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Husainy v. Granite Management, LLC

Court of Appeals of Indiana

September 17, 2019

Syed Umar Husainy, Appellant-Defendant-Counterclaimant/Cross-Appellee,
v.
Granite Management, LLC, and Jaffa Varsity 1, LLC, Appellees-Plaintiffs-Counterclaim Defendants/Cross-Appellants

          Appeal from the Tippecanoe Superior Court, The Honorable Michael A. Morrissey, Special Judge, Trial Court Cause No. 79D06-1706-PL-80

          Attorney for Appellant Duran L. Keller Keller Law Lafayette, Indiana.

          Attorney for Appellees Joseph R. Delehanty Gutwein Law Lafayette, Indiana

          Crone, Judge.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Syed Umar Husainy leased an apartment in a building that was managed by Granite Management, LLC ("Granite"), and owned by Jaffa Varsity 1, LLC ("Jaffa"). Granite sued Husainy, seeking eviction for alleged nonpayment of rent/breach of contract. Husainy countersued Granite and filed third-party claims against Jaffa, alleging breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment and violations of a statute that requires a landlord to maintain basic levels of habitability. After a trial, the jury found against Granite on its breach of contract claim. The jury found in favor of Husainy on his breach of covenant claim and also found in favor of Husainy on his statutory claim, which entitled him to seek attorney's fees. Husainy requested nearly $60, 000 in fees, and the trial court awarded him $2000. Granite and Jaffa (collectively "Appellees") filed a motion to correct error, asserting that the jury's verdicts for Husainy were not supported by the evidence. The trial court granted the motion in part and vacated the jury's verdict on the breach of covenant claim, but denied the motion in part as to the statutory claim.

         [¶2] Husainy now appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in granting Appellees' motion to correct error on his breach of covenant claim and in awarding him only $2000 in attorney's fees. He also argues that the trial judge was biased. On cross-appeal, Appellees argue that the trial court erred in denying their motion to correct error on Husainy's statutory claim. We affirm the denial of Appellees' motion to correct error on Husainy's statutory claim, reverse the grant of Appellees' motion to correct error on Husainy's breach of covenant claim, and reverse the award of attorney's fees as inadequate and remand for further proceedings on that issue. We also hold that Husainy has waived his bias claim.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] Husainy started leasing his third-floor apartment in the Varsity Building in West Lafayette in 2007. On March 16, 2016, he signed an agreement for a lease term of May 31, 2016, through May 31, 2017. The agreement states that Granite is the landlord and bears the preprinted name of a Granite representative, who did not sign the document. The agreement states that Husainy's monthly rent is $725 and that his "[security] deposit of $605 carries over." Ex. Vol. at 24. Husainy was charged a monthly parking fee of $25 pursuant to a separate parking lease.

         [¶4] On January 23, 2017, Granite filed a notice of claim against Husainy in small claims court, seeking eviction for alleged nonpayment of rent, maintenance charges, and late fees in the amount of $1280.50. On February 3, 2017, Husainy filed a jury trial demand, a counterclaim against Granite, and a third-party complaint against Jaffa. By agreement of the parties, the case was transferred to the plenary docket. In March 2017, Husainy filed a motion for change of judge, and the parties agreed to the selection of a special judge. Husainy vacated his apartment at the end of his lease term in May 2017 but did not receive his security deposit because it had been applied against his outstanding unpaid balance of over $2750.

         [¶5] Ultimately, the following claims were set for trial: (1) Granite's claim against Husainy for nonpayment of rent/breach of contract; (2) Husainy's claim against Appellees for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment; (3) Husainy's claim against Appellees for an alleged violation of Indiana Code Section 32-31-8-5, which requires a landlord to maintain basic levels of habitability; and (4) Husainy's claim against Appellees for an alleged violation of Indiana Code Section 32-31-3-12, which requires a landlord to return a tenant's security deposit and timely provide an itemized list of any deductions. A two-day jury trial began on August 22, 2018. Appellees presented evidence that in November 2016 the Varsity Building's septic pit had two overflows, which they attributed to plumbing clogs caused by Husainy flushing cleaning wipes down his toilet; Husainy was charged for removal of the clogs but refused to pay. Husainy took the stand and denied flushing wipes down his toilet. He also testified that he experienced several "issues" with the building, including "no heat […] at times[, ]" pipe leaks that "covered" the hallway and stairwell landings with half an inch of water, and interruptions of both cold and hot water service, which compelled him to purchase bottled water and shower at a college recreational center and at friends' homes. Tr. Vol. 4 at 184, 190.

