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Stellenwerf v. Biscuti

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New London, New London

April 20, 2016

Bonnie Stellenwerf
v.
Peter Biscuti Opinion No. 133474

          RULING RE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ADDITUR, DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR REMITTITUR, AND PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS FEES AND COSTS

          Robert F. Vacchelli Judge

         This case was an action by the plaintiff, Bonnie Stellenwerf, against her former landlord, Peter Biscuti, for violations of her lease agreement and various landlord-tenant laws. The matter was tried to a jury over a three-week period. The jury entered a verdict for the plaintiff, awarding her $3, 453.50 on her complaint, and awarded the defendant $4, 374.00 on his counterclaim. Pending before the court are plaintiff's post-trial motion for additur (Doc. No. 135.00), defendant's motion for remittitur (Doc. No. 137.00) and plaintiff's motion for attorneys fees and costs (Doc. No. 136.00). For the following reasons, the plaintiff's motion for additur is denied. The defendant's motion for remittitur is granted, in part, in the amount of $702.50. The remitted sum, if accepted by the plaintiff, would reduce the verdict in favor of the plaintiff to $2, 751.00. Unless the plaintiff files a notice with the court accepting this order of remittitur within thirty days of the date of this order, the verdict for the plaintiff shall be set aside and a new trial ordered on plaintiff's complaint as required by General Statutes § 52-216a. The verdict on the counterclaim in favor of the defendant was not challenged and shall remain at $4, 374.00. If the remittal is accepted, the resultant verdict will be of $1, 623.00 in favor of the defendant. On the plaintiff's motion for attorneys fees and costs, the court will award the plaintiff $31, 824.00 in attorneys fees plus $1, 545.52 for costs upon entry of judgment, if the remittitur is accepted. The court shall enter a final judgment consistent herewith after 30 days, or after receipt of the plaintiff's acceptance of the remittal order, whichever occurs earlier.

         I

         General Statutes § § 52-216a, 52-228b and Practice Book § 16-35 provide for motions to set aside the verdict and for new trials and for additurs to remedy erroneous jury verdicts. The standard of review governing such motions is well-settled. " The trial court possesses inherent power to set aside a jury verdict which, in the court's opinion, is against the law or the evidence . . . [The trial court] should not set aside a verdict where it is apparent that there was some evidence upon which the jury might reasonably reach their conclusion, and should not refuse to set it aside where the manifest injustice of the verdict is so plain and palpable as clearly to denote that some mistake was made by the jury in the application of legal principles . . . Ultimately, [t]he decision to set aside a verdict entails the exercise of a broad legal discretion . . . that, in the absence of clear abuse, we shall not disturb." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Edmands v. CUNO, Inc., 277 Conn. 425, 452, 892 A.2d 938 (2006).

         When considering a motion for additur, " [i]t is the court's duty to set aside the verdict when it finds that it does manifest injustice, and is . . . palpably against the evidence . . . The only practical test to apply to a verdict is whether the award of damages falls somewhere within the necessarily uncertain limits of fair and reasonable compensation in the particular case, or whether the verdict so shocks the sense of justice as to compel the conclusion that the jury [was] influenced by partiality, mistake or corruption . . ." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Ng v. Wal-Mart Stores, 122 Conn.App. 533, 536, 998 A.2d 1214 (2010).

         " The amount of a damage award is a matter peculiarly within the province of the trier of fact . . . and if, on the evidence, the jury could reasonably have decided as they did, [the reviewing court] will not find error in the trial court's acceptance of the verdict." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Childs v. Bainer, 235 Conn. 107, 121, 663 A.2d 398 (1995). In Wichers v. Hatch, 252 Conn. 174, 745 A.2d 789 (2000) (en banc), the seminal case on the subject, our Supreme Court stated:

         [T]he jury's decision . . . is best tested in light of the circumstances of the particular case before it. Accordingly, the trial court should examine the evidence to decide whether the jury reasonably could have found that the plaintiff had failed in his proof of the issue. That decision should be made, not on the assumption that the jury made a mistake, but, rather, on the supposition that the jury did exactly what it intended to do.

