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Taplin v. Schuitemaker

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

January 7, 2019

LAURIE J. TAPLIN, Appellant, Plaintiff-Below,
v.
KATHLEEN SCHUITEMAKER Appellee, Defendant-Below.

          Submitted: October 24, 2018

          Upon Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas REVERSED, in part and REMANDED

          Gary E. Junge, Esquire, Schmittinger & Rodriguez, Dover, Delaware, Attorney for Appellant.

          Paul G. Enterline, Esquire, Georgetown, Delaware, Attorney for Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Jeffrey J. Clark, Judge

         Appellant Laurie Taplin (hereinafter "Ms. Taplin") appeals a trial decision of the Court of Common Pleas in favor of Appellee Kathleen Schuitemaker (hereinafter "Ms. Schuitemaker"). The suit involved Ms. Taplin's purchase of a mobile home for her sister, Ms. Schuitemaker, in 2012. Beginning in 2012, Ms. Taplin also paid many of Ms. Schuitemaker's living expenses for approximately three years. Ms. Schuitemaker had promised to repay Ms. Taplin for the home and to repay at least some of the expenses when Ms. Schuitemaker received a disability settlement. The settlement came in May 2016, but Ms. Schuitemaker did not repay her sister. By that time, she indicated she no longer wanted to purchase the mobile home.

         As a result, Ms. Schuitemaker filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas. After a trial, the court decided in favor of Ms. Schuitemaker. It dismissed Ms. Taplin's contract claim holding that the evidence did not support that she had a legally enforceable contract with her sister. On alternative grounds, the Court of Common Pleas dismissed the suit based upon the statute of limitations.

         Ms. Taplin appeals a decision to deny her motion to amend her complaint pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 15(b) (hereinafter "Rule 15(b)"). In that motion, she sought to include claims for quantum meruit, quantum valebant and unjust enrichment (hereinafter the "quasi-contractual claims"). Ms. Taplin also appeals the trial court's ruling that the statute of limitations barred her claims. Finally, she appeals its decision to dismiss her suit pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Rule 41(b) (hereinafter "Rule 41(b)").

         For the reasons that follow, the Court of Common Pleas erred when denying Ms. Taplin's motion to amend the pleadings pursuant to Rule 15(b). Furthermore, the statute of limitations regarding her quasi-contractual claims did not expire. Finally, since the trial court should have permitted an amendment, it erred when dismissing the suit because it did not consider her quasi-contractual claims. As a consequence, the Court of Common Pleas decision must be REVERSED, in part and REMANDED for action consistent with this decision.

         I. FACTS OF RECORD AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2012, Ms. Taplin purchased a $41, 954.00 home intended for use and ultimate purchase by her younger sister, Ms. Schuitemaker. At that time, Ms. Schuitemaker could not contribute to the purchase of the home or its improvement. The evidence established that Ms. Schuitemaker intended at the outset to buy the home from her sister after receiving a disability settlement that she expected at some point in the future.

         Trial evidence supported that Ms. Schuitemaker selected the home and then Ms. Taplin paid for various upgrades. She also paid for many of Ms. Schuitemaker's living expenses such as utilities, car insurance, automotive repair, and pet expenses on an ongoing basis. Ms. Taplin testified that her sister had agreed to reimburse her for these expenses in addition to purchasing the mobile home from her after her sister received her disability settlement.

         At some point, Ms. Schuitemaker decided that she no longer wanted to purchase the home. Ms. Taplin testified that she then considered her sister to owe her $700.00 a month for rent. She backdated this amount to the day Ms. Schuitemaker occupied the home.

         In March 2015, Ms. Schuitemaker abandoned the home, but left her belongings in it until sometime in 2016. On May 1, 2016, Ms. Schuitemaker received her disability settlement, but informed Ms. Taplin by email that she would not buy the home because the settlement was less than she had expected. For the first time, in an email of July 1, 2016, Ms. Schuitemaker denied owing any money to Ms. Taplin.

