COA reverses, finding tenant denied due process in eviction proceeding

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A small claims court violated a tenant’s due process rights when it did not give her adequate notice of a hearing on a nonemergency eviction claim and did not allow her to prepare and present her defenses, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a Tuesday reversal.

According to court records, Marilea Piper owns a property on Webb Street in Indianapolis. Piper lives in Florida, and her son resides in the Indianapolis property.

Piper alleged that in October 2022, Mackenzie Taft rented a room from Piper’s son, but the two did not execute a lease agreement.

When she moved in, Taft brought several cats and a dog with her.

On March 20, Piper filed a notice of claim for emergency possession with the small claims court. In her supporting affidavit, Piper alleged that Taft was “verbally abuse” (sic) to Piper’s grandchildren and that she possessed a “pit bull” that was not covered by her homeowner’s insurance.

Three days later, the small claims court held a hearing on Piper’s claim.

During the hearing, Piper, who appeared pro se, asserted that Taft was “antagonizing” the grandchildren. She also stated that the garage smelled “foul” because of Taft’s cats, and that Taft’s dog “growl[ed]” at her.

After Piper had finished her testimony, Taft’s attorney argued that the allegations were untrue, and even if they were true, they “would not constitute sufficient grounds for an emergency eviction[.]”

Taft then proceeded to testify that her dog is not a pitbull but an American bulldog that is “not aggressive” and stays in her room. She said she cleaned up after the cats daily and had never damaged anything or “physically or mentally harmed anybody.”

At the conclusion of Taft’s testimony, the Marion County Center Township Small Claims Court determined that Piper’s petition did not “warrant an emergency eviction.”

However, the court pointed out that Taft did not have a lease and, as such, did not have “any entitlements or rights to stay there[.]”

At that point, Taft’s attorney argued that, because Taft did not have a lease, she was “by default month-to-month” and entitled to 30 days’ notice prior to an eviction filing.

The court agreed.

Taft then requested that the court dismiss Piper’s claim, but the court denied Taft’s motion.

The court determined that Taft had been given notice of Piper’s intent to reclaim the property on March 20 when Piper had filed her notice of claim. The court then stated that it was giving Taft “thirty days and if she is not out by then, then possession will be awarded to” Piper.

Taft objected and requested a hearing to have an opportunity to present “traditional defenses.”

The court responded that Taft “has no lease,” then granted Piper possession as of April 24.

Taft appealed, arguing the court denied her due process rights when it granted relief on Piper’s claim.

The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed, finding that the court violated Taft’s due process rights when it did not give her adequate notice of the hearing and when it did not allow her to prepare and present her defenses.

Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote the opinion for the appellate court.

Bailey noted that in her notice of claim, Piper alleged that Taft was verbally abusive to children and that she had a dog not covered by insurance.

At a hearing three days after Piper had filed her notice, the court heard testimony from both parties and ultimately concluded that Piper’s petition “doesn’t warrant an emergency eviction.”

Taft contended that the small claims court violated her due process rights when it changed the hearing from a hearing on Piper’s notice for emergency possession to a standard eviction proceeding.

According to Bailey, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Health and Human Rights Clinic and the Indiana Justice Project, as amici, similarly contended that the practice followed by the small claims court, “where Ms. Taft was ordered to move from her home without the Court providing the tenant and her counsel an opportunity to defend the claims of a non-emergency possession, reflects the basis for longtime concerns about due process protections in eviction cases[.]”

The appellate court agreed.

“Here, when the court changed the hearing from one on Piper’s notice of emergency possession to a traditional eviction case — an action that was not requested by Piper — and then immediately ruled in favor of Piper without a hearing, it denied Taft any notice of a nonemergency eviction action, which resulted in Taft not having an opportunity to see any allegations that Piper may have alleged in a nonemergency eviction notice,” Bailey wrote. “Further, because Taft did not receive notice of the allegations, she was wholly unable to develop any defenses, let alone present them. In other words, the court denied Taft all of her due process rights.”

A crowded docket does not excuse a small claims court from depriving a litigant of her due process rights, Bailey added.

“And, here, we hold that the small claims court did not just deny Taft any one due process right, it essentially denied her any of her due process rights,” he concluded.

Judges Melissa May and Paul Felix concurred.

The case is Mackenzie Taft v. Marilea Piper, 23A-EV-877.

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