By Rolf Garcia-Gallont

Today, the Fourth Circuit released an unpublished opinion in the case of RFT Management Company LLC v. John Powell.

Factual Background

RFT Management Company, LLC, (“RFT”) purchased two lots from a real estate developer in a residential subdivision, hoping that the lots’ value would appreciate upon completion of the subdivision’s development. Due to the economic downturn, the developer went out of business and the lots’ value plummeted. With the real estate developer no longer in business, RFT filed suit against the appraiser, John Powell, and the appraisal company, Professional Appraisal Service, Incorporated (collectively with Powell, “PAS”), as well as the lawyer, Welborn Adams, and his law firm, Tinsley & Adams LLP (collectively with Adams, “T&A”), that had facilitated the purchase of the lots.

A jury found in favor of Defendants on all claims that remained following dismissal of a number of claims during the pretrial stage. RFT raised five issues on appeal. The Fourth Circuit affirmed on four issues, and affirmed in part and reversed in part on the last, remanding to the district court.

RFT’s State Claims Against T&A Were Properly Dismissed on the Basis of Res Judicata

On appeal, RFT asserted that the district court had erred by dismissing its South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act (“UTPA”), South Carolina Uniform Securities Act (“SCUSA”), and civil conspiracy claims against T&A based on res judicata. Applying South Carolina law, the Court upheld the district court’s order dismissing the claims because a state trial court had already issued a judgment, which was subsequently affirmed by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

RFT Failed to State Any Federal Claim Against PAS or T&A

The district court dismissed RFT’s claims under § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b-5 (together, “federal securities claim”) and the Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act (“ILSFDA”).

The district court determined that aider and abettor liability is not available for private actions under ILSFDA or the federal securities law at issue. Because RFT’s complaint alleged only that PAS and T&A were liable for aiding and abetting violations of ILSFDA and the federal securities law, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of RFT’s claims for failure to state a claim.

Denial of Motion for Leave to Amend Was Not Abuse of Discretion

RFT argued that the district court had erred when it denied RFT’s motion for leave to amend its complaint in order to cure deficiencies identified by the district court. Although the Fourth Circuit recognized the general rule that leave to amend a complaint should be freely given, the Court concluded that RFT did not demonstrate the diligence required by Rule 16(b) and under Nourison Rug Co. v. Parvizian, when leave to amend is sought after the deadlines provided by a scheduling order have passed.

RFT Was Not Entitled to Judgment as a Matter of Law on Its UTPA Claim Against PAS

The denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law will be affirmed unless the jury lacked a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for its verdict. RFT argued that the district court erred in not granting its motion on its UTPA claim against PAS because it presented undisputed evidence proving all three elements of UTPA.

To recover in an action under South Carolina’s UTPA, the plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant engaged in an unfair or deceptive act in the conduct of trade or commerce; (2) the unfair or deceptive act affected public interest; and (3) the plaintiff suffered monetary or property loss as a result of the defendant’s unfair or deceptive act. To prove the third element–causation–the plaintiff must show that the loss was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s act, and was in fact caused by that act.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to PAS, the Fourth Circuit concluded that PAS presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that PAS’s appraisals of the two lots, even if unfair or deceptive, did not cause RFT’s loss. Thus, because a reasonable jury could have found against RFT on the proximate cause element of UTPA, the district court’s denial of RFT’s Rule 50(b) motion was affirmed.

The District Court’s Jury Instructions Were Erroneous, and RFT Was Entitled to a New Trial on Its UTPA Claims Against PAS

Finally, RFT argued that it should have been granted a new trial on its UTPA and professional negligence claims against PAS, citing asserted errors in the district court’s evidentiary rulings and jury instructions. While the Fourth Circuit found no error in the evidentiary rulings, it agreed with RFT regarding the jury instructions.

A jury verdict will only be set aside due to erroneous instructions if the instructions misled or confused the jury as to the legal principles it should apply, and if the erroneous instruction seriously prejudiced the challenging party’s case. A trial court’s jury instructions are reviewed for abuse of discretion.

RFT argued that the district court erred by instructing the jury that conduct affecting only the parties involved cannot satisfy UTPA’s public interest requirement. The Fourth Circuit agreed, finding that under South Carolina law, a plaintiff satisfies the public interest element of UTPA by proving that the conduct at issue had the potential for repetition, and that no further proof is required. The Fourth Circuit held that the court’s instruction erroneously placed an additional requirement of proof on RFT, and that this error constituted an abuse of discretion and seriously prejudiced RFT’s case. Consequently, the court’s order denying RFT’s motion for a new trial on the UTPA claim constituted an abuse of discretion.

The Fourth Circuit Remanded to the District Court for a New Trial on RFT’s UTPA Claim