         Ms. Taplin then filed a pro se debt action in the Court of Common Pleas on March 20, 2017. In her complaint she wrote that "on or about June 2012 Defendant borrowed from Plaintiff the sum of $41, 954.00 promising to repay that amount" and that the loan was never repaid. While still pro se, Ms. Taplin provided in the pretrial stipulation that Ms. Schuitemaker acknowledged her debt to Ms. Taplin, but then refused to repay it. The pretrial stipulation further provided that "[t]he Plaintiff seeks a money judgment against defendant for various . . . claims related to the assistance the Plaintiff provided defendant due to defendant's inability to work due to disability." The trial began on March 5, 2018, and concluded on March 28, 2018.

         During opening statements on March 5, 2018, Ms. Taplin's counsel stated that she sought restitution based upon the theories of quantum meruit, quantum valebant and unjust enrichment. Those causes of action were not referenced in the complaint. Ms. Schuitemaker raised no objection to Ms. Taplin's indication in her opening statement that she was pursuing quasi-contractual claims. During that first day of trial, on March 5, 2018, Ms. Taplin attempted to introduce ledger entries and receipts for expenses allegedly paid on Ms. Schuitemaker's behalf during calendar years 2012, 2013, and 2014. Ms. Schuitemaker objected to the admissibility of the receipts. The court sustained the objection on the ground that Ms. Taplin had not produced them during discovery. Nevertheless, it ruled that although the receipts were not admissible because they were not produced in discovery, Ms. Taplin could testify regarding the payments. Namely, the court permitted her to testify in detail regarding the nature, time, and amounts of the various payments made for Ms. Schuitemaker's benefit. At that point, the Court of Common Pleas continued the case at Ms. Schuitemaker's request to enable her to review the receipts for purposes of cross-examination.

         On March 28, 2018, the trial reconvened. Ms. Taplin testified at length and in detail regarding the nature and amount of the payments. The expenses included amounts she sought in restitution for water bills, electric bills, car expenses, home repairs, and renovations targeted solely for Ms. Schuitemaker's benefit. For instance, Ms. Taplin testified that she set up a home office for her sister and purchased materials to improve the yard to her sister's liking. Ultimately, the court permitted testimony regarding these expenses and admitted Ms. Taplin's summary ledger entries into evidence without objection. Furthermore, in the plaintiff's case-in-chief, Ms. Bonnie Lee Miller, sister to Ms. Taplin and Ms. Schuitemaker, testified. She confirmed that she overheard Ms. Schuitemaker tell Ms. Taplin that she would repay her for the house and other expenses as soon as she received her disability settlement.

         At the close of Ms. Taplin's case, Ms. Schuitemaker motioned the court to dismiss the case pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 41(b) arguing that Ms. Taplin produced no admissible evidence regarding a rental agreement or an agreed rent amount; that Ms. Taplin received a benefit from buying the house for Ms. Schuitemaker because she claimed her as a dependent on her tax returns; and that the claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations. Furthermore, at that point, for the first time, Ms. Schuitemaker raised an objection to the quasi-contractual claims because they were not raised in the complaint. The trial court deferred its decision regarding the Rule 41(b) motion.

         In Ms. Schuitemaker's portion of the case, she testified that "at one point in time," she had told Ms. Taplin she would pay for the home. She claimed she had no set time in mind but then acknowledged that at one point she represented she would repay her when she received her disability settlement.

         After the close of the evidence, the parties provided written closing arguments to the court. By formal motion, Ms. Taplin also moved to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence presented at trial to include her quasi-contractual claims. Ms. Schuitemaker objected to the motion, arguing that Ms. Taplin presented no evidence to support the amendment, and that Ms. Taplin failed to allege such causes of action in her complaint or in the pre-trial stipulation.

         The Court of Common Pleas granted Ms. Schuitemaker's motion to dismiss, finding that Ms. Taplin had failed to prove a landlord-tenant relationship or the amount of contractual damages due. In so holding, the court concluded that there was no residential lease agreement between the parties and that Ms. Taplin presented no expert testimony regarding rental value.