         As we previously have stated, although the trial court has a broad legal discretion in this area, it is not without its limits. " Because in setting aside a verdict the court has deprived a litigant in whose favor the verdict has been rendered of his constitutional right to have disputed issues of fact determined by a jury; Rickert v. Fraser, 152 Conn. 678, 681, 211 A.2d 702 (1965); the court's action cannot be reviewed in a vacuum. The evidential underpinnings of the verdict itself must be examined. 'Upon issues regarding which, on the evidence, there is room for reasonable difference of opinion among fair-minded men, the conclusion of a jury, if one at which honest men acting fairly and intelligently might arrive reasonably, must stand, even though the opinion of the trial court and this court be that a different result should have been reached.' Horvath v. Tontini, 126 Conn. 462, 464, 11 A.2d 846 (1940)." Jacobs v. Goodspeed, 180 Conn. 415, 417, 429 A.2d 915 (1980). " [I]f there is a reasonable basis in the evidence for the jury's verdict, unless there is a mistake in law or some other valid basis for upsetting the result other than a difference of opinion regarding the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, the trial court should let the jury work their will." Id., 419.

Wichers v. Hatch, supra, 252 Conn. 188-89.

         Concerning the constitutional rights at stake in this exercise, the Supreme Court, in that case, said:

" The right to a jury trial is fundamental in our judicial system, and this court has said that the right is one obviously immovable limitation on the legal discretion of the court to set aside a verdict, since the constitutional right of trial by jury includes the right to have issues of fact as to which there is room for a reasonable difference of opinion among fair-minded men passed upon by the jury and not by the court." Camp v. Booth, 160 Conn. 10, 13, 273 A.2d 714 (1970). Because in setting aside the verdict, the trial court deprives the party in whose favor the verdict was rendered of his constitutional right to have factual issues resolved by the jury, our role generally is to examine the evidential basis for the verdict itself to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion. Palomba v. Gray, 208 Conn. 21, 25, 543 A.2d 1331 (1988).

Wichers v. Hatch, Id.

         Motions for Remittitur are available under General Statutes § § 52-216a, 52-228b and Practice Book § 16-35. § 52-216a provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

         If the court at the conclusion of the trial concludes that the verdict is excessive as a matter of law, it shall order a remittitur and, upon failure of the party so ordered to remit the amount ordered by the court, it shall set aside the verdict and order a new trial.

         General Statutes § 52-216a.

         In applying this rule, our Supreme Court has long held that the assessment of damages is " peculiarly within the province of the jury, whose determination will be set aside only when it appears that the sum awarded is plainly excessive and exorbitant." Rutkowski v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., 100 Conn. 49, 55, 123 A.2d 25 (1923). To warrant setting a verdict aside on this ground, the court must find that the verdict " so shocks the sense of justice as to compel the conclusion that the jury was influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake or corruption." Briggs v. Becker, 101 Conn. 62, 66 124 A.2d 826 (1924); accord, Gilliard v. Van Court Property Management Services, Ltd., 63 Conn.App. 632, 644, 777 A.2d 745 (2004); see, generally, R. Bollier and S. Busby, 2 Stephenson's Connecticut Civil Procedure (3rd Ed., 2003) § 196(b).

         " [A]lthough the trial court has a broad legal discretion in this area, it is not without its limits." Wichers v. Hatch, 252 Conn. 174, 189, 745 A.2d 789 (2000). " Litigants have a constitutional right to have factual issues resolved by the jury . . . This right embraces the determination of damages when there is room for a reasonable difference of opinion among fair-minded persons as to the amount that should be awarded . . . The amount of a damage award is a matter peculiarly within the province of the trier of fact, in this case, the jury." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Ham v. Greene, 248 Conn. 508, 536, 729 A.2d 740, cert. denied, 528 U.S. 929 (1999). " Similarly, [t]he credibility of witnesses and the weight to be accorded to their testimony lie within the province of the jury." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Childs v. Bainer, 235 Conn. 107, 112, 663 A.2d 398 (1995).

