LAURIE J. TAPLIN, Appellant, Plaintiff-Below,
KATHLEEN SCHUITEMAKER Appellee, Defendant-Below.
Submitted: October 24, 2018
Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas REVERSED, in part and
E. Junge, Esquire, Schmittinger & Rodriguez, Dover,
Delaware, Attorney for Appellant.
G. Enterline, Esquire, Georgetown, Delaware, Attorney for
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
Jeffrey J. Clark, Judge
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.
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.
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)").
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
FACTS OF RECORD AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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. 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.
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
The trial court abused its discretion when denying Ms.
Taplin's Rule 15(b) motion to include
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
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." A complaint must not be dismissed for an
imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting its
claims. On balance, the complaint in a civil
action "need only give defendant fair notice of a claim
and is to be liberally construed."Furthermore,
pro se filings are given considerable
deference. Ms. Taplin represented herself when filing
her complaint and when she participated in the pretrial
to pleadings pursuant to Rule 15 are to be allowed in the
absence of prejudice to the opposing party. The purpose of
the rule is to encourage the disposition of cases on their
merits. The decision to permit or deny an
amendment is left to the discretion of the trial
judge. 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."
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
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."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." The party opposing the ...