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Muldowney v. Lincoln Park, LLC

Court of Appeals of Indiana

September 8, 2017

Robert Muldowney, Appellant-Defendant,
Lincoln Park, LLC and, Robert Versprille, Appellees-Plaintiffs.

         Appeal 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

          BARNES, JUDGE

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Robert Muldowney appeals the trial court's grant of judgment in favor of Lincoln Park, LLC, and Robert Versprille. We dismiss and remand.


         [¶2] 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 eviction suit.


         [¶3] 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.

         [¶4] 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.


         [¶5] 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.

         [¶6] 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. ...

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