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Saunders v. Hudgens

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

May 10, 2018

Ruth Saunders, et al., Appellants, [*]
Stephen T. Hudgens, Nathaniel X. Arnold, and U.S. Bank National Association, Appellees.

          Argued September 15, 2016

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-3686-05) Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge

          Michael Lasley for appellant.

          Michael S. Steadman, Jr., with whom Michael N. Russo, Jr., was on the brief, for appellee Arnold.

          Wendy Alexander, with whom John E. Rinaldi was on the brief, for appellee U.S. Bank National Association.

          Before Glickman and Fisher, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.


         Appellant Ruth Saunders contends the trial court erred in denying her the equitable relief she sought from appellee Stephen T. Hudgens for his breach of a contract to sell her a building. Applying the doctrine of election of remedies to avoid a double recovery for a single wrong, the trial judge ruled that Saunders could not be granted a decree compelling Hudgens to perform the contract because she had chosen to obtain alternative relief, namely an award of monetary damages from appellee Nathaniel X. Arnold for his tortious inducement of Hudgens's breach. Saunders argues that she had made no election and that she was entitled to receive specific performance from Hudgens in addition to damages from Arnold because she sought those remedies from different defendants on different legal theories of liability. Saunders is only partly right: we agree that she had not elected her remedy and hence was not precluded from seeking a decree of specific performance, but not that she could get more than one satisfaction for the wrong done to her. We hold that the judge should have determined whether Saunders would be entitled to specific performance as an alternative to damages and, if so, the judge then should have permitted her to choose which remedy to accept. We vacate the provisions of the judgment respecting her relief and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Factual Summary[1]

         The dispute before us concerns competing claims to a four-unit apartment building located at 219 Adams Street, N.E., in Washington, D.C. ("the Property"). On March 16, 2005, appellee Hudgens sold the Property to appellee Arnold. The sale spawned two lawsuits in Superior Court.

         First, appellant Saunders sued Messrs. Hudgens and Arnold in CAB No. 3686-05. As pertinent here, Saunders's complaint alleged that Hudgens had breached a contract he had entered to sell the Property to her, and that Arnold had conspired with Hudgens to induce the breach. (In effect, the claim against Arnold was one for tortious interference with the sales contract, and we shall sometimes refer to it that way for convenience.) The complaint sought both compensatory damages and equitable relief that included cancellation of the sale to Arnold and a decree of specific performance requiring Hudgens to convey the Property to Saunders.

         Second, a group of tenants (or persons claiming to be tenants) sued Hudgens and Arnold in CAB No. 8531-06, alleging that the sale of the Property violated their rights under the Tenants' Opportunity to Purchase Act ("TOPA"). The TOPA plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief setting aside the sale and compelling Hudgens to provide them with statutory rights triggered by the sales contract.

         The two civil actions were consolidated for pretrial and trial proceedings. In 2010 the proceedings were stayed when Hudgens filed for bankruptcy. Eventually, the stay was partially lifted to permit the Superior Court litigation to go forward with some restrictions. Among other things, the order lifting the stay provided that it did "not extend to execution or enforcement of any judgments against" Hudgens, and that Hudgens and the bankruptcy trustee would not "be expected, except to the extent they choose, to participate in the litigation" other than as witnesses. Thereafter, the Superior Court litigation resumed, apparently without Hudgens's participation as a party.[2]

         In a pretrial order issued on December 28, 2010, the trial judge ordered bifurcation of the consolidated trial proceedings, with a jury trial for the jury-triable issues in Saunders's case to precede a bench trial of the equitable issues in both that case and the TOPA case. For Saunders, this bifurcation meant a jury trial of her tortious interference claim seeking an award of damages against Arnold for conspiring to cause Hudgens to breach his contract to sell the Property to Saunders, and then a bench trial on her claim seeking a decree of specific performance of that sale.

         At the conclusion of the jury trial, the judge instructed the jury that the elements of Saunders's claim against Arnold were:

(1) an agreement by Mr. Arnold and Mr. Hudgens; (2) to participate in a breach of Mr. Hudgens'[s] contract or contracts with Ruth Saunders . . .; [ ] (3) an injury was caused by an unlawful overt act performed by one of the parties to the agreement; (4) pursuant to and in furtherance of the common scheme.

         As a predicate to this claim, the judge instructed the jury it would have to find that a contract had been formed between Hudgens and Saunders, "and if so what the terms of that contract were." Finally, without objection from appellant, the judge instructed the jury that if it found Arnold had conspired to cause Hudgens's breach of Saunders's contract to purchase the Property, it should "fully compensate" her by awarding "damages for breach of contract, " defined as "that amount of money necessary to place the ...

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