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De Guzman v. Fiamalua

Cite as [MA CRISTINA DE GUZMAN, Plaintiff v. VAELUAGA FIAMALUA, Defendant.]

MA CRISTINA DE GUZMAN, Plaintiff

v.

 

VAELUAGA FIAMALUA, Defendant.

___________________________________

 

High Court of American Samoa

Trial Division

 

CA No. 23-12

 

June 7, 2012

 

 

[1] In a small claims dispute, a party can bring an action before the District Court and then appeal the judgment to the High Court within five days, or else the District Court’s judgment is final. A small claims action appealed to the Trial Division of the High Court results in a trial de novo, without any weight or reference given to the District Court trial below.

 

[2] If a plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence the elements of his claim, the court will not issue a judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Preponderance means more probable than not.

 

[3] In a civil action, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.

 

[4] On equal showings of evidence in a “he-said, she-said” dispute over an oral agreement, the court will rule in favor of the defendant.

 

 

Before KRUSE, Chief Justice, and FA’AMAUSILI, Associate Judge.

 

                                Counsel:                For Plaintiff, pro se

                                                                For Defendant, pro se

 

OPINION & ORDER

 

[1] This dispute was originally heard in the District Court under its simplified small claims procedure available under A.S.C.A. §§ 3.0308 and 43.0302; DCR 3. The District Court rendered judgment for the Plaintiff and consequently, the Defendant timely invoked her right to appeal under DCR 11 (by filing notice with this Court within 5 days of entry of the District Court’s judgment). Under A.S.C.A. § 3.0309, the procedure on appeal in small claims matters is that the action shall be tried de novo before the Trial Division of the High Court. This means that a party must relitigate the dispute “anew,” DCR 12, before this Court without any weight or reference to the District Court trial. The parties had a trial de novo before us on June 4, 2012.

 

DISCUSSION

 

[2, 3] We preface our discussion with some general principles of law. If a plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the [**2**] evidence the elements of his claim, the court will not issue a judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Preponderance means more probable than not. Lafaele v. Cont’l Ins. Co., 4 A.S.R.2d 131, 133 (Trial Div. 1987). Note, therefore, that ‘“when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.’” Id. at 134 (quoting Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 41 at 239 (5th ed. 1984).

 

Plaintiff Ma Cristina de Guzman (“Cristina”) bought a 2009 Tacoma truck sometime in 2008 or 2009. She took out a loan with ANZ Bank to pay for the $30,500 vehicle. Around 2010, with $15,500 still remaining on the loan, Cristina realized she could no longer afford to make her regular monthly loan payments. In contemplation of this problem, Cristina turned to her, at that time, friend and current defendant in this present action, Vaeluaga Fiamalua (“Vaeluaga”). Vaeluaga’s father, Mataio Fiamalua (“Mataio”), owned a 2003 or 2004 (testimony varies) Suzuki vehicle of unspecified model. Vaeluaga agreed to take over Cristina’s loan for the Tacoma, to gain title to the Tacoma, and to give Cristina in return: the Suzuki, $1,000 in cash, and $1,000 to be paid in $100 installments. In 2010, on the day of the trade at Vaeluaga’s (or Mataio’s) residence, Cristina inspected the Suzuki, noticed a dent on the vehicle but made the trade anyway, driving off with the Suzuki and leaving behind the Tacoma. At this point, Vaeluaga and Mataio assumed Cristina’s loan repayments. This whole 2010 agreement was done orally. Not [**3**] until September 23, 2011, did the ANZ Bank formally transfer the loan repayment burden to Mataio (at Cristina’s request via letter). Sometime thereafter, Mataio registered the Tacoma in his name; however, to date, the Suzuki has not formally been transferred over to Cristina (the Suzuki’s title still lists Mataio as its owner). Apparently, Mataio’s presence is required to make a formal transfer of the Suzuki’s title and he has not made himself available for such transfer. Regardless, as of this date, Cristina acknowledges that Vaeluaga and Mataio made good on the $1,000 meant to be paid by installment, apparently satisfying the agreement.

