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Access Management Group, L.P. v. Hanham

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 13, 2018

ACCESS MANAGEMENT GROUP, L.P.
v.
HANHAM et al.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          BETHEL, JUDGE.

         Access Management Group, L.P. appeals the denial of its motion for a directed verdict and entry of final judgment against it. Access Management argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict on the claims for negligence and breach of contract, that the verdict form submitted to the jury was erroneous, and that the trial court permitted a double recovery against it. We disagree and affirm.

         James and Mary Hanham filed suit against their neighbor, Marie Berthe-Narchet, her landscaper GreenMaster Landscaping Service, Inc., and Access Management regarding a landscaping project Narchet had performed on Narchet's property. Narchet had hired GreenMaster to build a retaining wall, plant trees, and assist with a drainage issue in her backyard. The Hanhams alleged that Narchet's landscaping project channeled a large amount of water onto their property and that trees planted by Narchet were obstructing their view of the golf course, which reduced the value of their home.

         Access Management was hired as the community management agent for the St. Marlo's neighborhood. As the community management agent, Access Management was responsible for managing the homeowner application process for landscaping modifications submitted to St. Marlo's architectural committee. To that end, Access Management collected information, reviewed it for compliance with the architectural standards manual, and forwarded it to St. Marlo's architectural committee for review and approval of the request.

         Narchet's application for architectural review was submitted to Access Management in July 2012. The evidence presented at trial showed that the application failed to comply with the architectural standards manual in several respects. The Hanhams contend that the project was approved by Access Management without actual approval from St. Marlo's architectural committee, and that Access Management did not respond to their complaints regarding Narchet's landscaping project for at least five months.

         At trial, Access Management moved for a directed verdict on all of the Hanhams' claims. The trial court granted directed verdicts to Access Management on the claims for trespass and nuisance but denied the request with respect to the claims for negligence, breach of contract, and invasion of privacy.[1]

         The jury awarded damages and the trial entered final judgment against the defendants totaling $96, 500, allocated as follows: (1) $5, 000 compensatory damages for nuisance and negligence associated with the water flow and (1) (a) $12, 000 in related attorney fees; (2) $7, 000 compensatory damages for negligence with respect to the view and (2) (a) $10, 000 in related attorney fees; and (3) $40, 000 compensatory damages for breach of contract and (3) (a) $22, 500 in related attorney fees. Access Management filed an objection to the final judgment, arguing that it provided for a double recovery to the plaintiffs because it awarded both contract and tort damages, and that the final judgment reflected an award for nuisance despite the trial court having entered a directed verdict on that claim. This appeal followed.

         1. Access Management argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict with respect to the claims for negligence and breach of contract. "Such motions should be granted only where there is no conflict in the evidence as to any material issue, and the evidence presented, together with all reasonable deductions therefrom, demands a verdict in favor of the movant." Preferred Risk Ins. Co. v. Boykin, 174 Ga.App. 269, 271 (2) (329 S.E.2d 900) (1985) (citations omitted). See also OCGA § 9-11-50 (a). "On appeal from the denial of a motion for a directed verdict . . . we construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and the standard of review is whether there is any evidence to support the jury's verdict." Park v. Nichols, 307 Ga.App. 841, 845 (2) (706 S.E.2d 698) (2011) (citation omitted).

         (a) Access Management argues that the trial court erred in denying Access Management's motion for directed verdict as to the Hanham's breach of contract claim. More specifically, Access Management argues that the Hanhams failed to present evidence that it breached the terms of the management agreement between it and St. Marlo's. We agree.

         In denying the motion for directed verdict on this claim, the trial court found that the Hanhams were third-party beneficiaries to the contract between Access Management and St. Marlo's. Evidence presented at trial established that Access Management was hired as the community management agent for St. Marlo's. Although the management agreement between Access Management and St. Marlo's provided that Access Management's duties were limited to the common areas, an Access Management employee testified that Access Management's responsibilities as community management agent included reviewing landscaping modification applications for compliance with the architectural standards manual.

         A breach of contract, however, only occurs where "a contracting party repudiates or renounces liability under the contract; fails to perform the engagement as specified in the contract; or does some act that renders performance impossible." Cordell & Cordell, P.C. v. Gao, 331 Ga.App. 522, 526 (4) (a) (771 S.E.2d 196) (2015) (citation omitted). Here, it appears the parties mutually agreed by course of conduct to extend the responsibilities of Access Management beyond the scope of the terms provided in the management agreement. It is the deficient performance (or arguably, the non-performance) of these non-contractual responsibilities that provides the only actionable basis for the Hanhams' claims against Access Management. Neither this, nor any, breach of contract claim can be founded upon responsibilities not specified in the contract. Thus, because the contract at issue fails to provide a basis for liability, the trial court should have granted Access Management's directed verdict on the breach of contract claim.

         (b) Access Management next argues that its motion for a directed verdict should have been granted with respect to the Hanhams' claim for negligence because they failed to establish that Access Management owed them a duty and because Access Management was simply following the directions of St. Marlo's architectural committee. We disagree.

         "The threshold issue in any cause of action for negligence is whether, and to what extent, the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care. Whether a duty exists upon which liability can be based is a question of law." DaimlerChrysler Motors Co., LLC v. Clemente, ...


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