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GR Restaurants, LLC v. Suzanne Savoy Santillo, LLC

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

June 12, 2019

GR RESTAURANTS, LLC
v.
SUZANNE SAVOY SANTILLO, LLC, AND SUZANNE SAVOY SANTILLO

          APPEAL FROM THE FIFTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF LAFAYETTE, NO. C-20180458 HONORABLE LAURIE A. HULIN, DISTRICT JUDGE.

          James P. Lambert COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: Suzanne Savoy Santillo, LLC and Suzanne Savoy Santillo

          Scott M. Richard Robert D. Felder Davidson, Meaux, Sonnier, McElligott, Fontenot, Gideon & Edwards, L.L.P. COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: GR Restaurants, LLC

          Alan W. Stewart Gibson Law Partners, LLC COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES: Scott L. Sternberg and Sternberg, Nacarri & White, LLC

          Court composed of Sylvia R. Cooks, Billy Howard Ezell, and Phyllis M. Keaty, Judges.

          SYLVIA R. COOKS JUDGE.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 15, 2018, GR Restaurants, LLC (hereafter GRR) filed suit against Suzanne Savoy Santillo, LLC and Suzanne Savoy Santillo (hereafter collectively referred to as "Santillo") for detrimental reliance, alleging that Santillo promised to exchange her ownership in the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette for an interest in a new, re-formed entity that owned both Blue Dog Cafes in Lafayette and Lake Charles, but then refused to abide by this agreement. Prior to the above suit, Santillo had filed suit against Stephen Santillo, Jacques Rodrigue and Andre Rodrigue, the owners and members of Blue Collar Enterprises, which owns the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette, alleging breaches of fiduciary duties and misappropriation of intellectual property.

         Santillo answered the suit filed by GRR and filed an exception of no cause of action, contending GRR could not have a viable detrimental reliance claim in the absence of a signed, written settlement agreement. Santillo also filed reconventional and third-party demands alleging the filing of the detrimental reliance lawsuit by GRR was an abuse of process and a violation of Louisiana's Unfair Trade Practices Act (LUPTA), La.R.S. 51:1401, et seq. GRR was made defendant in reconvention. Jacques Rodrigue, Scott L. Sternberg, and Sternberg, Nacarri & White, LLC (hereafter "Sternberg," which represented Rodrigue in the litigation) were made third-party defendants. After the third-party demand was filed, Sternberg withdrew from representing Rodrigue and another attorney was hired.

         Sternberg filed an exception of no cause of action with regard to the third-party demand. GRR filed an exception of no cause of action with regard to the reconventional demand. Rodrigue did not file any exception.

         Those exceptions, including Santillo's earlier filed exception of no cause of action, were heard on June 25, 2018. The trial court denied Santillo's exception of no cause of action as to GRR's detrimental reliance claim. The trial court granted both GRR's exception of no cause of action with regard to the reconventional demand and Sternberg's exception of no cause of action to the third-party demand.

         A judgment was signed on July 3, 2018, granting the exceptions of no cause of action filed by GRR and Sternberg. Santillo filed a petition for appeal as to this judgment. The trial court, on its own motion, issued a rule to Santillo to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed as having been taken from a partial judgment that had not been designated as immediately appealable, with respect to the dismissal of Santillo's reconventional demand, and from being taken from a judgment that lacked proper decretal language with respect to the dismissal of Santillo's third-party claims. On December 6, 2018, this court issued an opinion recalling the rule, in part, with respect to the dismissal of Santillo's reconventional demand against GRR, finding that portion of the judgment fell under La.Code Civ.P. art. 1915(A) and did not require a designation of finality. Thus, the appeal was suspended, and the matter remanded to the trial court with instructions to sign a judgment containing proper decretal language specifying that Santillo's third-party demands were dismissed only as to Sternberg, as the other third-party defendant did not file an exception. GR Rest., LLC v. Suzanne Savoy Santillo, LLC, 18-702 (La.App. 3 Cir. 12/6/18) (unpublished opinion). The trial court complied with our order to sign a judgment with proper decretal language and the appeal is now before this court again for a ruling on the merits of Santillo's appeal.

         A judgment was also signed on July 6, 2018, denying the exception of no cause of action filed by Santillo with respect to the petition for detrimental reliance filed by GRR. Santillo timely filed a writ application to this court, docket number 18-637, seeking a review of the denial of the no cause of action exception. GRR filed an opposition to the writ application. The disposition of the writ application was held in abeyance until the procedural issues in the appeal of the July 3, 2018 judgment was resolved.

