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Smith v. Laurenz Place LLC

Court of Appeals of Indiana

June 25, 2019

Jacqueline Smith, Appellant,
Laurenz Place LLC, Appellee.

          Appeal 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

          Bailey, Judge.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] 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.

         [¶2] 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.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] 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 Place.[1]

         [¶4] 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.

         [¶5] 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.[2] 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.

         [¶6] 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.[3] Smith now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶7] 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.

         [¶8] 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 ...

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