July 3, 2008
YVETTE LUCIANO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
JAMES MICHAEL CLINE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. DC-010977-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 4, 2008
Before Judges Skillman and LeWinn.
Plaintiff Yvette Luciano appeals from the order of the Law Division entered on July 17, 2006, dismissing her complaint for repayment of $3,431.85 she loaned to defendant between September 26 and October 23, 2002. Following a proof hearing, at which defendant did not appear, the judge concluded that no enforceable contract existed between the parties and dismissed plaintiff's complaint.
Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the judge's "factual findings and legal conclusions . . . are . . . inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence" of record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). Therefore, we reverse and remand for entry of judgment in favor of plaintiff.
Plaintiff testified that in 2002, she and defendant "were courting and subsequently engaged." During September and October 2002, defendant "was in need of some money for a deposit for an apartment," which plaintiff offered to lend him. Defendant told plaintiff that "he would make payments on that to reimburse [her] and [they] discussed repayment of $500.00 per month until he paid off the balance."
Plaintiff presented documentation of the following payments she made either directly to defendant or on his behalf during the period in question: (1) a cash advance of $1,500 on September 26, 2002; and (2) car rental expenses, payable to Enterprise RAC Leasing, Co., of $1,865.22 on October 23, 2002. Plaintiff also sought reimbursement of a $45.00 cash advance processing fee; a $5.25 money order fee; and a $16.38 Airborne Express delivery fee; she testified that these fees were incurred in obtaining the money for defendant and sending it to him. Plaintiff explained that the car rental expenses were incurred when defendant needed to rent a car after he moved to North Carolina to "come up to Mt Laurel, which is where he work[ed]."
Plaintiff testified that the cash advances were "supposed to be for an apartment, rent and deposit." Defendant was relocating to North Carolina and "once he got settled," plaintiff planned to move there and live with him. However, that plan did not "come to fruition."
Plaintiff further testified that, despite defendant's verbal agreement to repay her at the rate of $500.00 per month, he stalled by telling her that he hoped to start paying her "next month, and each month turned into years." When telephone calls proved unsuccessful, plaintiff sent defendant emails asking for repayment. She introduced copies of emails she sent to defendant on October 22, 2002; September 15, 2003; and July 20, 2004.
In her email of September 15, 2003, plaintiff itemized all of the expenditures for which she sought repayment, totaling $3,431.85. In that email she stated: "Please Michael, keep your word and send me something from the bonus check you are expecting, even if it isn't the whole amount." Plaintiff submitted defendant's reply email, dated September 16, 2003, stating: "I will. Talk soon, kinda beat. Take care and keep those prayers a going." (Emphasis added.)
At trial, plaintiff proffered voicemail messages on her cell phone that, she asserted, "discusse[d] talking about repayment." The judge listened to those voicemails; however, the contents of the messages have not been reproduced in the record.
In her decision, the trial judge did not dispute plaintiff's testimony that she had made the payments at issue. Rather, the judge concluded:
I don't find that there's an enforceable contract here. I don't find that there's a meeting of the minds, based just upon your testimony.
Again, there's a relationship that has failed. In the course of that relationship, apparently, some monies were paid toward the rental of an apartment that the two of you were to reside in. It isn't clear why you think that the rental car should be included in anything that should be repaid, but the relationship failed, and now you seek for the monies that you were paying . . . for this relationship. You seek to have that repaid.
Not every provision of money to another constitutes a contract that's enforceable in a Court of law. It may be enforceable morally whereby people feel that . . . they're entitled to money back as a result of a failed relationship, but I'm not satisfied here, based upon these proofs, that there was ever a meeting of the minds at the outset of . . . the giving of the money that those monies would be repaid.
. . . . The tapes are ambiguous, at best.
So I don't find that there was a meeting of the minds of the parties at the outset where there was an offer and acceptance and a real defined contractual relationship. And unless you have that meeting of the minds, you don't have a contract, at which point, the failure to pay is not a breach of the contract, so I don't find there's a contract here.
Under the totality of circumstances, we conclude that the trial judge erred in finding no "meeting of the minds" between the parties regarding defendant's repayment of the funds in question. In the context of the relationship between the parties, defendant's email statement, "I will[,]" was sufficient to establish his intention to repay plaintiff as she asserted. Plaintiff's evidence, which was presented at a proof hearing was, uncontroverted. Although the trial judge found the voicemail messages "ambiguous, at best[,]" defendant's email message was unambiguous. The trial judge ignored that message in her decision.
"[I]f parties agree on essential terms and manifest an intention to be bound by those terms, they have created an enforceable contract." Weichert Co. Realtors v. Ryan, 128 N.J. 427, 435 (1992). Plaintiff presented proof of both elements of an enforceable contract.
Reversed and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of plaintiff.
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