         After the issuance of the rule in docket number 18-702, Santillo filed an ex parte motion to enroll Stephen Carleton as co-counsel of record. That order was signed by this court on October 1, 2018. GRR and Sternberg filed separate motions to disqualify Carleton, contending he was a fact witness and could not act as counsel of record pursuant to La.Rules Prof.Conduct, Rule 3.7(a), which provides an attorney cannot be both an advocate and a necessary witness at trial unless the testimony is related to an uncontested issue, is related to the nature and value of legal services rendered in the case, or the disqualification would be a substantial hardship to the client.

         Carleton represented Santillo in the lawsuit filed against Stephen Santillo, Jacques Rodrigue and Andre Rodrigue. Carleton attested he was counsel of record for Santillo in that action and stated the allegations contained in the answer. In the opposition to the motion to disqualify, Santillo asserted Carleton was enrolled as co-counsel solely for the purposes of the appeal, as her main counsel was on extended vacation at the time (October of 2018). Santillo maintained Carleton would not serve as counsel at trial should her appeal be successful. However, Santillo did not address the fact that only Santillo's reconventional demands and third-party demands had been dismissed. Santillo's exception of no cause of action was denied, and the main demand brought by GRR is to proceed to trial.

         On December 28, 2018, this court granted the writ application filed by Santillo for the limited purpose of ordering the consolidation of the writ application, docket number 18-637, with the appeal, docket number 18-702. We held as follows:

WRIT GRANTED. In the above captioned writ application, Relators, Suzanne Savoy Santillo, LLC and Suzanne Savoy Santillo, seek review of the trial court's July 6, 2018 judgment, which denied Relators' exception of no cause of action. Relators have also filed an appeal from the trial court's July 3, 2018 judgment (which is identical to the July 6, 2018 judgment), granting the exception of no cause of action filed by GR Restaurants, LLC, with respect to Relators' reconventional demand and from the December 7, 2018 judgment granting the exceptions of no cause of action filed on behalf of Scott L. Sternberg and Sternberg, Naccari & White, LLC, with respect to Relators' third-party demand. This court has noted that "although an interlocutory judgment is generally not appealable, an interlocutory judgment is subject to review on appeal when an appealable judgment has been rendered." Moran v. Columb Foundation, Inc., 17-915, pp. 4-5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 1/31/18) (unreported opinion). In the interests of judicial economy and justice, this court grants this writ application for the limited purpose of ordering the consolidation of the writ application with the appeal lodged in this court under docket number 18-702.

         Before this court presently is Santillo's writ application contending the trial court erred in denying its exception of no cause of action that GRR could not have a detrimental reliance claim in the absence of a signed, written settlement agreement. Also before us is Santillo's appeal asserting that the trial court erred in granting the exceptions of no cause of action as to Santillo's abuse of process claim and to Santillo's claims that GRR violated LUTPA.

         ANALYSIS

         "The function of an exception of no cause of action is to test the legal sufficiency of the petition by determining whether the law affords a remedy on the facts alleged in the pleading." Everything on Wheels Subaru, Inc. v. Subaru S., Inc., 616 So.2d 1234, 1235 (La.1993). Because the exception of no cause of action raises a question of law, it is reviewed on appeal de novo. Peters v. Allen Parish Sch. Bd., 08-323 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/5/08), 996 So.2d 1230. The burden of proof lies with the moving party, and the "pertinent question is whether, in the light most favorable to [the] plaintiff and with every doubt resolved in [the] plaintiff's behalf, the petition states any valid cause of action for relief." Ramey v. DeCaire, 03-1299, p. 8 (La. 3/19/04), 869 So.2d 114, 119. Dismissal is appropriate when the allegations in the petition clearly show that the plaintiff does not have a cause of action, or when the allegations in the petition clearly reveal the existence of an affirmative defense. Rogers v. Ash Grove Cement Co., 34, 934 (La.App. 2 Cir. 11/2/01), 799 So.2d 841, writ denied, 01-3187 (La. 2/8/02), 808 So.2d 351.

         Pursuant to La.Code Civ.P. art. 931, no evidence may be admitted to support or oppose an exception of no cause of action. Thus, the court must accept the well-pleaded allegations of fact in the petition as true and determine whether, on the face of the petition, the plaintiff is legally entitled to the relief sought. Everything on Wheels, 616 So.2d 1234. Conclusory allegations unsupported by facts are insufficient to support a cause of action. Ramey, 869 So.2d 114.

         I. Detrimental Reliance Lawsuit.

         Detrimental reliance is a doctrine designed to prevent injustice by barring a party from taking a position contrary to his prior acts, admissions, representations, or silence. Luther v. IOM Co., LLC, 13-353 (La. 10/15/13), 130 So.3d 817. ...


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