ALTO JAKE HOLDINGS, LLC, Plaintiff and Appellee.
KEVIN DONHAM and SHALEY CLEMM, Defendants and Appellants.
Submitted on Briefs: September 20, 2017
FROM District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, In and
For the County of Flathead, Cause No. DV 17-102B Honorable
Robert B. Allison, Presiding Judge
Appellant: Brian J. Miller, Morrison Sherwood Wilson &
Deola, PLLP; Helena, Montana
Appellee: Paul A. Sandry, Mary Kate Moss, Johnson, Berg &
Saxby, PLLP; Kalispell, Montana
M. SANDEFUR JUDGE.
Kevin Donham and Shaley Clemm (Tenants) appeal the judgment
of the Montana Eleventh Judicial District Court, Flathead
County, dismissing their appeal of an underlying judgment of
the Flathead County Justice Court for failure to timely file
an appellate brief pursuant to Rule 14 of the Uniform
Municipal Court Rules of Appeal to District Court (U. M. C.
R. App.). We restate the narrow issues on appeal as:
1. Did the District Court erroneously dismiss
Tenants' appeal for failure to timely file an appellate
brief before ruling on their justice court motion to
proceed in forma pauperis for purposes of §
2. Did the Justice Court erroneously enter a money
judgment in excess of its $12, 000 jurisdictional limit?
We affirm on Issue 1 but reverse and remand on Issue 2 for
entry of judgment in favor of Alto Jake Holdings, LLC
(Landlord), in conformance with the jurisdictional limit for
justice court money judgments.
Tenants successively rented two mobile homes on adjoining
properties, 1188 and 1190 Patrick Creek Road, in Kalispell,
Montana, from Alto Jake Holdings, LLC. Tenants assert that
they executed a written, one-year lease agreement calling for
them to rent the upper trailer (1188) during November and
December 2015, and then to rent the lower trailer (1190) from
January 2016 through October 2016. James Sichting and his
daughter, Amber Altig, were partners and the principals in
Alto Jake Holdings, LLC.
On September 7, 2016, Landlord filed a statutory unlawful
detainer action in the Flathead County Justice Court for
repossession of both trailers, $450 in back rent,
compensation for property damage, costs, and attorney fees.
On October 3, 2016, Tenants filed a pro se answer
generally denying all complaint allegations and
counterclaiming for $4, 800 in restitution for previously
paid rent, costs, and attorney fees. In support of their
counterclaim, Tenants alleged that Landlord materially
breached the lease agreement by allowing the lower mobile
home to become uninhabitable due to freeze-broken pipes, a
defective water filtration system, and non-functional sewage
system. Tenants further alleged that the upper trailer had a
"red tagged" electrical meter while they were
living there prior to moving to the lower trailer. Tenants
alleged that Landlord failed to restore water and sewer
service to the lower trailer despite timely written and
verbal notice of the problems.
At bench trial on October 17, 2016, Landlord presented
testimony through Sichting, Altig, and hired handyman Brad
Hoag. Sichting recalled the general terms of the parties'
one-year lease agreement, but also testified that, due to
memory loss, he could not clearly recall all related details
and circumstances pertaining to the specific terms of the
agreement. During the late fall and winter of 2015-16, Altig
lived out-of-state and was not personally involved with the
subject rental until she returned to Montana in April 2016.
While Altig denied that Tenants had a one-year lease and
contrarily asserted that they merely rented on an informal
month-to-month basis, the Justice Court admitted a copy of
the parties' executed lease agreement into evidence
without objection. Altig testified that she first became
aware of the water and sewer system problems in early April
2016. She asserted that the mobile home water system froze up
only after Tenants unplugged the heat tape and space heater
in the pump house. She also asserted that the trailers did
not have a functioning water-filtration system only because
Tenants removed or disconnected the system.
Handyman Hoag testified that Sichting hired him to make
repairs on the upper trailer in early 2016 after Tenants had
moved to the lower trailer in January. Hoag testified that he
was able to restore water to the upper trailer but explained
that the lack of filtration caused all faucets in both
trailers to plug up with sand and pebbles. Hoag said that he
discovered the main sewer pipe for the lower trailer had
become disconnected and that other pipes in the sewage system
were broken, causing an unsanitary mess. Hoag testified that
the lower trailer was not worth fixing due to the degree of
sewage contamination. Hoag estimated that Sichting hired him
to work on the two trailers approximately six times during
the winter of 2016. Over objection, the Justice Court
admitted a list of damages presented by Altig as Exhibit M,
which estimated the total cost of repairs to the trailers at
$20, 583. Under questioning from the court, Tenants
acknowledged that they received Landlord's notice to
vacate the lower trailer in August 2016 and subsequently
moved out in September 2016. Before adjourning due to time
constraints on the court docket, the Justice Court declared
the rental agreement terminated due to Tenants' failure
to pay rent and decreed that Landlord was entitled to
immediate possession of the property.
On November 18, 2016, the matter came on for continuation of
bench trial to address the merits of Landlord's damages
claim and Tenants' counterclaims. Tenants did not appear.
On Landlord's motion, the court dismissed Tenants'
counterclaims with prejudice. Amber Altig again testified
that Tenants caused extraordinary damage to both trailers by
causing breakage of sewer piping in the lower trailer, which
then allowed raw sewage to run downhill to a small pond on
the property. She estimated $4, 000 as the cost of tearing
down and hauling away the contaminated lower trailer and an
additional $8, 000 to $9, 000 as the cost of digging out and
restoring the contaminated pond. Based on those estimates and
the other figures in her previously admitted Exhibit M,
including the cost of repairing the upper trailer, Altig
estimated the "rough total" of Landlord's
damages to be $20, 583. At the close of trial, the Justice
Court issued judgment against Tenants and awarded the
Landlord damages, attorney fees, and costs in the amount of
Just hours after the trial adjourned, Tenants moved to set
aside the judgment on the asserted ground that they did not
receive notice of the continued trial date. On December 6,
2016, on hearing on Tenants' motion, the Justice Court
vacated its November 18th judgment on the ground that Tenants
had properly updated their address of record and did not
receive notice at their new address.
On December 7, 2016, the Justice Court issued an order,
served by mail, resetting the continuation of bench trial for
December 19, 2016. Four days before trial, on December 15,
2016, Tenants moved to continue the trial on the asserted
grounds that: (1) they had insufficient time to prepare for
trial because they did not receive notice of the December
19th trial until December 13th; (2) a Helena attorney had
agreed to represent them but needed time to review the case;
and (3) Tenant Clemm was scheduled by her new employer to
begin a 7-week training at the Teletech call center in
Kalispell on December 19th and ...