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Farming dispute judgment falls short of claimed damages

David Baugher//July 6, 2020

Farming dispute judgment falls short of claimed damages

David Baugher//July 6, 2020

A Buchanan County judge awarded more than $17,000 to a farmer in a dispute about crop-sharing and equipment-purchase arrangements while invalidating further damages due to the nature of the deals.

“If you have a verbal agreement and the performance takes more than one year to perform, then that contract has to be in writing, according to the statute of frauds in Missouri,” said R. Todd Ehlert of Rouse Frets White Goss Gentile Rhodes.

Ehlert represented Lamont and Judith Kaelin, who entered into an unwritten agreement to share farming proceeds with Michael Brune, a former relative-in-law, who provided labor and began making payments to acquire equipment from the Kaelins as they were looking to retire from the business.

Brune was to use the equipment while making payments for 10 years. The Kaelins maintained title to the equipment and continued to pay for taxes and insurance.

Under the terms of a separate, oral crop-sharing arrangement, Brune would split inputs and profits with the Kaelins on the couple’s farm while the Kaelins would retain ownership of the land.

Ehlert said relations between the parties eventually soured and Brune ceased making payments. Brune asserted claims of breach of contract, breach of agreement and quantum meruit, alleging that he’d not been properly compensated for work he’d completed and that the defendants had kept his property from him. He claimed damages of more than $220,000.

The Kaelins responded with a substantial counterclaim. However, Ehlert said that they made a strategic decision to argue that all claims under the relevant agreements were void.

“We realized we would be giving up the $82,000 that we sought in our counterclaim, but we thought it was the better choice and gave the judge an easier route to decide the verdict,” he said.

Judge Daniel Kellogg agreed.

“Given that all parties testified the term of that agreement was for ten years,” he wrote, “it falls squarely within the provisions of the Statute of Frauds, and Mr. Brune has neither alleged nor proven any exception to that statute.”

The judge also found that none of the plaintiff’s equipment had been kept from him and ruled against most of his claims for damages in relation to the arrangement with both the Kaelins and a related agreement with another farm.

The judge did rule in Brune’s favor on the quantum meruit claim, however, and he awarded $14,770 for improvements Brune made that benefited the defendants. The parties also stipulated that the Kaelins owed slightly more than $8,000 in proceeds from crop-sharing.

Those figures were reduced by $5,000 due to the conversion of the Kaelins’ truck, which was sold for scrap by the plaintiff, who claimed the title had been signed over to him. The judge found the title had not been transferred.

Ehlert said the plaintiff paid a small confidential amount after trial to avoid an appeal.

Michael Insco and Creath Thorne, who represented the plaintiffs, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Breakdown: $14,077 for quantum meruit damages, $8,073.55 in stipulated proceeds from crop-sharing. $5,000 on defendants’ counterclaim for conversion. Net judgment to plaintiff of $17,843.55.

Venue: Buchanan County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 18BU-CV02306/March 11, 2020

Judge: Daniel Kellogg

Last Pretrial Demand: $225,000

Last Pretrial Offer: $0

Caption: Michael Brune v. Lamont and Judith Kaelin

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Michael Insco, Law Office of Michael Insco, St. Joseph; Creath Thorne, Law Office of Creath Thorne, St. Joseph

Defendants’ Attorney: R. Todd Ehlert, Rouse Frets White Goss Gentile Rhodes, St. Joseph

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