         In ruling on a Motion for Remittitur, the court should not act as the seventh juror with absolute veto power. Whether the court would have reached a different result is not itself decisive. " The court's proper function is to determine whether the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the prevailing party, reasonably supports the jury's verdict." (Citation omitted.) Campbell v. Gould, 194 Conn. 35, 40, 478 A.2d 596 (1984).

         Plaintiff's motion for attorneys fees is claimed by reason of fact that she prevailed on her claim of violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practice Act (CUTPA), General Statutes § 42-110a et seq. That act provides, in pertinent part, as follows: " In any action brought by a person under this section, the court may award, to the plaintiff, in addition to the relief provided in this section, costs and reasonable attorneys fees based on the work reasonably performed by an attorney and not on the amount of recovery." General Statutes § 42-110g(d). " An award of attorneys fees is not a matter of right. Whether any award is to be made and the amount thereof lie within the discretion of the trial court, which is in the best position to evaluate the particular circumstances of a case . . . Additionally, the amount of attorneys fees that the trial court may award is based on the work reasonably performed by an attorney and not on the amount of recovery." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Thorsen v. Durkin Development, LLC, 129 Conn.App. 68, 76-77, 20 A.3d 707 (2011). " One who prevails on a CUTPA claim may be " clearly entitled" to such fees and costs, but it is an " undisputed requirement that the reasonableness of the attorneys fees and costs must be proven by an appropriate evidentiary showing." Barco Auto Leasing Corp. v. House, 202 Conn. 106, 120-21, 520 A.2d 162 (1987).

         II

         Proceedings in this case occurred on February 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, and March 1, 2, and 3, 2016. The jury heard the testimony of Bonnie Stellenwerf, Peter Biscuti, Christopher Bodiere, Adriene Merry, Mark Shirley, John Robbins, Jr. and Jeffrey Decker. It also reviewed numerous correspondence, e-mails, text messages, video, photographs, records and other types of documents introduced as exhibits in the case.

         The jury could have reasonably found as follows: In 2013, the defendant was interested in renting a single-family home he owned located at 11 Fanning Road in Ledyard, CT because he was planning on living in South Carolina. The plaintiff wanted to rent a house because she needed space to store equipment for her carpet cleaning business. She saw the property and liked it. She hoped to live there for many years. The plaintiff signed a rental agreement to rent 11 Fanning Road on October 17, 2013. The agreement called for a term of one year, beginning November 15, 2013. The tenant agreed to pay the landlord the sum of $2, 000.00 per month, due and payable on the 15th day of each month with a 10-day grace period. If not paid within the grace period, the agreement called for, inter alia, a $100.00 late fee. It also called for a bad check service charge of $25.00.

         The agreement called for a security deposit as follows:

         Tenants hereby agree to pay a security deposit of $2000 to be refunded upon vacating, returning the keys to the Landlord and termination of this contract according to other terms herein agreed. This deposit will be held to cover any possible damage to the property. It will be held intact by Landlord until at least thirty (30) working days after Tenants have vacated the property. At that time Landlord will inspect the premises thoroughly and assess any damages and/or needed repairs. This deposit money minus any necessary charges for missing/dead light bulbs, repairs, cleaning, etc. will then be returned to Tenant with a written explanation of deductions, within 60 days after they have vacated the property.

         Rental Agreement, para. 6 (emphasis in original).

         As for alterations and damage, the agreement provided as follows:

         Tenant shall make no alterations, decorations, additions, or improvements in or to the premises without Landlord's prior written consent, and then only by contractors or mechanics, or other approved by Landlord. All alterations, additions or improvements upon the premises, made by either party, shall become the property of the Landlord and shall remain upon, and be surrendered with said premises, as a part thereof, at the end of the term hereof.

         They acknowledge that they will be responsible for and pay any damage done by rain, wind, hail, tornadoes, etc., if this damage is caused by leaving windows open, allowing stoppage ...


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