unrelated contractor, who placed heavy equipment in the area of the future bumper boat pond. Also, he said, Paone failed to make timely payments to enable Oberholtzer to buy materials and to progress with the project. Finally, Oberholtzer complained that Paone approved all building plans, and that town building inspectors routinely inspected the progress and noted no building code violations.

Paone sued for breach of the contract and for negligence, and then moved for summary judgment.

obfus150827Held: Summary judgment was denied in this fact-laden morass. The Court observed that Paone’s causes of action for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing both required first that there be an enforceable contract with sufficiently definite terms. Here, the parties could not even agree on whether the document was a contract, let alone what its terms might be. Paone contended the document represents the parties’ complete agreement, but Oberholtzer asserted that the document was an estimate used solely for the purpose of obtaining funding. While Paone said that the time for performance commenced in May 2004, Oberholtzer alleged that it had already completed substantial portions of the project prior to that time.

What’s more, the Court found, reference to the April 29, 2004, document wasn’t helpful because it contained no details about the parties’ responsibilities or the construction schedule. The document was labeled “Spring 2004 Construction” and merely set forth the various projects and the price for each. In light of these disputes, the Court held, it could not determine whether an enforceable contract existed between the parties without evaluating the parties’ conflicting factual accounts. Moreover, on the basis of the April 29, 2004 document alone, the Court could not determine the construction schedule or the parties’ respective contractual responsibilities.

A trial would be necessary to straighten the whole mess out.

– Tom Root

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