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LaBonte v. New England Development R.I., LLC

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 20, 2014

Lawrence C. LaBonte (American Steel Coatings, LLC)
v.
New England Development R.I., LLC et al. [1]

Providence County. Superior Court. (PM 10-4650). Associate Justice Michael A. Silverstein.

For Plaintiff: Paul DeMarco, Esq.

For Defendant: Alden C. Harrington, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, and Robinson JJ.

OPINION

Page 538

Robinson, Justice.

American Steel Coatings, LLC (American Steel) appeals from a December 7, 2011 [2] order, in which a justice of the Providence County Superior Court voided as usurious a " Loan Agreement, Promissory Note, and Mortgage granted to American Steel * * * by New England Development RI, LLC [(N.E. Development)]" and that entity's owner, Lawrence C. LaBonte. American Steel contends on appeal that the hearing justice erred when he determined that the " commercial loan commitment fee" (as American Steel characterizes it) contained in the loan agreement between the parties was to be considered interest because it did not fall within the provisions of G.L. 1956 § 6-26-2(c)(1) (which details fees that are not considered to be interest). American Steel further contends that the hearing justice also erred when he concluded that the loan agreement was not rendered non-usurious by the presence of a usury " savings clause."

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the order of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel[3]

On August 10, 2010, Mr. LaBonte filed a petition in Providence County Superior Court seeking " the reorganization and/or the orderly liquidation and dissolution" of N.E. Development. In that petition, American Steel was listed as the " first lien holder on the [p]roperty located at One Main Street, Scituate, Rhode Island" (the Scituate property). Thereafter, on November 23, 2010, American Steel filed a " Motion to Approve Secured Claim, Authorize Credit Bid and Approve Release of Funds" [4] (motion to approve secured claim) in an attempt to recover the funds that it alleged were owed pursuant to the loan agreement between the parties, which was dated January 8, 2010.

In the motion to approve secured claim, American Steel alleged that N.E. Development had granted it a " first position mortgage"

Page 539

for the Scituate property in exchange for a loan with a principal amount of $325,000; American Steel contended that it was owed a total of $412,614.54 from N.E. Development ($403,952.04 of which it claimed was due pursuant to the loan agreement).[5] New England Development's permanent receiver, Peter J. Furness, and Mr. LaBonte filed objections, asserting that the loan agreement between American Steel and N.E. Development was void because the amount of interest to be charged violated Rhode Island's usury laws.[6] A hearing was conducted on June 23, 2011. We summarize below the salient aspects of what transpired at that hearing.

A

The Hearing Testimony

1. American Steel's Witnesses

i. The Testimony of John J. Vallone

John Vallone testified that he was the attorney who represented American Steel " in connection with [the] loan to [N.E.] Development; " he stated that he prepared the promissory note from N.E. Development to American Steel, as well as " a loan agreement between the parties," a guarantee from Mr. LaBonte, and a " mortgage deed to secure the promissory note." He testified that the purpose of the loan was to purchase property which he termed " the Hope Mill property" located in Scituate.

Attorney Vallone further testified that he was a party to " two or three" meetings between Mr. LaBonte on the one hand and Eric Greene (who, according to the " Proof of Claim" filed by American Steel, was " the managing member" of American Steel), and Joseph Garies (who Mr. Vallone stated was Mr. LaBonte's " advisor" ) on the other hand.[7] Mr. Vallone testified that it was his understanding that American Steel would provide " $275,000" as a " short term loan for 30 days," to enable Mr. LaBonte to purchase the Scituate property. Mr. Vallone added that the intent of the parties was effectuated by a loan in the amount of $325,000 with an interest rate of 16 percent per annum. According to Mr. Vallone's testimony, at the maturity date, N.E. Development would pay back $325,000 plus interest, which would include a $50,000 " commercial loan commitment fee," to be split between American Steel and Mr. Garies. Mr. Vallone testified that the $50,000 would be split--$30,000 being allocated to American Steel and $20,000 being allocated to Mr. Garies.[8] It was Mr. Vallone's testimony that the borrowers on the loan was both N.E. Development " [a]nd Mr. Labonte [sic] individually."

Mr. Vallone further noted that he included a " savings clause" in the promissory note to " alleviate [his] concerns about any potential usury for the note." The ...


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