Owens v. Sheffel, 012221 MDSCA, 1947-2019

Docket Nº1947-2019
Opinion JudgeWOODWARD, J.
Party NameRENALD CARLTON OWENS v. CARL W. SHEFFEL, SR.
Judge PanelArthur, Leahy, Woodward, Patrick L. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.
Case DateJanuary 22, 2021
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

RENALD CARLTON OWENS

v.

CARL W. SHEFFEL, SR.

No. 1947-2019

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

January 22, 2021

Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-19-000296

Arthur, Leahy, Woodward, Patrick L. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION [*]

WOODWARD, J.

The instant appeal arises from a judgment entered by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City after a bench trial in favor of Carl W. Sheffel, Sr., appellee, on a claim by Renald Carlton Owens, appellant, for unjust enrichment. The dispute between the parties involved the expenditure of money by appellant for the renovation of commercial real estate owned by appellee and located at 606 and 608 West Lexington Street in Baltimore City ("606/608 West Lexington").

On appeal, appellant presents one issue for our review: "Whether the circuit court commit[ted] reversible error by rendering a judgment in favor of appellee on appellant's claim for unjust enrichment[.]" We shall affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1989, appellee owned 608 West Lexington Street in Baltimore, where he operated a bar. Appellant worked for a restaurant next door at 610 West Lexington Street and became acquainted with appellee. When appellee's business began to slow down due to the loss of an adjacent parking lot, the parties decided that appellant and another individual, Wayne Jeffries, would "take over and run" appellee's bar. From that point on, appellant and Jeffries "ran the entire business."

In 1990, a condemned building next door to appellee's bar, 606 West Lexington Street, became available at auction. The parties disagree about what happened next. According to appellant, he "personally contacted" appellee to see if they "could acquire" 606 West Lexington Street. Appellant stated that he successfully "bid[]" on the property, but because appellant's criminal background precluded placement of the liquor license in his name, the parties agreed that appellee and appellee's wife would be the record title owners of 606 West Lexington Street. After winning the bid, appellant stated that he "shook hands" with appellee and they agreed that they owned the building jointly. Appellee, on the other hand, testified that he bought 606 West Lexington Street at auction and could not remember having any discussion with appellant about the property.

After the purchase of 606 West Lexington Street, the parties began to renovate 606/608 West Lexington to "consolidate[]" them and into one building and thereby create "more room." Appellee did not recall when exactly those renovations took place but believed that he had paid for the work. Appellee testified further that, as an engineer, he "over[saw]" the modification. According to appellant, however, the money for the repairs came from both appellant and appellee.

On February 1, 1997, the parties entered into a written lease agreement wherein appellant agreed to rent "the entire building known as 606 W[est] Lexington Street and the first, second and third floor of the property known as 608 W[est] Lexington Street . . . ."1The lease was for five years with an option to renew for an additional five years at an initial rent of $1, 250 per month. Appellant, as the tenant, was required, among other things, to pay the rent, utility costs, water and sewer charges, real estate taxes, and "casualty insurance." In addition, appellant was obligated to keep the premises at 606/608 West Lexington in good order and condition and to make all necessary repairs at his expense. If appellant made any "alterations" to the premises, the lease required appellant to do so at his expense, and such alterations would immediately become the property of appellee, as landlord.

Appellee testified that he "kept a record" of what appellant paid him over the years, but the payment amounts varied. According to appellee, appellant would sometimes give him a single check for $12, 000 for the year, as opposed to monthly checks of $1, 250 for the rent, and appellee would put that money toward "anything [he] had to pay, which could be taxes, a water bill occasionally," and the remaining amount would be "profit." Appellant, on the other hand, testified that the lease agreement was "manufactured" to assist in transferring the liquor license. Appellant did acknowledge that he made payments to appellee of $1, 250, and appellee would "put it in the bank" and use it "for whatever [he] had to pay."