         The trial court also denied Ms. Taplin's motion to amend the pleadings. The trial court wrote that Ms. Taplin failed to meet requirements to permit such an amendment as set forth in State ex rel. Structa-Bond v. Mumford & Miller Concrete.[1]Other than that case citation, the trial court's reasoning for denying the amendment was limited to a statement that Ms. Schuitemaker would be prejudiced by the amendment. The court provided no reasons for finding such prejudice and it did not weigh the interests referenced in Rule 15(b). It did, however, find certain facts to be undisputed. Namely, it recognized: (1) that Ms. Taplin purchased the residence for her sister's benefit; (2) that Ms. Taplin paid many of her sister's living expenses for a three-year period; and (3) that Ms. Schuitemaker refused to pay Ms. Taplin upon receipt of her disability payment in May 2016.

         After the close of the evidence, a formal motion to amend the pleadings, and the closing argument letters, the Court of Common Pleas granted Ms. Schuitemaker's motion to dismiss. Because the court had denied the motion to amend the complaint to include quasi-contractual claims, the dismissal terminated the case. In an alternative ruling, the Court dismissed Ms. Taplin's suit, post-trial, based upon the statute of limitations.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         On appeals from the Court of Common Pleas, the Superior Court acts as an intermediate appellate court and performs the same function as that of the Supreme Court.[2] The standard of review includes determining whether there was legal error and whether the factual findings made by the trial judge were sufficiently supported by the record and were the product of an orderly and logical deductive process.[3]

         III. ANALYSIS

         This appeal is limited to three issues. The first is whether the Court of Common Pleas abused its discretion when denying Ms. Taplin's motion to amend her pleadings. The second is whether it committed legal error when it held that Ms. Taplin's claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The third is whether the court erred when it granted Ms. Schuitemaker's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 41(b).

         A. The trial court abused its discretion when denying Ms. Taplin's Rule 15(b) motion to include quasi-contractual claims.

         Ms. Taplin first challenges the trial court's decision to deny her motion to amend her complaint. In her opening, Ms. Taplin raised quasi-contractual claims and then presented evidence throughout the trial regarding those claims. After the close of the evidence, Ms. Taplin formally moved to amend her complaint pursuant to Rule 15(b) to conform to the evidence presented at trial. Specifically, she sought to include the claims of quantum meruit, quantum valebant and unjust enrichment. Ms. Taplin argued that the complaint, filled pro se before she acquired an attorney, provided sufficient notice of her claims to avoid unfair prejudice.

         Pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule 8(a)(2), the complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."[4] A complaint must not be dismissed for an imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting its claims.[5] On balance, the complaint in a civil action "need only give defendant fair notice of a claim and is to be liberally construed."[6]Furthermore, pro se filings are given considerable deference.[7] Ms. Taplin represented herself when filing her complaint and when she participated in the pretrial conference.

         Amendments to pleadings pursuant to Rule 15 are to be allowed in the absence of prejudice to the opposing party.[8] The purpose of the rule is to encourage the disposition of cases on their merits.[9] The decision to permit or deny an amendment is left to the discretion of the trial judge.[10] In applying his or her discretion, however, the trial judge must "always permit or deny the amendment by weighing the desirability of ending the litigation on its merits against possible prejudice or surprise to the other side."[11]

         Rule 15(b) provides for the amendment of a complaint at any time, even after judgment, as follows:

[w]hen issues not raised by the pleadings are tried by express or implied consent of the parties, they shall be treated in all respects as if they had been raised in the pleadings. Such amendment of the pleadings as may be necessary to cause them to conform to the evidence and to raise these issues may be made upon motion of any party at any time, even after judgment; but failure so to amend does not affect the result of the trial of these issues. If evidence is objected to at the trial on the ground that it is not within the issues made by the pleadings, the Court may allow the pleadings to be amended and shall do so freely when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the objecting party fails to satisfy the Court that the admission of such evidence would prejudice the objecting party in maintaining that party's action or defense upon the merits. The Court may grant a continuance to enable the objecting party to meet such evidence.[12]

         Rule 15(b) is modeled after the Federal rule. Federal cases demonstrate that an amendment pursuant to Rule 15(b) "should be permitted if the record indicates that the parties understood that the evidence was aimed at the unpleaded issue."[13]The assumption behind Rule 15 is that "pleadings are not an end in themselves but are designed to assist, not deter, the disposition of litigation on its merits."[14] The party opposing the ...


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