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Mayhorn v. Talley-Siders

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware, New Castle

September 5, 2017

JACK MAYHORN and GEORGIA MAYHORN, Plaintiffs,
v.
SININA TALLEY-SIDERS, Defendant.

          Submitted: August 2, 2017

          Donald L. Gouge, Jr., Esq. Attorney for Plaintiffs

          Sinina Talley-Siders Pro se Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          JOHN K. WELCH, JUDGE.

         This case concerns the breach of an Agreement of Sale for real estate. Both parties appeared for trial before the Court on August 2, 2017. The Court reserved its decision. This is the Court's Final Memorandum Opinion and Order after consideration of the pleadings, oral and documentary evidence submitted at trial, arguments made at trial, and the applicable law.

         FACTS

         Despite not personally touring 2741 Old Country Road, Newark, DE 19702 ("the Property") until the day of settlement on July 9, 2015, Defendant Sinina Talley-Siders ("Defendant") signed the Agreement of Sale for the Property on May 10, 2015.[1] A Seller's Disclosure of Real Property Condition Report with an attached addendum was also signed by both parties on April 23, 2015, indicating that Plaintiffs were disclosing known material defects in the Property.[2] According to the agreement, settlement was scheduled for July 9, 2015.[3] On May 7, 2015, Defendant made a non-refundable deposit of $2, 500.00 towards the purchase of the Property.[4]

         On May 22, 2015, Defendant's real estate broker, Stefanie Morris, informed Plaintiffs that the home inspection report indicated five items which required their attention: "(1) Lower safety sensor eyes on garage door to proper height[, ] (2) Install one (1) handrail to basement walkout stairwell[, ] (3) Clean wood stove firebox and flue[, ] (4) Replace the two existing smoke detectors with new units in or near existing locations[, and] (5) Replace bathtub wall covering surround in main hall bath."[5] Plaintiffs agreed to make the repairs, and both parties signed the addendum on May 23, 2015.[6] Plaintiffs made the repairs and neither Defendant nor her real estate broker complained to Plaintiff about the repairs.[7]

         The sale of the Property routinely progressed. On June 9, 2015, an appraisal was performed which deemed the Property to be worth $260, 000.[8] Importantly, included in the appraisal is a June 12, 2015 MLS listing, MLS #6560750, that was prepared by Thomas Amatuzio of Amatuzio Appraisal Services, which notes "PartBathMnBe" and "convenient ½ bathroom" in the garage.[9]However, this listing does not distinguish between bathroom types in the beginning of the document, but instead states, "Beds, Baths 3 3/0" and "Bath Full: 3M 0U 0L Bath Part: 0M 0U 0L."[10] Interestingly, the following page contains a diagram of the first floor that indicates "Full bath" and "1/2bath" in separate portions of the plan.[11]

         On July 9, 2015, the day of settlement, Defendant, her family, and her real estate broker Ms. Morris inspected the Property while Plaintiffs were waiting at an attorney's office in Hockessin, Delaware to conduct settlement negotiations.[12] Campbell called Ms. Morris to inquire why neither her nor Defendant was present for settlement negotiations. Ms. Morris informed Campbell that Defendant was concerned about water that had accumulated at the bottom of the sump-pump in the Property's basement. Campbell decided to drive to the Property to address Defendant's concerns since he found his explanations failed to quell her worry. He then went through the exterior and interior of the Property with Defendant, her family, and Ms. Morris. Campbell explained that based on his experience, the sump pump crock was intended to retain water, and showed Defendant the discharge line. After believing he had resolved Defendant's concerns, Campbell drove back to the settlement table in Hockessin. However, Defendant, her family, and Ms. Morris never appeared.

         The following day, on July 10, 2015, Campbell and Plaintiffs arrived at the Hockessin office again hoping to conduct settlement. Plaintiffs and Campbell waited at the Hockessin office until approximately five o'clock. Amidst a barrage of unanswered phone calls, Campbell eventually reached Ms. Morris who informed him that Defendant decided not to purchase the Property because of her concern with the sump pump.[13]

         By July 14, 2015, Campbell had relisted the Property for $244, 000.[14] On October 14, 2015, Plaintiffs entered into a second Agreement of Sale with new buyers.[15] The Property ultimately sold for $244, 000, three-thousand less than the agreed upon price between Plaintiffs and Defendant.[16] In order to sell the Property expediently, Plaintiffs credited three percent of the sale price-$7, 320.00-to the new buyers for closing costs at settlement.[17] Plaintiffs had scheduled their own settlement negotiations for a new home at five o'clock on July 9, 2015; however, when Defendant failed to settle, Plaintiffs' negotiations were postponed in order to give Plaintiffs additional time to sell the Property. In the first week of August 2015, Plaintiffs eventually settled on their new home; however, they were required to take out a larger mortgage as they did not have any proceeds from the sale of the Property. In addition, because they expected Defendant to buy the Property, Plaintiffs had already moved out of their home and, thus, incurred expenses to transport their belongings back into the Property. Plaintiffs did not move into their new home until November 2015. They then continued to live in the Property and their new home because Plaintiffs did not "feel comfortable" leaving the Property vacant. Naturally, Plaintiffs incurred additional costs in having to care for two properties.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In civil actions, the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence.[18] "The side on which the greater weight of the evidence is found is the side on which the preponderance of the evidence exists."[19]

