This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C8-01-1556

 

Robert Haff, et al.,
Respondents,

vs.

Richard Augeson,
d/b/a Hubbard Concrete Pumping, et al.,
Appellants.

 

 

Filed March 12, 2002

Affirmed in part as modified, reversed in part and remanded

Stoneburner, Judge

 

Hubbard County District Court

File No. CX99836

 

 

Robert Haff, Dawn Haff, 10073 County 6, Park Rapids, MN 56470 (pro se respondents)

 

James B. Wallace, Robert D. Tiffany, Wallace & Tiffany, 201 East First Street, Box 27, Park Rapids, MN 56470 (for appellants)

 

 

            Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, and Stoneburner, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

STONEBURNER, Judge

Appellants challenge the calculation of damages awarded to respondent Dawn Haff and dismissal of their counterclaims for breach of an employment contract.  We affirm in part as modified, reverse in part, and remand for the district court to determine, based on evidence in the record, whether appellants have established damages for lost profits, and, if so, the amount of those damages.

FACTS

 

            In April 1999, appellant Richard Augeson and respondents Dawn and Robert Haff signed a document titled “Employment Contract for Hubbard Concrete Pumping, Inc.,” regarding operation of a cement pumping truck business.  The parties agree that the contract was to last for six months, from May 1 through November 1, 1999.  Dawn Haff was responsible for “daily phone coordinating, expense payments, customer billing, [and] office filing details,” and Bob Haff was to operate and maintain the truck and pump.  The Haffs quit working for appellants as of September 16, 1999. 

The Haffs initiated this action for unpaid wages, and appellants counterclaimed for loss of profits allegedly caused by respondents’ breach of the contract and for damages to the truck allegedly caused by respondent Robert Haff.  The matter was tried to the court without a jury.[1]  The district court found that Richard Augeson did not sign the contract in a representative capacity for Hubbard Concrete Pumping, Inc., but that the parties “engaged in a course of conduct consistent with the contract.”  The district found that Robert Haff was paid for all of his services but that Dawn Haff was entitled to an additional $772 for wages pursuant to the contract.  The district court found that

appellants’ servicing and painting of the truck after the contract was terminated was not caused by a breach of any duty or negligence by respondents.  The district court also found that appellants had calls for jobs after September 16, 1999 but could not perform them because they had no operator for the truck.  The district court awarded damages to Dawn Haff in the amount of $772 and dismissed appellants’ counterclaims, concluding that the contract was for at-will employment. 

Appellants moved for amended findings, arguing that the contract was for a definite term of six months and that the Haffs breached the contract by terminating their employment on September 16, 1999 giving rise to appellants’ counterclaims.  The district court amended the findings to include a finding that the parties “terminated their relationship by mutual consent” on September 16, 1999.  In this appeal, appellants challenge the district court’s dismissal of their counterclaims and the calculation of damages awarded to Dawn Haff.

D E C I S I O N

 

            In a case tried by the court without a jury, the scope of review is limited to determining whether the court’s findings are clearly erroneous and whether the court erred in its conclusions of law.  Schweich v. Ziegler, Inc., 463 N.W.2d 722, 729 (Minn. 1990).  The district court’s findings of fact will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous, and “due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.”  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.  A district court’s findings of fact are clearly erroneous when “the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.”  Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press,  589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999) (quotation omitted).  But this court is not bound by, and need not give deference to, a district court’s decision regarding a purely legal issue.  Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n  v. Minn. Pub. Utils. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984).  “The construction and effect of a contract are questions of law for the court.”  Turner v. Alpha Phi Sorority House, 276 N.W.2d 63, 66 (Minn. 1979).

            At trial, the parties did not dispute the validity of the contract and the Haffs testified that the term of the contract was six months.  In its memorandum supporting the amended findings of fact, conclusions of law, order for judgment and judgment, the district court stated: “It is clear that the parties intended the period of the contract to be for a definite term of six months.”  The district court reasoned, however, that the contract was not enforceable due to the “ambiguities about * * * the parties to the contract” and determined that “the unenforceability of the contract makes this an ‘at-will employment.’”  The record does not support the district court’s reasoning.  The parties did not assert any ambiguity about the parties to the contract.  Based on the record in this case, which consists of the parties’ agreement about the terms and duration of the contract, we hold that the district court erred by concluding that the contract was unenforceable and that the Haffs’ employment was “at will.”

            The record also fails to support the district court’s finding that the parties terminated the contract by mutual consent.  There is no evidence in the record to support such a finding.  Respondents have repeatedly admitted that they quit their employment as of September 16, 1999.  The district court erred by finding that the contract was rescinded or terminated by agreement.

            The district court correctly calculated that, pursuant to the contract, Dawn Haff was entitled to wages in the amount of $3,920 for 19.6 weeks of work and to health insurance benefits for 4 1/2 months in the amount of $468, for a total of $4,388.  The district court correctly credited appellants with wage payments of $3,200.  But the district court only credited appellants with payment of $416 toward the health-insurance premiums, when, in fact, appellants paid $832 for respondents’ insurance premiums.  Appellants paid a total of $4,032.  Therefore, Dawn Haff is entitled to judgment in the amount of $356, and not the $772 awarded.  We modify the judgment to reflect the appropriate credit for amounts paid by appellant.

            The district court determined that the painting and servicing of the concrete pump truck was not caused by a breach of any fiduciary duty or negligence on the part of respondents, and the record contains sufficient evidence to sustain that finding.  We affirm the district court’s dismissal of appellant’s counterclaim for damages to the truck.

            The district court found that appellant Richard Augeson

[h]ad several calls for jobs after September 16, but did not or could not perform them because he no longer had an operator for the truck.

 

The district court also found that “[t]he rescheduling and loss of work * * * was due to Richard Augeson’s failure to fulfill the contracts and hire another operator to operate his truck.”  Because the district court had determined that the contract was “at will,” it did not address whether appellant’s efforts to hire another operator were reasonable, whether failure to be able to fulfill the contracts was caused by Robert Haff’s breach of the agreement to work for six months, and what amount of damages, if any, appellants proved as a result of not being able to fulfill contracts.  Appellants presented evidence of the calls for work and amounts paid to others who performed the work and of Augeson’s efforts to obtain a replacement operator.  We reverse dismissal of this counterclaim and remand for the district court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law on the issue of appellants’ counterclaim for lost profits, if any, proved by appellants to be due to Robert Haff’s termination of the contract prior to the agreed upon date.

            Affirmed in part as modified, reversed in part and remanded.

 



[1] The action was brought in conciliation court, then was removed to district court for a trial de novo.