Case Caption: Janet V. Julien v. Victor Sylvester Matthew Case Number: SCT-CIV-2022-0023Date: 03/26/2024Author: Swan, Ive Arlington Citation: 2024 VI 15Summary: In an appeal from the Superior Court Appellate Division’s affirmation of a Magistrate Division judgment declaring that appellant owes appellee $1,706 as the balance for work completed in remodeling her kitchen, the judgment is affirmed. Applying established precedent, and the policy favoring lenity in pro se matters, this Court exercises discretion to consider this appeal, notwithstanding a deficient notice of appeal. To establish breach of contract a plaintiff must prove that a contract existed, that there was a duty created by that contract, that such duty was breached, and that he suffered damages as a result, and when a party breaches a contract, the non-breaching party is entitled to damages. However, if both parties breach the contract, the court may preclude recovery for either party or offset the recovery of one party with the recovery of the other party. Here the defendant’s email, which contained the scope of the work to be performed as well as the contract price, represented assent or acceptance of plaintiff’s terms.  However, Matthew made numerous mistakes that constituted a material breach of the contract because they involved work essential to the agreement.  At that time, Julien could have terminated the contract or proceeded with the contract and sought damages, but she failed to pursue either option.  She ultimately terminated the contract but refused to pay the balance of the contract price despite substantial job performance, materially breaching the contract. Accordingly, because both parties breached the contract, the Magistrate Division did not err when it apportioned liability between Julien and Matthew. Similarly, the Appellate Division also did not err when it affirmed the Magistrate Division’s March 10, 2020 amended judgment. Because plaintiff provided evidence in the form of testimony before Julien attempted to refute it, the Magistrate Division did not impermissibly shift the burden of proof. The purpose of the Small Claims Division is to do substantial justice, which the court did when it first questioned Matthew to compel production of sufficient evidence to substantiate his claim, before it turned to Julien to elicit her rebut to contentions. Therefore, the court did not impermissibly shift the burden of proof. Under VI Small Claims Rule 4(b)(5), "[t]he court shall conduct the trial in such manner as to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law, and shall not be bound by the statutes or rules governing practice, procedure, pleadings, or evidence, except those statutes and rules relating to privileged communications and the swearing of parties and witnesses." The right to call witnesses is an inherent aspect of our system of justice and the best course in this matter was for the Magistrate to allow Julien’s witnesses to testify before concluding their testimony was inapplicable or cumulative. The refusal to hear testimony of Julien’s witnesses was an error, but there is no need to remand this matter merely on the issue of the ability of litigants to call witnesses. Functioning as fact finder, the magistrate was in the best position to observe the parties and assess their credibility, and thoroughly questioned both parties about their contentions. Ultimately, the magistrate believed Matthew, ruled in his favor on the issue of inferior electrical work, and apportioned liability accordingly. Therefore, the Appellate Division’s affirmation of the Magistrate Division’s March 10, 2020 amended judgment finding no error in the offset of Julien’s damages from Matthew’s damages is affirmed – because it is recognized that the goal of the Superior Court Small Claims Division is to do substantial justice, which the court accomplished here.Attachment: Open Document or Opinion