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Gandhi v. Sonal Furniture & Custom Draperies, LLC

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

July 15, 2015

RAJENDRA T. GANDHI, M.D. and VIBHA R. GANDHI, Plaintiffs-Appellees
v.
SONAL FURNITURE AND CUSTOM DRAPERIES, L.L.C., SHYAM GARG, and LYNN GUNTER, Defendants-Appellants

          Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana. Trial Court No. 568891. Honorable Scott J. Crichton, Judge.

         MARK D. PLAISANCE, RICK FAYARD, Counsel for Appellant.

         JONES & ODOM, L.L.P., By: John S. Odom, Jr., J. Marshall Jones, Jr., Counsel for Appellees.

         Before CARAWAY, DREW and LOLLEY, JJ.

          OPINION

         [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 1] CARAWAY, J.

         In this redhibition and unfair trade practices suit against the seller of designer furniture, the trial court granted judgment in favor of the furniture buyer against both the seller furniture company and its representative. Rescission, the return of price, nonpecuniary damages and attorney fees were awarded. Violations of both redhibition and unfair trade practices law were recognized. The seller appeals this ruling and its representative also contests the judgments assessment of personal liability against him. We amend the judgment and as amended, affirm.

         Facts

         In late 2012, Dr. Rajendra Gandhi and his wife, Vibha (" the Gandhis" ), began investigating the idea of redecorating their home with custom designer furniture and draperies. In pursuit of this plan, Dr. Gandhi, a devout Hindu, visited the Sonal Furniture and Custom Draperies, L.L.C. (" Sonal" ) website. The company is located in Georgia. Dr. Gandhi became interested in the business which represented itself to be culturally and religiously like-minded with him and advertised the finest furniture and services.[1]

         Impressed by what he saw on the website, Dr. Gandhi placed a phone call to Shyam Garg, a " partner" and employee of Sonal. The two arranged an appointment to meet, and Garg first visited the Gandhis' home on December 24, 2012. During this visit, Garg took photographs of the home [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 2] and indicated to the Gandhis that his interior designer, Lynn Gunter, was the best designer to be found.

         During the first week of January 2013, the Gandhis and their son, Viraj, traveled to visit Sonal's Global Mall showroom. The Gandhis and Garg walked through the showroom for 45 minutes before traveling to Garg's show house in Macon Georgia, some 70 minutes away. Dr. Gandhi observed that the furniture in the showrooms appeared to be of very high quality and stressed to Garg his expectations that he receive high quality furniture in his home. Garg assured Dr. Gandhi that he would receive nothing but the best and guaranteed that everything would be delivered " on approval" and could be returned if the client did not want it.

         The parties agreed that Garg and Gunter would return to the Gandhis' home at a later date. No written contract was ever entered into between the parties who corresponded by email and telephone. On January 10, 2013, upon Garg's return to Shreveport with Gunter to take measurements and solicit Dr. Gandhi's business, Dr. Gandhi gave Garg a $20,000 deposit.

         During the second week of February, Dr. Gandhi was in India visiting his ill father when he received a telephone call from Garg. Garg indicated that he and Gunter had " laid out furniture" and wanted to show it to the Gandhis. No date was set, but on February 18, 2013, Garg, Gunter and a four-person team arrived at the Gandhis' home with three to four trucks, only two days after Dr. Gandhi returned from India. Dr. Gandhi was at work when he received a frantic call from his wife regarding the situation. He was unable to leave his practice until noon and could not supervise the work going on in his home.

         [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 3] Garg's entourage worked in the Gandhis' home for five days. Dr. Gandhi trusted Garg to do his job and provide the best furniture. When Mrs. Gandhi pointed out scratches, Garg assured the couple that he would fix any problems or remove any unwanted items when he returned on March 31, 2012. When the work was completed, in the late evening hours of February 23, 2012, Garg presented the Gandhis with an invoice for a total amount of $210,000. The February 23rd invoice showed the individual cost of each item installed in the office, foyer, dining room, family room, grand room, breakfast room, master bedroom, temple room and landing, in addition to a bed for the Gandhis' daughter and a grandfather clock and draperies. Dr. Gandhi had been unable to completely inspect the work and denied ever approving the work and furniture. Six items were returned at that time, however.

         The following morning, Garg showed up at the house to discuss payment. Dr. Gandhi tendered a check for $150,000 (dated February 23, 2013 and deposited on February 27) from his personal account and a March 15, 2012 postdated second check from his business account in the amount of $40,000. In turn, Garg claimed to have presented the February 23rd several page final invoice to the Gandhis. Garg claimed that he provided the Gandhis with a final invoice containing handwritten notes indicating the parties' agreement to 100% satisfaction after 7 days' inspection with no questions or returns upon final payment on February 23, 2013. The Gandhis acknowledged receipt of an invoice, but denied ever seeing the handwritten [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 4] notes or agreeing that final payment precluded their return of unfavorable items.[2]

         In the two weeks that followed, the Gandhis began to notice issues with the goods. Upon closer inspection, they found that " every piece was damaged," and of a much lesser quality than what they had seen in the showroom and expected to receive. Mrs. Ghandi called Garg on March 11 reporting that one of the breakfast chairs was broken. She called again on March 15 with complaints about a broken leg on an Italian console and black nails in the woodwork. During school break, Viraj also contacted Garg about the family's dissatisfaction with the work and goods. After these events, Dr. Gandhi placed a stop payment on the $40,000 check on March 18, 2013. He spoke with Garg and informed him of the situation.

