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Lucas v. Stephens

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware, New Castle

April 26, 2017

JEREMY LUCAS and WILSA COKER, Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
LARY J. STEPHENS and INITRA W. STEPHENS, Defendants/Appellees.

          Charles S. Knothe, Esq. Attorney for Appellants

          Lary & Initra Stephens Pro se Appellees

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Sheldon K. Rennie Judge

         This is an appeal from the Justice of the Peace Court involving an alleged breach of contract. Trial was conducted on March 1, 2017, and the Court reserved its decision. This is the Court's Final Order after consideration of the pleadings, and oral and documentary evidence submitted at trial.

         On July 29, 2013, Appellants Jeremy Lucas and Wilsa Coker and Appellees Lary and Initra Stephens signed an Agreement of Sale for 526 Deer Run, Bear DE 19701 ("the Property").[1] Appellees paid a non-refundable deposit of $2, 500 to purchase the Property. However, because Appellees were unable to acquire a mortgage, an addendum-indicating that Appellees would make monthly rental payments until they could acquire a mortgage on or before July 30, 2014-was signed by the parties and attached to the Agreement of Sale. Neither party disputes that the amended Agreement of Sale constitutes a valid contract.[2]

         Appellees decided not to purchase the Property, and, they contend that thereafter, the contract reverted to a month-to-month lease.[3] Appellants' witness, real estate agent Sherrill Fulton, testified that the amended Agreement of Sale is a "lease purchase agreement." She insisted that the parties never entered into a rental agreement and that the $2, 500.00 deposit served as a penalty if there was a default, rather than an option to purchase.[4] Despite Ms. Fulton's apparent understanding, Appellees' monthly payments were not applied to the purchase price, and no transfer of ownership occurred at the end of the lease.

         While the contract is labeled "Agreement of Sale, " it was contingent on Appellees acquiring a mortgage and intended to function as an option contract.[5] It is clear that the contract is actually a two-year lease agreement with a $2, 500.00 non-refundable option to purchase the Property, on or before July 30, 2014, during the landlord-tenant relationship.[6] When Appellees decided not to purchase the Property, the lease resumed on a month-to-month basis.[7] This interpretation is supported by a plain reading of the contract. And, because the contract is a residential lease agreement, the Landlord-Tenant Code of Title 25 applies.[8]

         Appellants seek $7, 169.00 in unpaid rent, $573.74 for an unpaid water bill, $250.00 for the removal of a refrigerator, and $7, 500.00 for damage to the Property beyond normal wear and tear. After weighing the appropriate evidence and witness credibility, this Court finds that Appellants proved by a preponderance of the evidence that they are entitled to $5, 883.50 in unpaid rent.[9]

         As set forth in the contract, Appellees were required to pay $1, 250.00 in rent each month. Appellees signed the contract on July 29, 2013 and moved into the Property in August 2013.[10]Presuming that Appellees resided at the Property for the full two years and paid on time, they would have paid $30, 000.00 in rent from August 2013 to August 2015. Beginning on December 4, 2013, however, Appellees' payments became sporadic and often late, as several personal checks were returned for insufficient funds.[11] Appellees left the Property on September 21, 2015, but failed to give Appellants sixty days' written notice as required by 25 Del. C. § 5106(d). Appellants assert that they are owed $7, 196.00 in overdue rent, which includes rent from September 2015 to November 2015 for Appellees' failure to notify. Based on the evidence adduced at trial, the Court finds that Appellants have proven that Appellees breached the contract by failing to make all of the required rental payments for the period of December 2013 to November 2015.[12] Appellees are thus liable for $5, 883.50 in unpaid rent.[13]

         Appellants have failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Appellees owed $573.74 for an unpaid water bill, $250.00 for the removal of a refrigerator, and $7, 500.00 for damage to the Property beyond normal wear and tear. First, Appellants failed to support their assertion that the refrigerator was part of the Property or that it was removed. The contract, which was submitted into evidence by both parties, does not indicate that the refrigerator is included property under the lease.[14] Second, the Court is unpersuaded by the cursory testimony regarding the water bill because it is unclear whether the charged amount was solely the result of Appellees' usage.[15]

         Third, testimony detailing the house's property damage was sparse, the photographs submitted into evidence were grainy and dark, and testimony regarding who damaged the Property was insufficient to meet the preponderance burden.[16] Additionally, even assuming that Appellees materially breached the lease agreement under 25 Del. C. § 5503, Appellants failed to notify Appellees of the breach and allow them an opportunity to fix the damage as required under 25 Del. C. § 5513.[17] Therefore, Appellants have failed to meet the preponderance burden concerning the water bill, refrigerator, and property damage.

         For the foregoing reasons, the Court hereby enters judgment and award of $5, 883.50, plus pre- and post-judgment interest at the legal interest rate of 5.75% according to 6 Del. C. § 2301, et seq.

         IT IS ...


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