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Rauhaus Freedenfeld & Associates, LLP v. Prince

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk, Business Litigation Session

March 11, 2019

RAUHAUS FREEDENFELD & ASSOCIATES, LLP
v.
Todd PRINCE

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Kenneth W. Salinger, Justice of the Superior Court

          Rauhaus Freedenfeld & Associates, LLP (which calls itself "RFA") is an architectural firm that specializes in designing animal hospitals and similar facilities. It is suing Todd Prince for not paying RFA in full for its work to design renovations for an animal hospital owned by Prince in Deerfield, Illinois. Prince asserts counterclaims for breach of contract, intentional fraud, violation of G.L.c. 93A, and malpractice (i.e., negligence).[1] The parties have filed motions for summary judgment on some but not all of the pending claims.

          The Court will deny the cross motions for summary judgment as to RFA’s claims for breach of contract or compensation under a quantum meruit theory, but will allow RFA’s motion for partial summary judgment on Prince’s counterclaims for intentional fraud and violation of c. 93A.

          1. Cross Motions for Summary Judgment on RFA’s Claims

          The Court cannot resolve RFA’s claims for breach of contract or quantum meruit relief on summary judgment because neither side is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law.

         RFA is not entitled to summary judgment on its claims because a reasonable jury could find that RFA materially breached its contract and Prince therefore had no further obligation to perform. Cf. Lease-It, Inc. v. Massachusetts Port Auth., 33 Mass.App.Ct. 391, 397 (1992). A jury could find that RFA miscalculated the largest facility that could be built without a variance because it failed to exclude the portion of the property that is within the right-of-way of a public street, as a result RFA misled Prince as to how large a facility could be constructed as of right (without a variance), and this was a material breach of RFA’s express contractual obligation to perform its services in a manner while exercising the degree of care that a reasonable architect would exercise under similar conditions.

          Prince is not entitled to summary judgment on RFA’s claims either, however, because a reasonable jury could rule in RFA’s favor.

         A jury could find that RFA never breached its contractual duty to do its work in a manner consistent with the standard of care expected of an architect in similar circumstances. "Architects, like other professionals, do not have a duty to be perfect in their work, but rather are expected to exercise ‘that skill and judgment which can be reasonably expected from similarly situated professionals.’" LeBlanc v. Logan Hilton Joint Venture, 463 Mass. 316, 329 (2012), quoting Klein v. Catalano, 386 Mass. 701, 718 (1982). "Expert testimony is generally needed to establish this professional standard of care, ... [except] where the malpractice ‘is so gross or obvious that laymen can rely on their common knowledge to recognize or infer negligence.’" Id., quoting Pongonis v. Saab, 396 Mass. 1005, 1005 (1985); accord Palandjian v. Foster, 446 Mass. 100, 1045-46 (2006) (same as to standard of care applicable to physicians). Architects at RFA may testify as to the applicable standard of care, and a jury could credit their testimony if it wished.

          Alternatively, a jury could find that RFA’s alleged initial miscalculation was a breach of contract but that this breach was immaterial because Prince ultimately asked RFA to develop plans for a larger facility after RFA told him that a variance would probably be needed to construct such a building. And though Prince insists that RFA also breached the contract by billing for its additional work on a flat fee basis when it was required to bill by the hour, a jury could find that this alleged breach was immaterial because RFA’s flat fee was lower than the amount it could have charged if it billed by the hour.[2] If a jury were to reach the quantum meruit claim, it could find that RFA is entitled to fair compensation for its work and reject Prince’s assertion that the plans drawn by RFA were useless, since Prince has not mustered any evidence that he could not have obtained a zoning variance that would allow Prince to build the facility designed by RFA.

         Summary judgment is inappropriate where, as here, a reasonable factfinder would be free to render a verdict for either side at trial, depending on whether it chooses to draw a reasonable inference that favors RFA or whether it chooses to draw an opposite but still reasonable inference that favors Prince. See Flesner v. Technical Communications Corp., 410 Mass. 805, 811-12 (1991) ("Where a jury can draw opposite inferences from the evidence, summary judgment is improper"); Dennis v. Kaskel, 79 Mass.App.Ct. 736, 741 (2011) (summary judgment may not be granted where "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         Even where all material facts are undisputed, it does not automatically follow that a court can resolve a claim on a motion for summary judgment. "Undisputed facts do not always point unerringly to a single, inevitable conclusion. And when facts, though undisputed, are capable of supporting conflicting yet plausible inferences— inferences that are capable of leading a rational fact finder to different outcomes in a litigated matter depending on which of them the fact finder draws— then the choice between those inferences is not for the court on summary judgment." In re Varrasso, 37 F.3d 760, 764 (1st Cir. 1994). "Summary judgment can only be ordered when a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Dolloff v. Sch. Comm. of Methuen, 9 Mass.App.Ct. 502, 505 (1980).

          2. RFA’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         RFA is entitled to summary judgment in its favor on Prince’s counterclaims for intentional fraud and under c. 93A because there is no evidence that RFA made any false statements upon which Prince relied to his detriment, and therefore no evidence that RFA engaged in any unfair or deceptive conduct. See generally Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 715 (1991) ("If the nonmoving party cannot muster sufficient evidence to make out its claim, a trial would be useless and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law" (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catret, 477 U.S. 317, 328 (1986) (White, J., concurring)).

         To recover on his intentional fraud claim, Prince will have to prove that RFA "made a false representation of a material fact with knowledge of its falsity for the purpose of inducing the plaintiff to act thereon, and that the plaintiff relied upon the representation as true and acted upon it to [her] damage." Masingill v. EMC ...


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