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Golembeski v. Metichewan Grange No. 190

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 20, 1990

Walter GOLEMBESKI, et al.

Argued Dec. 5, 1989.

Page 1158

Robert J. Guendelsberger, with whom, on the brief, was James K. Smith, for appellants (plaintiffs).

Anthony M. Fitzgerald, for appellee (defendant, John Lillis).


EDWARD Y. [20 Conn.App. 700] O'CONNELL, Judge.

The plaintiffs appeal from a judgment rendered after a directed verdict in favor of the defendant John Lillis. [1] The plaintiffs' action alleged that the defendant tortiously interfered with their opportunity to purchase real property from the Metichewan Grange (Grange).

The plaintiffs claim that the court erred (1) in granting the defendant's motion for a directed verdict when there was evidence from which the jury could reasonably have found in favor of the plaintiffs, (2) in granting the motion Before the plaintiffs had rested their case. We find no error.

The Grange is a fraternal organization that owns a meeting hall in New Milford. The plaintiffs submitted a written offer to buy the property for $150,000, and the Grange retained the defendant, an attorney, to represent and advise it in the potential sale. The defendant expressed several reservations about the sale. Specifically, he was concerned about the adequacy of the sale price as well as the Grange's compliance with its bylaws concerning disposition of assets.

In the course of handling the matter, the defendant advised the master of the Grange that he might be interested in forming a partnership and purchasing the property himself. He made it clear that if he became a purchaser he would withdraw from representing the Grange and another attorney would have to be retained to handle the sale. Subsequently, the person with whom [20 Conn.App. 701] the defendant had briefly considered forming a partnership offered, on his own behalf, $180,000 for the property. The defendant took no part in this offer nor did he ever make any offer to purchase the property. The defendant advised the Grange to reject both the $180,000 and $150,000 offers, and to place the

Page 1159

property for sale on the open market. The Grange accepted this advice and rejected both offers.

As a threshold matter, we note that the plaintiffs failed to file a motion to set aside the verdict under Practice Book § 320. "In the absence of a motion to set aside the verdict, we consider the plaintiff[s'] claims under the plain error doctrine, which provides that the Supreme and Appellate Courts 'may in the interests of justice notice plain error not brought to the attention of the trial court.' Practice Book § 4185...." Dunham v. Dunham, 204 Conn. 303, 311, 528 A.2d 1123 (1987); Daley v. Gaitor, 16 Conn.App. 379, 383, 547 A.2d 1375, cert. denied, 209 Conn. 824, 552 A.2d 430 (1988). While we recognize that the plain error doctrine should be invoked sparingly; State v. Scott, 10 Conn.App. 347, 353, 522 A.2d 1245, cert. denied, 204 Conn. 804, 528 A.2d 1152 (1987); here, because the claimed error implicates the fairness and integrity of, and public confidence in, judicial proceedings and attorneys, it is a proper matter for such review.


The plaintiffs' first claim that they had introduced sufficient evidence to require submission of the case to the jury and, therefore, the trial court erred in directing a verdict for the defendant. The general rule in Connecticut is that "[a] trial court should direct a verdict only when a jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion." Petyan v. Ellis, 200 Conn. 243, 244, 510 A.2d 1337 (1986); see also Daley v. Gaitor, supra, 16 Conn.App. at 384, 547 A.2d 1375. When this court reviews a [20 Conn.App. 702] directed verdict for the defendant, the evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Daley v. Gaitor, supra.

The central question is whether a lawyer who advises a client that it is not legally bound to sell property can be held liable to a disappointed prospective purchaser for tortious interference with a business expectancy. An action for tortious interference with a business expectancy is well established in Connecticut. [2] The plaintiff need not prove that the defendant caused the breach of an actual contract; proof of interference with even an unenforceable promise is enough. Id. "A cause of action for tortious interference with a business expectancy requires proof 'that the defendant was guilty of fraud, misrepresentation, intimidation or molestation ... or that the defendant acted maliciously.' " (Citations omitted.) Jones v. O'Connell, 189 Conn. 648, 660, 458 A.2d 355 (1983). It is also true, however, that "not every act that disturbs a contract or business expectancy is actionable." Blake v. Levy, 191 Conn. 257, 260, 464 A.2d 52 (1983). A defendant is guilty of tortious interference if he has engaged in "improper" conduct. Id., 191 Conn. at 261, 464 A.2d 52; see 4 Restatement (Second), Torts §§ 766, 766B, 767 (1979). "[T]he plaintiff [is required] to plead and prove at least some improper motive or improper means." Kakadelis v. DeFabritis, 191 Conn. 276, 279, 464 A.2d 57 (1983); Blake v. Levy, supra, 191 Conn. at 262, 464 A.2d 52. [3]

[20 Conn.App. 703] The plaintiffs argue that the defendant improperly interfered with their expectancy of a profit by advising the Grange that it was not required to consummate the agreement with the plaintiffs. They claim that this case presents a situation where the defendant ...

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