 

We find that Cristina subsequently became unsatisfied with the trade. As to when, however, we do not know. Regardless, over the course of time, following an additional outlay of $600 for new tires and a replacement battery, Cristina started to have second thoughts about the equities of the deal; she figured that the worth of the Suzuki and $2,000 was unfair recompense for a halfway-paid-for 2009 Toyota Tacoma. Cristina approached Vaeluaga sometime in November of 2011 and demanded an additional $1,000-2,000, to which Cristina testified, Vaeluaga orally agreed to pay $1,500 in $30 installments. At trial, Cristina provided a written agreement, dated November 7, 2011, that Vaeluaga allegedly refused to (and did not) sign, and three checks from Vaeluaga to Cristina totaling $120 (an amount seemingly akin to the terms of the November agreement Vaeluaga did not sign). The [**4**] check and deposit slips are dated December 2011 through January 2012. In turn, Vaeluaga testified that the check and deposit slips relate to the $1,000 installment payments Vaeluaga and Mataio were paying pursuant to the original agreement. Moreover, Vaeluaga testified that she refused to sign the tendered November written agreement because she did not feel she was bound to pay anything more than that contemplated in the original agreement.

 

Before this Court, Cristina had a burden to provide all evidence proving the existence of a modified agreement where Vaeluaga would pay more than the $2,000.00 originally agreed to.[1]

 

Cristina’s showing to this effect was weak. Besides the (unsigned) November agreement and the check and deposit slips we mentioned above, Cristina’s called one witness, her sponsor, who testified that she had accompanied Cristina to the November 2011 encounter with Vaeluaga. Rather than confirming Cristina’s claim that Vaeluaga had agreed to pay an additional $1,500, as the Court was led to believe when the sponsor was called to testify, the sponsor’s account of events was actually corroborative of Vaeluaga’s version of the facts: namely, that the latter did not agree to pay anything more beyond the $2,000 already paid to [**5**] Cristina.

 

[4] On the strength of the evidence received, we cannot find that Vaeluaga had agreed to pay Cristina any additional monies beyond the $2,000 originally agreed to at the time of the trade. Accordingly, the facts as found cannot sustain a conclusion of any modification to the original, underlying agreement. That agreement was for the assumption of a loan and the trade of a Tacoma in exchange for a Suzuki and $2,000. Cristina could provide no writing or witnesses confirming that the Suzuki was guaranteed to look or operate in a certain matter, nor could she provide that Vaeluaga was to provide more monies than the $2,000 initially agreed to. Indeed, Vaeluaga asserts that the underlying agreement was all that was contemplated. Cristina had her day in court to provide all evidence asserting her claim; she will not have another opportunity. On equal showings of evidence in this “he-said, she-said” dispute over an oral agreement, we must rule in favor of the defendant. It is the plaintiff’s burden to prove the validity of her claim, Cristina’s burden. Here, Cristina has failed to so provide.

 

ORDER

 

Consequently, we render judgment in favor of Vaeluaga. Having said as much, we take it upon ourselves to add the following Rider:

                Although Mataio appeared at trial and sat with his daughter Vaeluaga, we note that he was never formally made a party to these proceedings either in this Court nor before the [**6**] District Court below (that is, Cristina never sued Mataio, only Vaeluaga). Consequently, we have no jurisdiction to order Mataio to do anything, such as require him to transfer the ownership papers of the Suzuki to Cristina’s name. Regardless, we strongly urge Mataio to do so, to register (or sign over) title to the Suzuki in Cristina’s name at the Office of Motor Vehicles. Otherwise we certainly have to be looking at another lawsuit.

 

It is so ordered.



[1] This argument is Cristina’s only theory of relief. Without delving into the pith of contracts law, suffice it to note here that the courts are neither authorized nor empowered to reform contracts or agreements entered into between competent parties simply because the bargain struck proves, in hindsight, to be more advantageous to one side as opposed to the other(s). If anything, one-sided agreements are actually enforced by the courts, absent some sort of fraud.

[1] In a small claims dispute, a party can bring an action before the District Court and then appeal the judgment to the High Court within five days, or else the District Court’s judgment is final. A small claims action appealed to the Trial Division of the High Court results in a trial de novo, without any weight or reference given to the District Court trial below.

 

[2] If a plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence the elements of his claim, the court will not issue a judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Preponderance means more probable than not.

 

[3] In a civil action, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.

 

[4] On equal showings of evidence in a “he-said, she-said” dispute over an oral agreement, the court will rule in favor of the defendant.