By Mikhail Petrov

In the civil case of Dan Ryan Builders, Inc. v. Crystal Ridge Development, Inc., Plaintiff, Dan Ryan Builders Inc., (“Ryan”) appealed the decision of the US District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia and sought additional damages from Defendant, Lang Brother’s Inc. (“Lang”). The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, finding that the “gist of the action” doctrine was properly applied and Plaintiff was not entitled to additional damages. The case was argued on December 10, 2014, and the decision was released on April 20, 2015.

The Facts of the Case

The events of this case took place in West Virginia. Lang sought to build a housing development, Crystal Ridge, on a seventy acre tract of land. In 2005, pursuant to a Lot Purchase Agreement (“LPA”), Lang subdivided the land and contracted to sell all 143 lots to Ryan, a Maryland corporation. The LPA detailed the responsibilities of each party. The parties also entered into a number of other written contracts, including a contract to do a “fill of slope.” Lang was responsible for all of the infrastructure, including the fill slope, which was done by an independent contractor. In March 2007, cracks appeared in the basement slab and the foundation walls of a partially constructed house. Ryan contracted an engineering firm to fix the issue – but the relationship between Lang and Ryan had soured after the incident and the parties “divorced.” In December 2007, the slope behind the lot that had exhibited cracks in the foundation began sliding downhill towards a nearby highway. A geotechnical study concluded that the slope had failed due to its natural composition as well as poor construction. Ryan also experienced other difficulties with the development, including the storm water management system, the development permits, and the entrance drive.

At the District Court

In December 2009, Ryan filed a lawsuit against Lang seeking monetary damages. Ryan asserted three causes of action. First, negligence on the part of Lang in connection to the construction of the fill slope. Second, a breach of several contractual duties stated in the LPA and a subsequent amendment to the LPA made after the parties had “divorced.” Third, fraudulent misrepresentation. The third and final cause of action was abandoned at trial. The court held a five-day bench trial and awarded Ryan $175,646.25 in damages and $77,575.50 in pre-judgment interest for breach of contract with respect to repairs of the road leading to Crystal Ridge. Ryan failed to carry its burden of proof with other asserted breaches, including the entrance easement, storm water management, and the erosion control system. Lastly, the court rejected Ryan’s negligence claim because it failed under West Virginia’s “gist of the action” doctrine, which bars recovery in tort when the duty that forms the basis of the asserted tort claim arises solely from a contractual relationship. It requires plaintiffs seeking relief in tort to identify a non-contractual duty breached by the alleged tortfeasor. Ryan appealed.

Standard of Review

The Fourth Circuit used a mixed standard of review following a bench trial. Factual findings may only be reversed if clearly erroneous. Conclusions of law, including contract construction, are examined de novo.

Reasoning

Ryan offers two reasons why the district court erred in the “gist of action” holding. The court considered both of them separately.

Reason One – Principles of Party Presentation

Ryan contends that the “principles of party presentation” ought to have prevented the district court from relying on the “gist of the action” doctrine. The party presentation principle cautions a federal court to consider only the claims and contentions raised by the litigants before it – and neither Ryan nor Lang raised the “gist of action” doctrine in district court. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, stating that a party’s failure to identify the applicable legal rule does not diminish a court’s responsibility to apply that rule. Additionally, the Supreme Court has long recognized that “a court may consider an issue ‘antecedent’ to … and ultimately ‘dispositive of’ the dispute before it, even an issue the parties fail to identify and brief.”  U.S. Nat’l Bank of Or. v. Indep. Ins. Agents of Am., Inc. 508 U.S. 439, 447 (1993). Here, the “gist of the action” doctrine is just such an “antecedent” and “dispositive” issue since it goes to the duty element of any West Virginia tort claim. Therefore, Ryan’s contention that the party presentation principle barred the district court is rejected.

Reason Two – Gist of the Action

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not err in its application of the “gist of the action” doctrine. Because Ryan’s tort claim rests on Lang’s asserted negligence in performing the two contracts, the LPA and its Amendment, and not on any duty independent of those contracts, the “gist of action” doctrine bars the claim. The Fourth Circuit found that this is precisely the type of simple breach of contract claim that is masqueraded as a tort claim. Therefore, the court found that Ryan’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law.

Ryan’s New Claim

Alternatively, Ryan sought damages under claims he had not alleged at the district court level. Specifically, he alleges that he should have been awarded damages for the “fill of slope” contract. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court is not responsible for searching through the case in pursuit of potential basis for awarding relief. In fact, The Fourth Circuit stated that the district court did an excellent job of identifying Ryan’s meritorious claims.

Holding

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. The Fourth Circuit did not agree with Ryan on either of his two arguments about the district court’s application of the “gist of the action” doctrine. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit rejected Ryan’s contention that he should have been awarded damages for the “fill of slope” contract. Arguing that Ryan should have been able to recover for the “fill of slope” contract, Circuit Judge Gregory dissented in part.

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