from the Hamilton Superior Court The Honorable Wayne A.
Sturtevant, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 29D05-1609-SC-7598
Attorney for Appellant Clifford T. Rubenstein Rifkin Blanck
& Rubenstein, P.C. Carmel, Indiana
Attorneys for Appellee Kevin S. Smith Brent A. Borg Church
Church Hittle Antrim Fishers, Indiana
Robert Muldowney appeals the trial court's grant of
judgment in favor of Lincoln Park, LLC, and Robert
Versprille. We dismiss and remand.
The issue Muldowney raises is whether Versprille provided
adequate notice for the termination of Muldowney's lease
of a rental property from Lincoln Park. We also address an
issue raised by Lincoln Park and Versprille, namely, whether
the trial court conducted an adequate hearing on their
Due to the abbreviated hearing held by the trial court, there
are few undisputed facts to relate about this case. Muldowney
rented a residence in Noblesville from Lincoln Park;
Versprille owns and operates Lincoln Park. The lease began in
July 2015, for $500 per month, and originally was set to
expire on June 30, 2016. Lincoln Park and Versprille do not
dispute that they accepted an additional month's rental
payment from Muldowney for July 2016. Muldowney remained in
possession of the premises beyond July 31, 2016. On September
2, 2016, Versprille filed a pro se complaint for immediate
possession of the rental property and rent due in the amount
of $1000. The complaint was docketed as a small claims
action. The complaint alleged that Muldowney had been
notified on May 28, 2016, that his lease would not be renewed
and made no mention of the July 2016 rent payment.
On September 21, 2016, the trial court held a hearing on the
complaint. Muldowney was represented by counsel, and
Versprille appeared pro se. At the outset of the hearing,
counsel for Muldowney orally moved to dismiss the complaint.
Counsel argued that the original one-year lease converted
into a month-to-month lease when Versprille accepted rent
from Muldowney for July 2016, and that Muldowney had tendered
rent to Versprille for August 2016 but Versprille had refused
to accept it; therefore, counsel argued, Muldowney had not
breached the month-to-month lease in August 2016.
Additionally, counsel argued that the eviction complaint
itself was not proper notice of Versprille's intent to
terminate the month-to-month lease, and even if it was, it
would not be effective until the end of October 2016,
according to a written opinion issued by the Indiana Attorney
General. Versprille spoke only once during the hearing, to
say that Muldowney had been "very disruptive" and
that, "[i]t's not about the dollars, it's about
having him removed from the premises." Tr. Vol. II p. 7.
During the hearing, no one was sworn in to testify and no
exhibits were entered into evidence. Regardless, after
hearing the argument of Muldowney's counsel and the one
brief statement of Versprille, the trial court ruled,
"I'm going to find that the eviction should be
granted for termination of the month-to-month tenancy
effective as of October 2nd." Id. It
then scheduled a damages hearing for the end of November
2016. Muldowney filed a motion to correct error, which the
trial court denied. Muldowney now appeals.
Generally, we review small claims judgments for clear error,
with due regard given to the trial court's opportunity to
assess witness credibility. Trinity Homes, LLC v.
Fang, 848 N.E.2d 1065, 1067 (Ind. 2006). This
deferential standard of review does not apply to questions of
law, which are reviewed de novo. Id. at 1068.
Additionally, if a small claims case turns solely upon
documentary evidence, we review the judgment de novo, similar
to summary judgment rulings. Id.
We acknowledge that small claims trials should be informal,
"with the sole objective of dispensing speedy justice
between the parties according to the rules of substantive
law, and shall not be bound by the statutory provisions or
rules of practice, procedure, pleadings or evidence except
provisions relating to privileged communications and offers
of compromise." Ind. Small Claims Rule 8(A). However,
such informality does not mean that all rules of
procedure may be blatantly disregarded. Potts v.
Castillo, 460 N.E.2d 996, 998 (Ind.Ct.App. 1984). Each
party to a small claims action still has the burden of proof
for a claim or counterclaim and is responsible for bringing
evidence to court that is sufficient to sustain that burden.