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Sycamore Restaurant Group, LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Associates, LLC

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 12, 2017

SYCAMORE RESTAURANT GROUP, LLC Appellee
v.
STAMPFI HARTKE ASSOCIATES, LLC Appellant SYCAMORE RESTAURANT GROUP, LLC Appellee
v.
STAMPFI HARTKE ASSOCIATES, LLC Appellant

         Appeal from the Order May 21, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County Civil Division at No(s): 2011-34020

          BEFORE: PANELLA, J., LAZARUS, J., and FITZGERALD, J. [*]

          OPINION

          LAZARUS, J.

         Sycamore Restaurant Group, LLC ("Sycamore"), appeals from the order, entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, which granted construction delay damages in its favor in the amount of $20, 332.59.[1] After careful review, we affirm.

         Sycamore initiated the instant action in December 2011, asserting Stampfi breached an architectural and engineering services contract with Sycamore for construction of a new restaurant. A non-jury trial was held on May 14 and 15, 2015. The court's decision, finding in favor of Sycamore in the amount of $20, 332.59, plus costs, was docketed on May 22, 2015. Thereafter, Sycamore filed a post-trial motion on June 1, 2015, [2] asserting that the Court erred by failing to consider certain evidence and testimony in reaching its decision, and thus, the damages award is inadequate. Stampfi filed a post-trial motion on July 1, 2015, asserting that the court erred in awarding damages to Sycamore.[3] The court denied both post-trial motions on August 4, 2015, and entered judgment in favor of Sycamore on August 12, 2015. Sycamore and Stampfi each filed timely notices of appeal and court-ordered concise statements of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b).

         On appeal, Sycamore raises the following question for our review:

Did the lower court commit legal error and/or abuse its discretion, by entering an inadequate verdict in favor of Sycamore, based solely on money damages of $20, 332.59 for construction completion delay (for rent and construction loan interest associated with the extra time need[ed] to complete the unanticipated rock removal and dewatering), but excluding the credible and uncontroverted evidence of additional money damages for the $197, 009.12 of costs actually incurred by Sycamore for [the] unanticipated rock removal and dewatering?

Brief for Appellant, at 3.

         On February 17, 2016, the trial court issued its Rule 1925(a) opinion in which it requested that this Court quash both parties' appeals. Further, the trial court declined to address the issue of damages on the basis that both parties delayed in requesting that the trial notes be transcribed.[4] This could be grounds for dismissal in our Court pursuant to Rule 1911; however, the trial court did not file its Rule 1925(a) opinion until February 17, 2016, a week after the trial transcript was completed and filed. Accordingly, we determined the trial court could have reviewed the transcript and produced a Rule 1925(a) opinion analyzing the merits of the issue raised on appeal and addressing its determination of damages. Therefore, on January 14, 2016, we remanded this case for the trial court to file a supplemental opinion addressing Sycamore's claim. On March 24, 2017, the trial court issued an opinion on remand, finding Sycamore's issue on appeal to be meritless. The same issue now before us, we proceed with our review.

         Our standard in reviewing a court order entered after a bench trial is limited: "[This Court] will reverse a court order . . . only if the decision is based on an error of law or on factual findings that are unsupported by evidence of record." Agliori v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 879 A.2d 315, 318, p.p. (Pa. Super. 2006) (internal citation omitted).

         Here, Sycamore avers the trial court erred where it did not admit change request documents that Sycamore contends prove $197, 009.12 in additional damages. We disagree.

         "Admissibility of evidence depends on relevance and probative value. Evidence is relevant if it logically tends to establish a material fact in the case, tends to make a fact at issue more or less probable or supports a reasonable inference or presumption regarding a material fact." Klein v. Aronchick, 85 A.3d 487 (Pa. Super. 2014). The court my exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. See Pa.R.E. 403. "[Q]uestions regarding the admissibility or exclusion of evidence are within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion." Spino v. John S. Tilley Ladder Co., 671 A.3d 726, 734 (Pa. Super. 1997). However, "[a]n abuse of discretion may not be found merely because an appellate court might have reached a different conclusion, but requires a manifest unreasonableness, or partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, or such lack of support so as to be clearly erroneous." Grady v. Frito-Lay, Inc., 839 A.2d 1038, 1046 (Pa. 2003).

         Furthermore, the proponent of evidence must satisfy the requirement of authenticating or identifying an item of evidence by proving that the item is what the proponent claims it is. Pa.R.E. 901. "A document may be authenticated, as a condition precedent to admissibility, by direct proof and/or by circumstantial evidence; proof of any circumstances which will support a finding that the writing is genuine will suffice to authenticate the writing." Zuk v. Zuk, 55 A.3d 102, 111 (Pa. Super. 2012).

         First, we address Sycamore's assertion that the change request documents were admissible into evidence as modifications to the parties' Construction Contract.[5] This argument is unavailing.

         In interpreting a contract, this Court need not defer to the conclusions of the trial court and is free to draw its own inferences.[6] Southwestern Energy Production Co. v. Forest Resources, LLC, 83 A.3d 177 (Pa. Super. 2015). In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 962 A.2d. 639, 648 (Pa. 2009). When the words of an agreement are clear and unambiguous, the court ascertains the intent of the parties from the language used in the agreement, which it will give its commonly accepted and plain meaning. Id. We must construe a contract only as written and may not modify plain meaning under the guise of interpretation. Southwestern Energy, 93 A.3d at 183.

         Paragraph 7.2.1 of the Construction Contract reads as follows:

A Change Order is a written instrument prepared by the Architect and signed by the Owner, Contractor and Architect, stating their ...

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