In 2001, during the initial term of the lease, appellant testified that he borrowed "[$]150, 000, [$]200, 000[, ] in that range" from an individual named Lloyd Wynn to renovate the premises. Appellant said that the purpose of the renovations was to "combine the first floor[] and open up the second floor," build a bar, and repair some structural damage. Wynn testified that he loaned appellant approximately $150, 000 in 2001.

606/608 West Lexington went through another substantial renovation in 2010-2011 to repair the roof and some other damage. During that renovation, appellee gave money to appellant "so he could give it to other people that were doing the repair work and renovation." Appellee documented his payments to appellant in a ledger and in invoices that appellant signed, with the final invoice indicating that appellee had paid $211, 350 "toward roof repair" as of April 15, 2011. Appellee did not believe appellant financially contributed to the 2010-2011 renovation, stating that appellant "didn't have any money." Appellant, on the other hand, testified that during that renovation, he had contributed to the "$600, 000 renovation," and had put "every dime" he made during that time "into the project." Appellant stated that he and appellee would "both get[] back [their] monies at the end of [] the tunnel." Appellant explained that he expected to receive the money that he put into the 2010-2011 repairs from appellee when the building was sold.

In 2019, the University of Maryland contacted appellee to express its interest in buying 606/608 West Lexington for $500, 000. Appellee testified that he attempted to attend a meeting with the University with appellant, but upon seeing appellant, the University cancelled. Appellee stated that he was still working to finalize the deal with the University.

In 2019, appellee filed a complaint in district court to evict appellant for failing to obtain insurance, pay taxes, and pay around $9, 000 in back rent. Appellee testified that he never promised appellant that appellant would receive any of the sale proceeds. The record is unclear as to whether appellant was ever evicted from the premises.2

At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court took the matter under advisement. About a week later, the court articulated its findings in a "Memorandum and Order" dated October 29, 2019. The Memorandum reads in relevant part: [T]he Plaintiff's case is problematic. First of all, assuming arguendo that there was an agreement/partnership forged between the parties, such that a benefit was conferred upon [appellee] by [appellant], what is the value of that benefit? [Appellant] offered oral testimony that out of his own pocket he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the properties. However, there was no testimony/evidence as to what if any value these improvements have had on the fair market value of the properties. In an unjust enrichment claim, the measure of the recovery is the gain to the defendant, not the loss by the plaintiff. Alternatives Unlimited, Inc. v. New Balt. City Bd. of School Comm'rs, 155 Md.App. 415, 455 (2004). There was not adduced any qualified appraiser's estimate of the value of the improvements paid for by [appellant] as they relate to the overall fair market value of the properties. In fact, there was no testimony in any form in that regard. Any valuation[] I would be asked to make would have been entirely speculative. Therefore, I cannot find for [appellant] on that basis alone.

Further, for [appellant] to succeed at all, I would have to find that there was some informal agreement between the parties that they were partners in some venture; i.e., that there was something more between them tha[n] a landlord/tenant relationship. However, [appellant's] proof in that regard is sadly lacking. There was not one piece of corroborative documentation offered by [appellant] to support his position. No texts, no emails, no correspondence, no checks, no receipts, no contracts, no income tax statements, no partnership profit/loss statements.

In contrast, [appellee] was able to offer as evidence a copy of a lease between the parties, check[] registers, and financial records corroborative of his version of events, i.e., that their relationship was nothing more than that of a landlord [appellee] and tenant [appellant].

On that basis, I cannot find that [appellant] has met his burden of proof in this matter, and consequently, I find for [appellee].

(emphasis added).

Appellant timely filed this appeal. We shall supply additional facts as necessary.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal from a bench trial, "the appellate court will review the case on both the law and the evidence." Md. Rule 8-131(c). We "will not set aside the judgment of the trial court on the evidence unless clearly erroneous, and will give due regard to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." Id. When we review for clear error, "'we must consider the...

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