Court reverses judgment for buyer in soured land-sale deal

A Marion Superior judge clearly erred in excluding a contract as evidence, then wrongly ruled for the defendant in a lawsuit arising from a home sale agreement she backed out of, the Indiana Court of Appeals determined Friday.

The appellate panel reversed and remanded Brian Dunlap and Lauren Dunlap v. Shirlena Lange, 18A-PL-1212, holding that Marion Superior Judge Thomas Carroll violated Trial Rule 9.2(B) when he ruled a purchase agreement between the parties would not be admitted as evidence in a breach-of-contract case, even though the contract had been attached to the Dunlaps’ complaint as Exhibit A.

Lange signed an agreement on March 7, 2016, to buy a home in Lawrence from the Dunlaps for $230,000. She put down $1,500 as an earnest money deposit, and the agreement called for closing by May 5, 2016. Lange asked to be released from the contract on April 13.

The Dunlaps filed a breach-of-contract suit against Lange, seeking damages. They claimed, among other things, that they ended up selling the house months later to another buyer for less money. Lange counterclaimed for return of her $1,500 earnest money under the contract, and Carroll ruled in her favor after she moved for judgment on the evidence.

But that ruling was only the result of an underlying error, which occurred when Carroll excluded the purchase agreement as evidence as a sanction for violating his pretrial order for the parties to exchange all exhibits a week before trial.

“The basis for the trial court’s judgment, i.e., that the Dunlaps could not prove their case without the Purchase Agreement being in evidence, relies on the trial court’s earlier decision to exclude the Purchase Agreement from evidence. We conclude that this first decision, however, was clearly erroneous,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the panel. The contract was deemed admissible under Rule 9.2(B) when it was attached to the complaint.

“The Dunlaps offer no other reason why the Purchase Agreement might not be admissible, and we can think of none. While we do not condone noncompliance with pretrial orders, we conclude that the trial court’s stated reason for excluding the Purchase Agreement was not sufficient to avoid operation of Trial Rule 9.2(B),” Bradford wrote. “Because the exclusion of the Purchase Agreement was the sole basis for the entry of judgment on the evidence in favor of Lange, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

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