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Skehel v. Depaulis

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 17, 2016

CHRISTOPHER SKEHEL, d/b/a/ The Castle Group, Plaintiff,




         This case concerns a construction project in which Defendants engaged Plaintiff to manage the renovation of a vacation home in Nantucket. In the summer of 2010, Plaintiff and Defendants agreed orally that Plaintiff would serve as general contractor for the project, and that he would also provide labor and materials. Throughout this litigation the parties disputed the terms of the oral contract. The parties did not sign a written contract. Construction proceeded over the course of the next two years, during which time Defendants made payments to Plaintiff. Defendants made their final payment in July 2012. Several months later, Plaintiff ceased work on the project.

         Plaintiff sued Defendants for breach of contract to recover additional money that he claimed he was owed. Defendants counterclaimed for breach of contract and negligence. On July 26, 2016, after a six-day trial, a jury found that Defendants breached their contract with Plaintiff and breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The jury awarded Plaintiff $475, 000. The jury did not reach Plaintiff's quantum meruit claim, having found the existence of an oral contract. As to Defendants' counterclaims, the jury concluded that Plaintiff did not breach the contract, did not breach the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and that he was not negligent in the renovation of the home.

         Now before the court are Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, as well as Defendants' motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. [ECF No. 189]. For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' post-trial motions are DENIED.


         A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1) permits the Court to grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law on a claim or issue “[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Under Rule 50(b), a party may renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law after the trial. In evaluating a Rule 50 motion, “‘[a]ll of the evidence and reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence are . . . considered in the light most favorable to' the non-moving party, ” Malone v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 610 F.3d 16, 20 (1st Cir. 2010) (quoting Espada v. Lugo, 312 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2002)), in this case the Plaintiff. The bar for granting a Rule 50 motion is high: “Courts may only grant a judgment contravening a jury's determination when the evidence points so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that no reasonable jury could have returned a verdict adverse to that party.” Id. (quoting Rivera Castillo v. Autokirey, Inc., 379 F.3d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 2004)).

         1.Breach of Contract

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff failed to meet his burden to prove that he performed his obligations under the contract, and therefore, that he is barred from succeeding on a breach of contract claim. Specifically, Defendants allege that Plaintiff charged them for materials and labor that he never supplied to them. They also list a number of construction items that were either not completed or not constructed correctly, including: incomplete attic work, problems with sheetrock, a leaky roof, improperly installed cable, an incomplete wine cellar, incomplete electrical work, storm windows not installed, and the house's overall inability to pass inspection required for a certificate of occupancy. [Defendants' Brief (“Defs.' Br.”), ECF No. 189, at 4]. Plaintiff counters that the only item he acknowledged he did not complete was the installation of the storm windows. [Plaintiff's Brief (“Pl.'s Br.”), ECF No. 191, at 2].

         First, Defendants' concerns about incorrect charges are issues of fact that the jury reasonably resolved in Plaintiff's favor. Both parties introduced ample testimony and conducted thorough cross-examinations concerning the terms of the oral contract and the bills generated by Plaintiff and payments made by Defendants. The jury was entitled to weigh competing understandings of the terms of the contract between the parties and accept Plaintiff's testimony about the agreement, including the cost of labor. The jury was not required to credit the specific testimony identified by Defendants in their motion. For example, Plaintiff testified that a washer and dryer that a bill indicated were initially delivered to an incorrect address were ultimately installed at Defendants' house. The jury could permissibly credit this explanation. Furthermore, as Plaintiff points out, the testimony cited by Defendants concerns relatively minor errors, and Plaintiff testified that a post-project audit was conducted that corrected some billing mistakes, which could include the issues identified by Defendants in their motion.

         Next, at least some of the incomplete or inadequate work about which Defendants complain resulted from Plaintiff's decision to cease work after Defendants had not paid him for several months. Plaintiff was entitled to take that action; he was not required to continue working once the Defendants had stopped payment, thereby “run[ning] the risk that he would not be paid” for the additional work. Petrangelo v. Pollard, 255 N.E.2d 342, 346 (Mass. 1970); see also Mark Bombara Interior Design v. Bowler, 844 N.E.2d 616, 620 (Mass. 2006) (citing Petrangelo). Plaintiff produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that he performed his contractual obligations up to the point at which Defendants allegedly ceased performance of their obligations. Therefore, the Court is not required to find that Plaintiff is unable to recover for breach of contract.

         2.Admissibility of Damages Evidence

         Defendants claim that the breach of contract verdict cannot stand because Plaintiff's damages evidence was inadmissible. Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not lay a proper foundation to admit his invoices as business records, pointing to Plaintiff's testimony indicating that he was not familiar with the recordkeeping system for his business and that he was unable to confirm the accuracy of the records. Defendants also contend that the receipts and records ...

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