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Harris v. Lafayette LIHTC, LP

Court of Appeals of Indiana

October 13, 2017

Dyamond Harris, Appellant-Defendant,
v.
Lafayette LIHTC, LP, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Tippecanoe Superior Court The Honorable Laura W. Zeman, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 79D04-1702-SC-801

          Attorneys for Appellant Ann Ginda Indiana Legal Services, Inc. Lafayette, Indiana Cynthia Smith Law Office of Cynthia P. Smith Lafayette, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellee Thomas J. Herr Herr & Phillips, LLC Lafayette, Indiana

          Crone, Judge.

          Case Summary

          [¶1] Dyamond Harris appeals the trial court's judgment and writ of possession in favor of Lafayette LIHTC, LP, on its claim against Harris for unpaid rent. Harris contends that the trial court committed clear error by improperly shifting the burden of proof and violated her due process right to an impartial decision maker. We agree on both counts and therefore reverse.

         Facts and Procedural History

          [¶2] On January 27, 2016, Harris entered into a lease with a landlord identified as "Claystone at the Crossing" for a housing unit, number 22-0600, subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"). Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 9.[1] The lease was signed on behalf of Claystone by Mary Jo Farr. Id. at 16. The term of the lease was from January 27, 2016, to December 31, 2016, after which it would continue for successive terms of one month unless automatically terminated as permitted by paragraph 23. Id. Pursuant to the lease, Harris agreed to pay rent of $45.00, due on the first day of the month. Id. The lease also provided, "[Harris] has deposited $176.00 with [Claystone], " which agreed to "hold this security deposit" for the period that Harris occupies the unit. Id. at 11. Paragraph 23 of the lease governed termination of tenancy and provided, "Any termination of this [lease] by [Claystone] must be carried out in accordance with HUD regulations, State and local law, and the terms of this [lease]." Id. at 14. Pursuant to Paragraph 23, Claystone agreed to give Harris written notice and the grounds for the proposed termination and advise Harris "that [she] has 10 days within which to discuss the proposed termination of tenancy with [Claystone]" and "If [Harris] requests the meeting, [Claystone] agrees to discuss the proposed termination with [Harris]." Id. at 15.

         [¶3] On February 28, 2017, Lafayette, doing business as Romney Meadows, filed a notice of claim in the small claims court that alleged as follows:[2]

On or about the date of January 27, 2016 [Lafayette] rented or leased to [Harris] the property located at 600 Northchester Lane, Unit 22-0600, Lafayette, in Tippecanoe County, Indiana for the term of one year and extended on a month to month basis. [Harris] agreed to pay rent in advance on the 1st day of each month. Rent is now past due in the amount of $38.00 more or less.

Id. at 8. Lafayette demanded judgment for $38.00 past due rent, pro rata rent through the date of possession, possession of the real estate, prejudgment interest, and court costs of $121.00. Id. The notice ordered Harris to appear in court on March 14, 2017. Harris received service of Lafayette's claim on March 3, 2017. Id. at 3.

         [¶4] At the March 14, 2017, hearing Lafayette appeared by counsel Thomas Herr and two representatives referred to in the transcript as Ms. Horn and Ms. Fleming. Harris appeared pro se. The trial court did not swear anyone in. The trial court began the hearing by informing Harris that Lafayette claimed that she had not paid her February 2017 rent and asking her if she had paid it. Harris responded that when she first moved in, she had provided the former landlord with two money orders for $45.00 each; that money was supposed to be credited to her account, and Lafayette was supposed to use it for her rent. In support, she attempted to show the trial court two handwritten receipts dated January 28, 2016. Id. at 35; Tr. Vol. 2 at 4. Each receipt acknowledged a money order of $45.00 for rent for "Building 22-600" from "Claystone at the Crossing" and were purportedly signed by "Mary Jo Farr." Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 35. Although the receipts had Harris's unit number, they did not have her name written on them. The trial court asked Lafayette what it knew about Harris's explanation. Ms. Horn claimed that they knew nothing about it, and Ms. Fleming said that they "just saw [the] receipts, " and "[Harris] just sprung this on us today." Tr. Vol. 2 at 4. Harris asserted that she had told them about the receipts the week before. Id.

         [¶5] Harris informed the trial court that she had driven to Chicago to get her "paperwork, " explaining, "This is my first time having my own apartment on my own[, ] so my parents help me a lot[, and] keep my important papers." Id. at 5. The trial court stated, "You're an adult. … Mom and dad are out of the picture now. You take care of yourself. Okay, now, who is paying your rent? …. Thirty-eight dollars a month in rent?" Id. at 5-6. Harris replied, "Me." Id. at 6. The trial court responded, "No, no, this apartment does not cost them thirty-eight dollars. Who else is paying your rent? Somebody is paying rent. Me as a taxpayer[? I]s it Section 8? What is it?" Id. Ms. Fleming advised the trial court that Harris's housing was Section 8. The trial court then stated, "Section 8, okay so what is it about you that requires Section 8 housing such that you can't keep track of thirty-eight dollars?" Id. Harris explained that when she initially moved into the housing unit, there was another "landlord" handling her case who no longer worked there and that Harris had given that landlord the money orders and told her to keep the money in Harris's account until she had to pay rent one day. Id. Ms. Horn stated, "[W]e don't actually do paper receipts, it's against our company policy." Id. at 6-7. In apparent reference to the receipts, the trial court stated, "I mean I can buy this at Walgreens." Id. at 7. Harris asserted that when she first moved in "everything was done by paper" by "Clay Stone" and that "Mary Jo" handled her case, but Mary Jo did not work there anymore. Id. The trial court then said, "Okay, so if they say you owe thirty-eight dollars for February, just pay them the thirty-eight to get it done." Id. Harris asserted that she was "trying to explain" that the money orders were supposed to be credited to her account. Id. The trial court asked Harris why the 2016 receipts would apply to rent in 2017 rather than to rent in January or February 2016. Id. Harris clarified that she had paid the two money orders for January and February 2016 rent, but it later turned out that she did not owe rent because she was not working during those months. Id. at 8-9. She said that she should have a credit of $90.00 in her account and she had two receipts, but Lafayette had a credit of only $45.00. The trial court told Harris, "Okay, those receipts are basically worthless, okay." Id. at 10.

         [¶6] The trial court asked the Lafayette representatives whether Harris owed rent for January or February 2016. Id. at 11. Ms. Horn replied that "Harris owed … fifty-nine dollars. They put a charge on here from January 27 of [2016] to 2/29/2016." Id. The trial court observed that Harris had made a payment of $45.00 on February 3, 2016. Id. The trial court again asked the Lafayette representatives whether Harris owed rent for January and February 2016. Id. at 12. Ms. Horn said that Harris "still owed rent for Feb, January." Id. Harris interjected, "[T]hen they came back and fixed it. … I never worked in January or February. If you don't work, you don't pay rent and [there is] paperwork saying that I wasn't working in January or February." Id. at 12. The trial court responded, "Which is one of the crazy things about our country now. You have people who don't work and free apartments[, ] and the rest of us have to work to pay for it. ...


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