Pan Handle Realty, LLC v. Olins
Practice Book §15-5(a) not only establishes the ordinary procedure for the trial of civil cases, including the right of a civil defendant to present a single oral argument between the opening and final closing arguments of an opponent; it also confirms the power of the court to depart from that procedure "for cause." Following negotiations, Robert Olins executed a one year lease agreement with Irwin Stillman representing Pan Handle Realty, LLC, for a luxury home in Westport giving Stillman a postdated check for the annual rent of $138,000. Pan Handle removed all furnishings as required by the agreement. Olins issued a stop payment on his check. His attorney relayed that Olins was unable to pursue interest in the property. Pan Handle relisted the property, expended $80,000 in refurnishing it, but was unable to release it during Olin's lease period. Pan Handle filed this breach of lease action against Olin. Following evidence in a trial to the court, and after reply briefs but before the scheduled date for closing arguments, the court issued its decision resolving the case for the plaintiff. Upon motions, the court heard oral argument on the merits of the case. It then reissued its decision finding a binding lease agreement which the defendant breached and rejecting the defendant's special defense that the plaintiff failed to mitigate damages. The court awarded the plaintiff compensatory damages of $146,000 plus interest and attorneys' fees. The defendant appealed raising several claims. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment. The court's action in issuing its decision without first hearing the parties' previously scheduled closing arguments appeared to have been an innocent mistake. The unintentional deviation from the ordinary order of proceedings was not "for cause," as might otherwise have been permitted by Practice Book §15-5(a). The error constituted an abuse of discretion but was found harmless. It did not deprive the defendant of his right to oral argument or to a fair decision by an unbiased decision maker. Given the curative measures, to which all acquiesced, it was clear that the final result of the case was not affected by the error and its occurrence did not entitle the defendant to a new trial as claimed. Additionally, the evidence supported the court's finding that the parties entered into a valid lease agreement.