         As trier of fact, the Court is the sole judge of the credibility of each fact witness and any other documents submitted to the Court for consideration. If the Court finds that the evidence presented at trial contains conflicts, it is the Court's duty to reconcile these conflicts-if reasonably possible-in order to find congruity. If the Court is unable to harmonize the conflicting testimony, then the Court must determine which portions of the testimony deserve more weight in its final judgment. In ruling, the Court may consider the witnesses' demeanor, the fairness and descriptiveness of their testimony, their ability to personally witness or know the facts about which they testify, and any biases or interests they may have concerning the nature of the case.

         ANALYSIS

         Neither party disputes that the amended Agreement of Sale constitutes a valid contract.[20]Plaintiffs allege that Defendant's actions breached the contract which resulted in expectation and aggravation and inconvenience damages.[21] At trial, Defendant alleged that Plaintiffs intentionally misled her when they listed the property with three full bathrooms.[22]

         To prevail on a claim for breach of contract, the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) a contract existed between the parties; (2) the defendant breached his obligation imposed by the contract, and (3) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant's breach.[23] The elements of common law fraud are as follows:

(1) a false representation of material fact; (2) the defendant's knowledge of or belief as to the falsity of the representation or the defendant's reckless indifference to the truth of the representation; (3) the defendant's intent to induce the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting; (4) the plaintiffs action or inaction taken in justifiable reliance upon the representation; and (5) damages to the plaintiff as a result of such reliance.[24]

While there is no bright line test to determine what is considered fraud, the Court shall examine the circumstances surrounding the defendant's action or inaction.[25] Unless Defendant can prove that Plaintiffs intentionally misled her into purchasing the Property, it is clear to the Court that Defendant was the first party to materially breach the contract.[26] There is sufficient testimony that Defendant decided not to move forward with settlement because of the sump pump. Even assuming Defendant decided not to purchase the Property because she was misled, Defendant must still prove that Plaintiffs misled her.[27]

         Plaintiffs' first witness at trial was Justin Campbell, a Delaware and Pennsylvania licensed Re/Max Associates real estate agent and realtor who has been involved in approximately one hundred real estate sales in Delaware. He met Plaintiffs when they approached him inquiring about purchasing a less high maintenance property in a fifty-five and over community. Campbell proceeded to meet with Plaintiffs at the Property to further assess, in detail, the value of the Property by walking through Plaintiffs' home, and describing the process of selling a home.

         Importantly, Campbell testified that Re/Max Associates has no working relationship with Zillow.com. Campbell explained that Re/Max Associates upload property information to a Multi-listing Service ("MLS"), which is owned by a third-party corporation, who then sells the information to websites such as Zillow.com. Campbell admitted that Re/Max is responsible for the property information it sells to these MLS companies; however, Re/Max has no input over the information that these MLS companies decide to sell to websites such as Zillow.com.

         In regards to the Property at issue in this case, the March 5, 2015 listing MLS #6480529, which Re/Max Associates uploaded to a MLS, denotes that there is one full bathroom and two half-baths.[28] The first listing stated, "Beds, Baths 3 1/2, " which Campbell testified indicated three bathrooms total with two of the bathrooms being part-baths.[29] The information also stated "Bath Full: 1M 0U 0L Bath Part: 1M 0U 0L, " which Campbell testified indicated a full-bath and part-bath on the main floor levels of the Property.[30] Moreover, the "Features" description of the house stated "PartBathMnBe, " informing the reader of a part-bath in the main bedroom.[31] Ultimately, the March 5, 2015 listing was withdrawn for updates. Yet, the updated November 2, 2014 version, MLS #6560750, which was utilized for settlement with Defendant, was a repetition of the first MLS listing, except it also noted that there was a "convenient ½ bathroom" in the two-car garage under the "Remarks" section.[32]

         Despite Re/Max Associates uploading correct information to the MLS, Defendant asserts that Campbell fraudulently misled her. The Court disagrees. First, there is no evidence to support Defendant's claim that Plaintiffs or Re/Max Associations placed, or caused to be placed, misinformation on the website Zillow.com. Second, the Court finds Cambell's statement that 3.0 could simply mean 3 bathrooms in general versus 3 full-baths to be credible. Regardless, Defendant's focus on this minute detail is irrelevant. This is because Defendant is relying on a Re-Max Associates internal listing update, which is formatted and compiled by "Showingtime" software. In fact, the internal ...


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