Dr. Julie Clark, a Tennessee veterinarian, wanted to fix up her home before selling. After a meeting on site, Dr. Clark selected Jeffrey Givens, a handyman, to do the work.
According to Dr. Clark, she agreed to pay Givens $9,775 for a total of four tasks:
- $8,500 to paint the house,
- $400 to remove and repair kitchen cabinets,
- $675 to strip, prime and paint those cabinets, and
- $200 to replace the bathroom countertops.
Givens didn’t remember it that way. He remembered bidding $11,575 for the entire job, including work on the driveway and garage floor, painting and replacing handrails on the porch. Dr. Clark admitted asking for a quote on that extra work. But Dr. Clark insisted none of this extra work was authorized.
Dr. Clark hoped the work would be finished in two weeks. But she didn’t specify a deadline or completion date. Givens estimated six-weeks would be needed just for painting the inside of the house. But his understanding was he could take as much time as necessary to do a good job.
Dr. Clark kept detailed notes on their conversation and the bid price. But there was no written contract. You know what’s going to happen next. When the job ran off the rails, Dr. Clark and Givens launched a 7-year court battle. Here’s how it happened.
Dr. Clark advanced Givens $2,500 to start work. That was January 2016. Two weeks later, she checked on the job and was disappointed. Not much progress. Givens assured her he would pick up the pace. Givens asked for and got another $2,000.
Dr. Clark returned to the job site a week later. Still little progress. According to Dr. Clark, she gave Givens a deadline. She would hire someone else if he didn’t do better in the coming week. Two weeks later, she hired a new painter.
Dr. Clark demanded return of $3,700, part of the $4,500 she had paid Givens. When Givens didn’t pay, she filed suit for breach of an oral contract. In court, Givens claimed he was actually due more than the $4,500 he had already been paid. The trial court found there was a “mutual mistake” in an oral contract and entered a $5,075 judgment in favor of Givens. Both Dr. Clark and Givens appealed.
The appellate court reversed the trial court decision and remanded the case back to the trial court for another decision. After an attempt at mediation, the second trial court decision awarded Givens $4,500, the amount he had already been paid. This time, the trial court ruled there was no oral contract. Givens could collect for his time and materials and nothing more. Every contract requires a “meeting of the minds”. Dr. Clark and Givens had never agreed on the cost, contract terms or the work to be done. Again, both Dr. Clark and Givens appealed the trial court decision.
Last month (November 2023) the appellate court affirmed the second trial court decision. “The oral contract contemplated by the parties was not sufficiently definite to be enforceable because the parties did not agree on essential terms.”
After seven years, including two trials, mediation and two appellate decisions, the case of Clark v. Givens may finally be resolved. My advice. It’s easy to avoid legal nightmares like this. Take a few minutes to write a good, enforceable contract, even for simple jobs. There’s no better tool for creating a meeting of the minds than Construction Contract Writer. The trial version is free.
Note for Tennessee contractors: Anyone can work for wages. But Tennessee is one of 31 states that requires a written contract for home improvement work. Tennessee’s Home Improvement Contractor Act prohibits oral contracts on home improvement jobs.