         By emails of March 18 and 19, 2013, Garg acknowledged the Gandhis' complaints and attempted to prevent Dr. Gandhi from stopping payment on the check by warranting the " furniture for 25 years," and explaining away any complaints. Garg also continued to promise his removal of anything unsatisfactory to the Gandhis.

         On March 21, 2013, Garg emailed Dr. Gandhi again, requesting that he be allowed to come to the house on March 31, 2013, " to fix and do whatever is necessary to make looks things good to your satisfaction." However, on March 28, 2013, Dr. Gandhi sent an email to Garg instructing [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 5] him to pick up everything delivered and installed in the house and requesting a full refund by April 7, 2012.

         When Garg did not respond, Dr. Gandhi sent him a second email on March 31. Garg responded by email informing Dr. Gandhi that he had filed a criminal complaint against him and his wife for stopping payment on the $40,000 check and defrauding the IRS by using corporate funds to pay for home furniture. Garg also claimed that Dr. Gandhi failed to pay for services rendered. Garg informed Dr. Gandhi that the case was going before a grand jury and he would be arrested. He threatened to report Dr. Gandhi to the IRS and suggested that he would lose his medical license. Garg informed Dr. Gandhi that a wire transfer of $42,500 would be sufficient for him to withdraw the criminal complaint.

         Garg claimed that as he had promised, he had returned to Shreveport on March 30 and 31, 2012, and unsuccessfully made several attempts to contact the Gandhis. When he failed to make contact with the Gandhis, however, Garg filed the criminal complaint. No further communication between the parties occurred.

         Dr. and Mrs. Gandhi instituted suit against Sonal, Garg and Gunter on June 3, 2013, initially seeking restitution, reasonable damages and sums for violation of the Louisiana Racketeering Act. In October of 2013, the Gandhis' amended their suit to add claims in redhibition and violations of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act (LUTPA).

         A bench trial occurred on February 4 and 5, 2014. Garg, the Gandhis, Viraj and two experts testified.

         [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 6] Specifically, plaintiffs' expert Kirk Thomas, an expert in interior design, testified that he had inspected the furniture and accessories at issue in April of 2013 and based his opinion upon his personal observations. Upon his inspection, Thomas " began to question what kind of materials the pieces were constructed of," and ultimately concluded that the furnishings were " not actually intended for functional use, almost like movie set furniture," and " would be very difficult to repair," because they were " a product of how they were originally constructed." In Thomas's opinion, the furniture was not functional. He testified that much of the actual quality of the furniture was misrepresented and pointed to items that had been previously repaired. Thomas also testified to " many inconsistencies in how the draperies were fabricated and installed," and ultimately described the workmanship as " shoddy."

         The plaintiffs submitted into evidence 157 photographs of the furniture and draperies placed in the home by Sonal. Defendants also introduced 42 photographs into evidence showing the furniture delivered and work done by the defendants on the Gandhi home.

         In written reasons for judgment on the issue of liability on March 5, 2014, the trial court concluded that the Gandhis had proven liability under redhibition and LUTPA. Specifically, the court determined that Garg's action amounted to a " bait and switch" tactic, misrepresented the quality of the furniture, preyed upon the cultural and religious heritage of the Gandhis and included outrageous threats, coercion and extortive behavior. The court also rejected Garg's testimony and determined that he had fraudulently [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 7] submitted the February 23 final invoice to the court. The liability assessment was against both Sonal and Garg.[3]

         In subsequent written reasons for judgment on March 20, 2014, the court ruled that the Gandhis had proven their entitlement to nonpecuniary damages under redhibition and LUTPA. With regard to redhibition damages, the court determined that the " customized furnishing of [the Gandhis'] unique home consistent with their Indian culture and inclusive of a temple for worship, was made for the gratification of a nonpecuniary interest," and that Garg should have known that his failure to perform would cause extreme mental anguish, humiliation, and inconvenience. The trial court fixed the nonpecuniary award pertaining to this ruling at $50,000.

         Relating to LUTPA damages, the court concluded that the " extortive conduct of Garg was outrageous and abhorrent and the multiple violations of the unfair trade practices act were shocking." The court therefore awarded $50,000 as a nonpecuniary award for the mental anguish associated with the LUTPA violation.

         A written judgment memorializing these rulings was entered on April 25, 2014, in favor of the Gandhis against Sonal and Garg in his individual capacity, awarding the Gandhis pecuniary damages of $170,000 (for refund of price paid) and nullification of the $40,000 obligation on the stop payment check. Additionally the court entered judgment for $100,000 in nonpecuniary damages, awarded attorney fees in the amount of $69,163.75, costs of $3,171.10 and expert witness fees of $975.

         [49,959 La.App. 2 Cir. 8] Defendants moved for a new trial contesting the admissibility of the photographic evidence and on the grounds that the law and evidence failed to support recovery in either redhibition or LUTPA. When the ...


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