from the St. Joseph Superior Court Trial Court Cause No.
71D03-1807-SC-6813 The Honorable Julie P. Verheye, Magistrate
Attorney for Appellant Richard E. Bryant The Law Office of
Richard E. Bryant, P.C. Goshen, Indiana
In Cause No. 71D02-1803-SC-2509 ("Cause 2509"),
Jacqueline Smith ("Smith") was sued by her former
landlord, Laurenz Place LLC ("Laurenz Place"), for
an alleged breach of a lease. The parties reached a
settlement and Smith vacated the premises without an
admission of breach. Subsequently, Laurenz Place returned
Smith's security deposit, reduced by $650.00, and Smith
filed the instant lawsuit, Cause No. 71D03-1807-SC-6813
("Cause 6813"). Laurenz Place counterclaimed for
damages and for attorney's fees in both causes.
The small claims court entered judgment for Smith in the
amount of $1, 650.00 (for unlawful retention of the security
deposit and attorney's fees in Cause 6813). Despite the
prior settlement and Smith having prevailed on her claim, the
court entered judgment for Laurenz Place in the amount of $1,
696.00 (for damages and attorney's fees for both causes).
Smith now appeals the judgment on the counterclaim. She
presents the issue of whether the small claims court clearly
erred in awarding Laurenz Place damages and attorney's
fees. We reverse.
and Procedural History
On March 6, 2018, Laurenz Place gave Smith notice to vacate
her rented apartment; eight days later, Laurenz Place filed a
claim against Smith for immediate possession. On the date
that the small claims hearing was scheduled, the parties -
both represented by counsel - reached an agreement. Smith
agreed to vacate the apartment on or before April 30, 2018
and pay the existing balance on her rent account. Laurenz
Place agreed to dismiss its small claims complaint so that
Smith would not have an eviction of record. The South Bend
Housing Authority issued checks for Smith's accrued rent,
which were accepted and deposited by Laurenz
Thereafter, Laurenz Place sent Smith an itemization of
alleged damages and a check for $269.00. This represented the
balance of Smith's $919.00 deposit, after deductions of
$100.00 for carpet cleaning, $100.00 for water, and $450.00
for attorney's fees incurred in Cause 2509. On July 11,
2018, Smith filed her complaint in Cause 6813, requesting
refund of her deposit, moving expenses of $2, 000.00, and
attorney's fees. On September 6, 2018, Laurenz Place
filed a counterclaim.
The small claims court conducted a hearing on September 20,
2018, at which the parties offered documentary and
testimonial evidence. On October 4, 2018, the court issued an
order. The court concluded that Smith was not entitled to
moving expenses for a wrongful eviction, having reached
agreement with Laurenz Place in Cause No. 2509. However, the
court found that Laurenz Place had wrongfully withheld
$450.00 in attorney's fees from Smith's security
deposit. Laurenz Place was ordered to refund Smith $450.00 of
the deposit and pay her $1, 200.00 in attorney's fees in
Cause 6813. However, the court awarded Laurenz Place
$650.00 (equivalent to the deduction from Smith's
security deposit) and $1, 046.00 in attorney's fees for
pursuing its defense and counterclaim in Cause 6813.
Smith filed a motion to correct error, which was summarily
denied. Laurenz Place, having been awarded $1, 696.00 and
ordered to pay Smith $1, 650.00, moved the small claims court
to offset the judgments. The court entered an order of
offset. Smith now appeals.
Smith contends that the small claims court erred by awarding
Laurenz Place damages despite its non-compliance with
Indiana's Security Deposits Statute, Indiana Code Section
32-31-3 et seq., and by awarding Laurenz Place
attorney's fees absent a statutory or contractual basis.
We review a small claims court's judgment for clear
error. Bokori v. Martinoski, 70 N.E.3d 441, 443
(Ind.Ct.App. 2017). A deferential standard of review is
particularly important in small claims actions, where trials
are informal, with the sole objective of dispensing speedy
justice between the parties according to the rules of
substantive law. Lae v. Householder, 789 N.E.2d 481,
483 (Ind. 2003). Laurenz Place did not file an appellee's
brief, "and thus we may reverse upon a prima facie
showing of reversible error - but even so, we still may not
reweigh evidence or reassess witness credibility."
Bokori, 70 N.E.3d at 444. "Prima facie ...