         [¶6] During closing argument, Husainy's counsel asserted that because Granite's representative did not sign the lease agreement, there was no contract and therefore no breach of contract by Husainy or breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment by Appellees. Regarding Appellees' alleged violation of Section 32-31-8-5, Husainy's counsel initially asked for "$50" to reimburse Husainy for the bottled water but then stated, "[Husainy's] asking you to ask for a dollar. I think I asked for 50 but you guys get to determine what it's worth to go through that sort of stuff." Tr. Vol. 5 at 6, 10. Regarding Appellees' alleged violation of Section 32-31-3-12, Husainy's counsel argued that the statute "says you have to give this person their money back, unless they have caused these damages. And if you're wrong, this person gets their security deposit back." Id. at 7. The jury found against Granite on its breach of contract claim. The jury found in favor of Husainy on his breach of covenant claim and awarded him $4500 in damages. The jury also found in favor of Husainy on his Section 32-31-8-5 claim, which entitled him to seek attorney's fees pursuant to Section 32-31-8-6, and awarded him $605 in damages.

         [¶7] Appellees filed a motion to correct error pursuant to Indiana Trial Rules 50 and 59, asserting that the jury's verdicts in favor of Husainy's claims were not supported by the evidence. Husainy requested $59, 020.67 in attorney's fees. After a hearing, the trial court granted Appellees' motion in part and vacated the jury's verdict on the breach of covenant claim, but denied the motion in part as to the Section 32-31-8-5 claim. The court also awarded Husainy $2000 in attorney's fees. Husainy appealed, and Appellees cross-appealed.[1] Additional facts will be provided below.

         Discussion and Decision

         Section 1 - The trial court abused its discretion in granting Appellees' motion to correct error on Husainy's breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment claim.

         [¶8] We first address Husainy's contention that the trial court erred in granting Appellees' motion to correct error on his breach of covenant claim. "We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to correct error for an abuse of discretion." Sch. City of Hammond Dist. v. Rueth, 71 N.E.3d 33, 40 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017), trans. denied. A trial court abuses its discretion if its "action is against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before it and the inferences which may be drawn therefrom." Id. (quoting Cox v. Matthews, 901 N.E.2d 14, 21 (Ind.Ct.App. 2009), trans. dismissed).

         [¶9] "Indiana's trial rules allow a party to move for judgment on the evidence in a motion to correct error." Id. (citing Ind. Trial Rule 50(A)(4)). "When considering a motion to correct error, if the court 'determines that prejudicial or harmful error has been committed,' it 'shall take such action as will cure the error.'" Id. (quoting Ind. Trial Rule 59(J)). Trial Rule 50(A) provides,

Where all or some of the issues in a case tried before a jury or an advisory jury are not supported by sufficient evidence or a verdict thereon is clearly erroneous as contrary to the evidence because the evidence is insufficient to support it, the court shall withdraw such issues from the jury and enter judgment thereon or shall enter judgment thereon notwithstanding a verdict.

         When a trial court considers a motion for judgment on the evidence following a jury verdict, the court "may not weigh the evidence and 'must view only the evidence favorable to the non-moving party and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from that evidence.'" Rueth, 71 N.E.3d at 41 (quoting Huff v. Travelers Indem. Co., 266 Ind. 414, 421, 363 N.E.2d 985, 990 (1977)). "The trial court may enter judgment only if there is no substantial evidence or reasonable inference to be adduced therefrom to support an essential element of the claim, i.e., the evidence must point unerringly to a conclusion not reached by the jury." Id. (quoting Huff, 266 Ind. at 421, 363 N.E.2d at 990) (italics in Rueth omitted). "If there is relevant evidence that supports the verdict, a motion for judgment on the evidence is improper because the final determination must be left to the fact-finder." Id.

         [¶10] Determining whether evidence is sufficient to survive a motion for judgment on the evidence "requires both a quantitative and a qualitative analysis." Purcell v. Old Nat'l Bank, 972 N.E.2d 835, 840 (Ind. 2012) (quoting Am. Optical Co. v. Weidenhammer, 457 N.E.2d 181, 184 (Ind. 1983)). "Evidence fails quantitatively only if it is wholly absent; that is, only if there is no evidence to support the conclusion." Id. "If some evidence exists, a court must then proceed to the qualitative analysis to determine whether the evidence is substantial enough to support a reasonable inference in favor of the non-moving party." Id. Evidence fails qualitatively "when it cannot be said, with reason, that the intended inference may logically be drawn therefrom; and this may occur either because of an absence of credibility of a witness or because the intended inference may not be drawn therefrom without undue speculation." Id. (quoting Am. Optical, 457 N.E.2d at 184).

