Heard November 4, 2014.
Appeal From Beaufort County Marvin H. Dukes, III, Master-in-Equity.
Beth Ann Prince, pro se, for Appellant.
Russell Pierce Patterson, of Russell P. Patterson, P.A., of Hilton Head Island, for Respondent.
In this civil matter, Beth Ann Prince (Tenant) appeals the master-in-equity's order awarding Bluffton Towne Center, LLC (BTC) $35, 784 in rent and late fees for Tenant's breach of a commercial lease. Tenant argues the master erred in (1) finding the lease was terminated by abandonment; (2) finding Tenant was liable for future rents under the lease; (3) considering extrinsic evidence after finding the lease unambiguous; (4) not allowing Tenant to cross-examine Paul Watson, the managing member of BTC, about specific language in the subject lease and language in two subsequent leases BTC entered into with different parties; and (5) failing to recognize the lease was ambiguous. We affirm as modified.
On January 1, 2009, BTC entered into a commercial lease agreement with Tenant for office space in Bluffton, South Carolina. Under the three-year term lease, Tenant was required to make monthly rental payments of $1, 825 from January 1, 2009, to December 31, 2011. At issue in this case is the default provision of the lease:
Tenant shall be in default of this Lease if Tenant fails to fulfill any lease obligation or term by which Tenant is bound. Subject to any governing provisions of law to the contrary, if Tenant fails to cure any financial obligation within 10 days (or any other obligation within 30 days) after written notice of such default is provided by [BTC] to Tenant, [BTC] may take possession of the Premises without further notice (to the extent permitted by law), and without prejudicing [its] rights to damages. In the alternative, [BTC] may elect to cure any default and the cost of such action shall be added to Tenant's financial obligations under this Lease. Tenant shall pay all costs, damages, and expenses (including reasonable attorney fees and expenses) suffered by [BTC] by reason of Tenant's defaults. All sums of money or charges required to be paid by Tenant under this Lease shall be additional rent, whether or not such sums or charges are designated as "additional rent."
On December 18, 2009, Tenant emailed Watson to inform him she was closing her law practice. In the email, Tenant noted she would need to stay in the space through the end of January and "possibly some of February." She further stated, "I hope that you and I will be able to work something out amicably because I realize that the lease will not expire for another year. . . . I will also keep my eyes and ears open for anyone who may want the space." Watson responded to the email on the same day, stating he was not willing to forgive the remaining balance and assumed Tenant would honor her obligation under the lease.
On February 26, 2010, after Tenant defaulted on her rent payment for that month, Watson sent Tenant a written ten-day notice to pay or quit the premises. The notice stated, "You are hereby notified that you have ten (10) days to pay to the undersigned office rent now due from you in the amount of $1, 875.00 as set forth below, or your right to possession of the . . . premises will cease and you must quit same." The notice further contained the following language:
In the event you do not satisfy all the requirements of this ten (10) day notice by paying . . . [$1, 875] and do either voluntarily or by court leave the premises, you will still be obligated and responsible for payment of monies set forth below, together with any additional costs, legal fees, expenses[, ] and rents that continue to accrue under the terms of the lease because of non-payment.
Tenant did not respond, and on March 28, 2010, BTC's counsel emailed Tenant requesting that she (1) remove all of her possessions from the space, (2) pay the rent due for February and March 2010, (3) continue to make monthly payments until the space was relet, and (4) pass along the names of any potential tenants to BTC's rental agent. His email further stated if they could not reach an agreement along those lines, BTC would be forced to file an ejectment action and suit for back rent. In Tenant's email response, she explained that filing an ejectment action was unnecessary because she vacated the unit at the beginning of February 2010. Tenant further stated, "I am happy to assist in getting the place rerented, however, I am simply unable to pay the back rent, or else I would pay it."
BTC subsequently retrieved the keys from Tenant in April 2010. For the remainder of the lease term, BTC rented the unit to two separate tenants at reduced rates. In a March 9, 2012 letter, BTC's counsel informed Tenant she owed $34, 850, but said he wanted to give her "an opportunity to try to work out a resolution of this matter" prior to filing an action for damages pursuant to the lease.
After the lease term expired, BTC filed suit for damages on April 16, 2012. The matter was tried before the master-in-equity for Beaufort County, South Carolina, on October 26, 2012.
At trial, Watson testified on behalf of BTC, and on cross-examination, Tenant questioned Watson regarding the sequence of events as well as the correspondence between the parties after Tenant defaulted under the lease. Tenant attempted to elicit testimony from Watson regarding specific language in the subject lease. BTC objected to the line of questioning, arguing Tenant was improperly seeking Watson's legal interpretation of the lease, and the master sustained the objection. Tenant further tried to elicit testimony from Watson regarding language in two subsequent leases BTC entered into with different parties. BTC, however, objected on relevance grounds, and the master sustained the objection.
On December 26, 2012, the master issued an order granting judgment to BTC in the amount of $39, 627.55. In his order, the master concluded the holding in Simon v. Kirkpatrick , 141 S.C. 251, 139 S.E.2d 614 (1927)-that a lessor's termination of the lease absolves a lessee from future obligations unless the lease provides the lessee is not relieved of such obligations-"does not state the modern law of damages for the breach of a lease in South Carolina today." Instead, the master found U.S. Rubber Co. v. White Tire Co., 231 S.C. 84, 97 S.E.2d 403 (1956), states the modern rule for damages a landlord may recover for a tenant's breach of the lease, holding Tenant was liable for future rents as damages under this rule. The master concluded in the alternative that, even if Simon remains valid law, BTC was still entitled to recover future rents because it reserved the right to all damages in the default provision of the subject lease. This appeal followed.
ISSUES ON APPEAL
I. Did the master err in finding Tenant terminated the subject lease by abandonment?
II. Did the master err in finding that Simon is no longer valid law and, pursuant to the ruling in U.S Rubber, Tenant was responsible for future rents as damages to BTC under the default provision in the subject lease?
III. Did the master err in considering extrinsic evidence after finding the subject lease was unambiguous?
IV. Did the master err in not allowing Tenant to cross-examine Watson regarding language in the subject lease as well as language in two subsequent leases BTC entered into with different parties?
V. Did the master err in failing to recognize the lease was ambiguous?
STANDARD OF REVIEW
"A lease agreement is a contract, and an action to construe a contract is an action at law." Middleton v. Eubank, 388 S.C. 8, 14, 694 S.E.2d 31, 34 (Ct. App. 2010) (citations omitted). "An action for breach of contract seeking money damages is an action at law." Sapp v. Wheeler, 402 S.C. 502, 507, 741 S.E.2d 565, 568 (Ct. App. 2013) (citing Silver v. Aabstract Pools & Spas, Inc., 376 S.C. 585, 590, 658 S.E.2d 539, 541-42 (Ct. App. 2008)). When reviewing a master-in-equity's judgment made in an action at law, "the appellate court will not disturb the master's findings of fact unless the findings are found to be without evidence reasonably supporting them." Silver, 376 S.C. at 590, 658 S.E.2d at 542. Nevertheless, the "reviewing court is free to decide questions of ...