COA remands landlord-tenant dispute due to ‘informal’ proceedings

After concluding an Indiana trial court conducted a small claims landlord-tenant dispute too informally without considering testimony or evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals has remanded the case for a “proper” evidentiary hearing.

Noblesville resident Robert Muldowney was renting a residence from Lincoln Park LLC, owned by Robert Versprille, for $500 per month from July 2015 to June 2016, when the lease was set to expire. Lincoln Park and Versprille then accepted additional payment from Muldowney in July 2016, and he remained in possession of the residence past July 31.

Then on Sept. 2, Versprille filed a pro se complaint for immediate possession of the property and $1,000 in rent. The complaint, which was docketed as a small claims action, claimed Muldowney was notified on May 26 his lease would not be renewed. However, the complaint also made no mention of the July 2016 payment.

During a subsequent hearing, Muldowney’s counsel orally moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing the one-year lease converted into a month-to-month lease when Versprille accepted the July 2016 payment. He also said Versprille refused to accept Muldowney’s August rent payment and that the eviction complaint was not proper notice of intent to terminate the lease. Versprille, speaking only once during the proceeding, said Muldowney was disruptive, so he wanted him removed from the premises.

No one was sworn in to testify during the hearing and no exhibits were entered into evidence, but the Hamilton Superior Court still ruled that eviction should be granted effective Oct. 2, 2016. Muldowney’s motion to correct was then denied, so he appealed in Robert Muldowney v. Lincoln Park, LLC and Robert Versprille, 29A02-1610-SC-2439.

Upon review of the case, the Indiana Court of Appeals determined Friday the trial court had proceeded too informally during the small claims proceeding, warranting dismissal of the appeal without prejudice and remand for an evidentiary hearing.  

“Here, the trial court’s informality went too far,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote. “It did not allow either party the opportunity to present documentary evidence or sworn testimony in support of their respective positions. … Also, it should have been apparent, based on counsel’s motion to dismiss and supporting argument, that the facts of the case were not straightforward and that each party should have been allowed to present evidence to support its claims before the trial court spontaneously ruled against Muldowney.”

Further, because Muldowney claimed he was not notified his month-to-month lease would be terminated before the eviction complaint, he had not yet breached the lease when the complaint was filed, Barnes said. Additionally, existing precedent points to the fact that the lease could not be terminated until Oct. 31, rather than Oct. 2, he said.

However, “(t)he manner in which the trial court acted here deprived Lincoln (Park) and Versprille of the chance to present evidence to meet its burden of proof against Muldowney,” Barnes said. Thus, the case was dismissed and remanded, with the opportunity for either party to initiate a new appeal after the evidentiary hearing.

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