Was Friend Entitled to Return of $5,600 Paid on Account of Failed Trip?
The Court held a bench trial of this small claim matter at 111 Centre Street. Both parties appeared in-person and were self-represented.
Tracey Hejailan-Amon sued Isabella “Rupa” De Conti-Mikkilineni to recover $5,600.00 for breach of contract or warranty.
Hejalian-Amon testified that on October 15, 2021 DeConti-Mikkilineni invited her to share an apartment rental in St. Moritz, Switzerland for the coming winter season. On October 30 she agreed to share the rental for the month of February 2022. The parties discussed rentals on Airbnb, however DeConti-Mikkilineni did not finalize the rental on Airbnb. Instead, DeConti-Mikkilineni communicated with the owner on WhatsApp and procured the accommodations there. On October 31, DeConti-Mikkilineni paid the homeowner 7,000.00 CHF via PayPal and she sent Hejalian-Amon the receipt on November 1. In turn, Hejalian-Amon then paid DeConti-Mikkilineni $5,600 via check for her portion. Hejalian-Amon testified that DeConti-Mikkilineni failed to provide her with the details of their accommodations, a lease or an invoice. She had no details about the rental, and DeConti-Mikkilineni did not add her name to the lease. Hejalian-Amon later learned that the apartment was not an Airbnb listing, therefore there were no Airbnb safeguards in place such as cancellation policy, location details and owner’s contact information. In addition, DeConti-Mikkilineni was unable to secure two additional weeks in March for Hejalian-Amon and a friend to stay without DeConti-Mikkilineni. Hejalian-Amon avers that the lack of transparency of the arrangement made her feel unsafe. As a result, she requested a refund, but DeConti-Mikkilineni refused to oblige. Furthermore, she also alleged that DeConti-Mikkilineni committed multiple violations of Airbnb’s terms of service.
Hejalian-Amon’s witness, Mohsen Hassan, testified that he researched the transaction and the apartment rental on Airbnb. He advised Hejalian-Amon not to go and to get her money back from DeConti-Mikkilineni as it had become an issue of safety.
DeConti-Mikkilineni testified that she was researching a vacation home for her and Hejalian-Amon, her friend of four years. DeConti-Mikkilineni’s friends even visited the apartment and sent her a video to ensure everything was legitimate. There was no reason for Hejalian-Amon not to trust her. Once Hejalian-Amon confirmed dates for February, DeConti-Mikkilineni attempted to reserve the apartment on Airbnb and the dates were no longer available. She and the owner communicated on WhatsApp through text messages and FaceTime calls. He was only willing to rent his apartment for a six-week minimum. Ultimately, DeConti-Mikkilineni reserved the apartment–she alone would stay for two weeks in January and the parties would stay together for the entire month of February. She sent Hejalian-Amon the PayPal invoice on November 1 which included the owner’s name and email. Hejalian-Amon requested an invoice for her portion of the rent and a housekeeper. They did not reserve March.
DeConti-Mikkilineni asserted that Hejalian-Amon did not request a formal contract when she agreed to share the apartment, and DeConti-Mikkilineni didn’t have one to provide to her. Instead, she had an informal agreement with the owner memorialized in an email. On November 5, Hejalian-Amon requested to rent the apartment for two additional weeks in March with another friend and to the exclusion of DeConti-Mikkilineni. DeConti-Mikkilineni told her that the apartment may no longer be available, besides DeConti-Mikkilineni might want the right of first refusal since she researched and vetted the apartment. While they waited for an update from the owner, DeConti-Mikkilineni notified Hejalian-Amon that she was invited to interclub events and may now stay through March 7 with another friend and to the exclusion of Hejalian-Amon. At which point, Hejalian-Amon became uncomfortable and requested a refund on November 14. DeConti-Mikkilineni reminded her that the fee was non-refundable. As a compromise, she requested two weeks use of the apartment in February without DeConti-Mikkilineni. A few days later, the point was moot because the apartment was not available for March.
As a result, DeConti-Mikkilineni sought other potential housemates to help Hejalian-Amon mitigate her loss, however Hejalian-Amon did not try to mitigate her own losses. DeConti-Mikkilineni also testified that Hejalian-Amon’s commitment was not contingent on her being able to stay in the apartment for March.
DeConti-Mikkilineni stated that to her determent, she relied on Hejalian-Amon’s promise and made every effort to compromise and accommodate her.
Wide latitude is given to all litigants before the Small Claims Court and small claims’ cases are informal and simplified procedures in which the court seeks to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law.
Basic contract principles were applicable to the case. The elements of a breach of contract claim are: (1) formation of a contract between the parties; (2) performance by one party; (3) failure to perform by the other party; and (4) resulting damage.
Here, Hejalian-Amon proffered evidence showing that she entered into an agreement with DeConti-Mikkilineni, to share an apartment rental in St. Moritz, Switzerland for February 2022. As a result, DeConti-Mikkilineni paid the owner the initial deposit based on her commitment. She reimbursed DeConti-Mikkilineni for her portion of the rental fee.
Several issues precluded an award. Prior to committing to the February dates, Hejalian-Amon did not state that the agreement was conditional on there being a written lease with the landlord; Airbnb was the only platform to be used; she be able to extend her stay into March; or that she have two weeks of exclusive use in February. As a result, the failure of DeConti-Mikkilineni to comply with these conditions did not demonstrate a breach of contract. Nor do they justify Hejalian-Amon cancelling their agreement and being reimbursed. In fact, Hejalian-Amon sought to extinguish their original agreement and substitute it with a new agreement based on terms and conditions not agreed to between the parties.
The Court considered but did not render a decision on whether there were violations of Airbnb policies because Airbnb was not a party to the litigation. Also, it was irrelevant to this breach of contract claim.
However, the Court addressed Hejalian-Amon’s assertion that DeConti-Mikkilineni did not provide her with a lease and her name was not on the lease as a basis for terminating their agreement. First, even if Airbnb platform was used, the party who confirms the reservation has an Airbnb account which contains proof of their stay, terms and conditions and includes the number of guests. Guest names are optional even for international reservations. Second, Airbnb does not automatically provide a written lease. A request for a written lease from the owner must be made prior to confirming an Airbnb reservation. In this case, Hejalian-Amon did not request a written lease before committing to February. Therefore, she did not provide DeConti-Mikkilineni the opportunity to request a written lease from the owner before their reservation. Assuming arguendo, even if this reservation was made on Airbnb, Hejalian-Amon’s assertion was not meritorious.
Hejalian-Amon requested a refund on November 14 which is 14 days after the reservation was confirmed on October 31. Again, even if Airbnb platform was used, nothing in the record suggested that this reservation was refundable after 14 days. Airbnb reservations are not always 100% refundable instead there are different refund guidelines set by each owner, if any. Even if Hejalian-Amon believed this reservation was made on Airbnb, she never inquired about the refund guidelines to safely ensure a refund could be issued should a problem arise.
This Court found that Hejalian-Amon failed to proffer a meritorious claim for breach of contract. Moreover, DeConti-Mikkilineni could not be held liable for breaching duties self-imposed by Hejalian-Amon. Judgment was granted in favor of DeConti-Mikkilineni and the case was dismissed.