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Cole v. Caruso

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 20, 2018


          Session: February 20, 2018 [1]

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT-005702-11 Gina C. Higgins, Judge

         In this unjust enrichment claim, Plaintiff/Appellee Victor Cole filed a lawsuit alleging, inter alia, a claim for unjust enrichment against Defendant/Appellant Joe Caruso. A jury determined that Mr. Cole had been unjustly enriched. Upon our review, we conclude that Mr. Cole failed to provide any evidence that Mr. Caruso was unjustly enriched, thereby failing to establish a prima facie claim. Because Mr. Cole failed to provide any evidence regarding one of the elements of unjust enrichment, the trial court erred in denying Mr. Caruso's motion for directed verdict.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded

          Robert L. Moore, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Joe Caruso.

          Charles W. Weirich, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Victor Cole.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin, and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.




         This case began with allegations that the parties participated in a secret partnership agreement; the facts are highly disputed. Plaintiff/Appellee Victor Cole and Defendant/Appellant Joe Caruso both played professional baseball and would train together at a sports academy near Memphis, Tennessee. In 2009, Mr. Caruso allegedly approached Mr. Cole about becoming potential business partners to "recruit, train, and coach youth baseball players with aspirations of playing professionally or in college." Mr. Cole and Mr. Caruso had a meeting in the fall of 2010 at Mr. Cole's home, in which they discussed the alleged partnership agreement. Other than the two parties to this appeal, only Mr. Cole's wife and son were present. During this meeting, Mr. Cole claimed that he and Mr. Caruso initially discussed a 50/50 split of the profits; however, the two ultimately agreed on a 60/40 split with Mr. Caruso receiving 60% of the profits and Mr. Cole receiving 40%. Mr. Caruso disputed that he and Mr. Cole ever had a meeting to discuss a potential partnership and maintained that there was never a partnership between he and Mr. Cole.

         After the alleged partnership was made, it is undisputed that Mr. Caruso and Mr. Cole both worked together for a time in the East Coast Grays baseball organization.[2] In the fall of 2011, however, Mr. Caruso informed Mr. Cole that Mr. Cole was not meeting the expectations of the organization and was no longer needed. The two then parted ways. Up to this point, Mr. Cole had received compensation in the amount of approximately $13, 000.00. He cashed the checks with no complaint.

         On December 22, 2011, Mr. Cole filed his complaint against Mr. Caruso for "damages, injunction, and accounting for breach of partnership agreement, conversion, promissory fraud and/or unjust enrichment[, ]" in the Shelby County Circuit Court ("trial court"). Mr. Caruso filed an answer on January 13, 2012, denying all the material allegations set forth in Mr. Cole's complaint. Following a period of discovery, the case was eventually heard by a jury for four days beginning on April 25, 2016. At trial, Mr. Cole offered testimony from three people: (1) himself; (2) Dr. Ralph Scott, an expert witness; and (3) Mrs. Sherri Cole, Mr. Cole's wife.

         At trial, Mr. Cole testified that he coached and served as a recruiting director for the organization, and that during his tenure, from 2010-2011, the organization grew from one team to three teams. He also testified that during the early days of the East Coast Grays, he and Mr. Caruso met regularly to discuss tournaments, camps, clinics, uniforms, other coaches to hire, player development, and player placement. Mr. Cole further stated that during his time with the East Coast Grays, he and Mr. Caruso traveled across the Southeast, often using his automobile for the trips and that he turned down other income opportunities to work with Mr. Caruso and the East Coast Grays organization. In sum, Mr. Cole generally testified as to the services and contributions he provided for the East Coast Grays and its players, his alleged partnership with Mr. Caruso, and his alleged partnership interest in the East Coast Grays. Dr. Scott testified solely as to the monetary value of Mr. Cole's partnership interest. Mrs. Cole testified mostly to the facts surrounding the meeting in which Mr. Caruso and Mr. Cole established the alleged partnership. At the closing of Mr. Cole's proof, Mr. Caruso moved for a directed verdict. The trial court granted the directed verdict regarding the claims of conversion, attorney fees, punitive damages, and promissory fraud; however, the trial court denied the motion for breach of a partnership agreement and unjust enrichment.

         On April 28, 2016, the jury returned a unanimous verdict specifically finding that the parties did not have a partnership, and thus Mr. Cole had not suffered damages as a result of a breach of partnership agreement. On the alternative ground of unjust enrichment, the jury did find that Mr. Caruso had "received the benefits of [Mr. Cole's] services under circumstances rendering it inequitable to keep those benefits without compensating [Mr. Cole.]" Therefore, the jury found that Mr. Caruso was unjustly enriched by Mr. Cole's services and awarded Mr. Cole $10, 000.00. Judgment on the jury verdict was entered on May 16, 2016.

         On May 20, 2016, Mr. Cole filed a motion for pre-judgment interest and on June 7, 2016, also filed a motion for additur or, in the alternative, a motion for new trial, arguing that the $10, 000.00 jury verdict was not reasonable in light of his contributions to the organization; Mr. Cole requested an additur of $90, 000.00. On June 14, 2016, Mr. Caruso filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for remittitur, or alternatively to alter or amend the judgement. On December 5, 2016, the trial court entered an order granting Mr. Cole's motion for additur in the amount of $40, 000.00 thereby increasing Mr. Cole's award to $50, 000.00. The trial court subsequently (1) denied Mr. Cole's motion for prejudgment interest; (2) denied Mr. Caruso's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, remittitur, or in the alternative to alter or amend; and (3) granted Mr. Cole's motion for discretionary costs. From this judgment, Mr. Caruso timely appeals.


         Mr. Caruso presents two issues on appeal, which we have reworded:

(1) Whether the trial court erred in failing to grant Mr. Caruso's directed verdict because Mr. Cole did not establish a prima facie case on ...

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