         [¶11] Among other things, the covenant of quiet enjoyment "protect[s] the possessory interests of the lessee in the beneficial use and enjoyment of the demised property." Sigsbee v. Swathwood, 419 N.E.2d 789, 797 n.8 (Ind.Ct.App. 1981) (citing, inter alia, Nate v. Galloway, 408 N.E.2d 1317 (Ind.Ct.App. 1980)). Contrary to what Appellees suggest, "eviction is not a prerequisite for a recovery of damages based on the landlord's breach" of the covenant. Nate, 408 N.E.2d at 1321. Indeed, as the Nate court observed, "[i]t is not fair or logical to allow the timid tenant, who easily succumbs to the landlord's intimidation and vacates the premises, to recover damages, and yet deny damages to the stalwart tenant who is aware of his legal rights and refuses to be intimidated or driven from his home." Id. at 1322.

         [¶12] Husainy alleged that Appellees breached the covenant of quiet enjoyment by "fail[ing] to maintain the premises in good and proper order." Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 114. The trial court gave the following final instruction to the jury on the elements of Husainy's claim:

To recover damages from Granite and/or Jaffa, Husainy must prove all of the following by the greater weight of the evidence:
1. The parties entered into a contract;
2. Husainy performed his part of the contract;
3. Granite and/or Jaffa failed to perform its part of the contract;
4. Granite's and or Jaffa's breach damaged Husainy; and
5. Granite's and/or Jaffa's breach was a responsible causes [sic] of those damages.

Id. at 42. The verdict form indicates that the jury found Appellees liable and assessed damages in the sum of $4500, of which $0 were "also included in damages assessed in favor of Husainy" and against Appellees on his Section 32-31-8-5 claim. Id. at 35. In its order on Appellees' motion to correct error, the trial court found "that the jury verdict is not supported by the evidence. Husainy presented no evidence of actual damages and further, counsel for Husainy in final argument, argued that Husainy was merely inconvenienced by certain maintenance issues during his occupancy." Appealed Order at 1.

         [¶13] "Damages are particularly a jury determination." Prange v. Martin, 629 N.E.2d 915, 922 (Ind.Ct.App. 1994), trans. denied. "No particular degree of mathematical certainty is required in awarding damages." Greives v. Greenwood, 550 N.E.2d 334, 339 (Ind.Ct.App. 1990). "We will not deem a verdict to be the result of improper considerations, unless it cannot be explained on any other reasonable ground." Prange, 629 N.E.2d at 922. "Our inability to look into the minds of jurors and determine how they computed an award is, to a large extent, the reason behind the rule that a verdict will be upheld if the award falls within the bounds of the evidence." Weinberger v. Boyer, 956 N.E.2d 1095, 1113 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011), trans. denied (2012). "[I]f there is any evidence in the record which supports the amount of the award, even if it is variable or conflicting, the award will not be disturbed." Prange, 629 N.E.2d at 922.

         [¶14] Appellees observe that Husainy's claim "was based upon a contractual relationship" and assert that "rules for the recovery of damages under contract applies [sic]." Appellees' Br. at 27, 28. Appellees further assert that "[t]he measure of damages in a breach of contract case is the loss actually suffered by the breach." Id. at 28 (citing Colonial Discount Corp. v. Berkhardt, 435 N.E.2d 65, 66 (Ind.Ct.App. 1982)).[2] One legal treatise states that in cases where an interference with quiet enjoyment is not an eviction, "actual damages are measured by the difference between the value of what the lessee should have received and the value of what he or she did receive." 49 Am. Jur. 2d Landlord and Tenant § 486 (Aug. 2019 update).

         [¶15] Pursuant to the lease agreement, Granite was responsible for furnishing water and gas. Ex. Vol. at 15. Husainy testified about frequent interruptions of cold and/or hot water service, [3] which compelled him to purchase bottled water in bulk at the gas station and shower at a college recreational center and at friends' homes, as well as multiple heating outages during cold weather. He supported this testimony with email correspondence between him and Granite representatives regarding these problems. Husainy testified that a case of bottled water would cost "about" $5 or $6, "depending on the water[, ]" and that he had to make such purchases "over 10 times, 20 times probably, maybe more." Tr. Vol. 4 at 188. The jury awarded Husainy damages equivalent to six months' rent, including his parking fee ($750 × 6 = $4500). Given the numerous interruptions of and difficulties with the building's water and heating service, we cannot conclude that the jury's damages award falls outside the bounds of the evidence presented at trial.[4] Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in granting Appellees' motion to correct error on Husainy's breach of quiet enjoyment claim. We therefore reverse and remand with instructions to reinstate the jury's verdict on that claim.

         Section 2 - The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Appellees' motion to correct error on Husainy's Section 32-31-8-5 claim.

         [¶16] Next, we address Appellees' contention that the trial court abused its discretion in denying their motion to correct error on Husainy's claim based on ...


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