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Pullar v. Cappelli

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

November 17, 2016

Anthony Pullar
Louis Cappelli

         Newport County NC 11-238 Superior Court, Walter R. Stone Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Maurice Cusick, Esq.

          For Defendant: Eric B. DiMario, Esq. Thomas Plunkett, Esq.

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


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Justice.

         This case came before the Supreme Court on October 5, 2016, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiff, Anthony Pullar (plaintiff), appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court dismissing his complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction over the defendant, Louis Cappelli (defendant). After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the memoranda submitted by the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and thus, the appeal may be decided at this time. For the reasons set forth herein, the judgment of the Superior Court is vacated.

         Facts and Travel

         The allegations set forth in the complaint and the materials disclosed in discovery, all of which we are bound to accept as true, are as follows: Plaintiff is a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. At the time of the contract in dispute, plaintiff was a resident of Newport, Rhode Island. The defendant is a resident of New York. In August of 2006, plaintiff and defendant met in New York and orally negotiated a contract of employment for plaintiff to serve as the Captain of defendant's sailboat, the S/Y Atlanta (the Atlanta). The defendant suggested that the contract be made for three years and that it be terminable only for good cause. The defendant also offered that, were plaintiff to serve for the entire three-year contract term, he would be entitled to a bonus of $150, 000, amounting to one year's salary. The plaintiff accepted the terms of the contract and set sail in September of 2006.

         The plaintiff encountered rough seas about one month before the end of the employment contract when, on August 1, 2009, plaintiff was terminated without cause, explanation, or payment of the $150, 000 bonus. In a subsequent conversation, defendant agreed that the outstanding balance of $150, 000 would be paid to plaintiff at the rate of $10, 000 per month. The defendant reneged on this promise as well.

         On April 22, 2011, plaintiff filed suit in the Superior Court of Newport County, Rhode Island, alleging breach of contract and seeking to recover the money owed to him. The defendant filed an answer in which he averred that Rhode Island did not have personal jurisdiction over him. However, for more than three years, the case proceeded in the Superior Court, as the parties engaged in discovery and court-annexed arbitration. The defendant propounded interrogatories of plaintiff, took plaintiff's deposition, and filed motions to compel the production of documents. On December 4, 2013, the case advanced to court-annexed arbitration with defendant's full participation, concluding with an arbitration award for plaintiff. The defendant rejected the arbitration award, and plaintiff moved to assign the case to trial. On November 14, 2014, almost a year after the arbitration, defendant filed a motion requesting that the matter be assigned to the continuous jury trial calendar. A hearing was held on the motion, and the case was set for trial.

         On December 9, 2014, after the case was set for trial, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment for lack of in personam jurisdiction, arguing that he did not have sufficient minimum contacts with Rhode Island to warrant this state's exercise of personal jurisdiction over him. At a Superior Court proceeding held on the motion, defendant claimed that he did not own the Atlanta and did not personally employ plaintiff. Rather, defendant averred that a corporation named Helios Yachting Services Ltd. (Helios) owned the Atlanta and that plaintiff was hired, paid, and employed by Helios. The defendant conceded that he was an officer of Helios, but insisted that the proper party to plaintiff's lawsuit was the corporate entity. The defendant acknowledged that Helios may have availed itself of the privilege of conducting business in Rhode Island, but that he had no contact with this state in his personal capacity. The plaintiff responded that Rhode Island's exercise of personal jurisdiction over defendant was proper, and added that defendant had waived the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction by participating in the litigation and failing to raise the jurisdictional defense for almost four years.

         The trial justice determined that defendant had not waived the defense because he had asserted it in his answer. Additionally, the trial justice noted that, although Helios had contact with this state, that contact could not be imputed to defendant because the complaint was devoid of a claim or facts alleging alter-ego liability. The trial justice concluded that Rhode Island could not exercise personal jurisdiction over defendant. Accordingly, the trial justice sua sponte converted defendant's summary judgment motion into a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(2) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure and dismissed plaintiff's complaint.

         Standard of Review

         "In reviewing a lower court's dismissal of an action for failure to make a prima facie showing of personal jurisdiction, we draw the facts from the pleadings and the parties' supplementary filings, taking facts affirmatively alleged by plaintiff as true and viewing disputed facts in the light most advantageous to plaintiff." Cerberus Partners, L.P. v. Gadsby & Hannah, LLP, 836 A.2d 1113, 1117 (R.I. 2003) (citing Sawtelle v. Farrell, 70 F.3d 1381, 1385 (1st Cir. ...

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