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Alto Jake Holdings, LLC v. Donham

Supreme Court of Montana

December 5, 2017

ALTO JAKE HOLDINGS, LLC, Plaintiff and Appellee.
KEVIN DONHAM and SHALEY CLEMM, Defendants and Appellants.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 20, 2017

         APPEAL 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

          For Appellant: Brian J. Miller, Morrison Sherwood Wilson & Deola, PLLP; Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Paul A. Sandry, Mary Kate Moss, Johnson, Berg & Saxby, PLLP; Kalispell, Montana



         ¶1 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 § 25-33-201, MCA?
2. Did the Justice Court erroneously enter a money judgment in excess of its $12, 000 jurisdictional limit?

         ¶2 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.


         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 On September 7, 2016, Landlord filed a statutory unlawful detainer action[1] 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.

         ¶5 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.

         ¶6 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.

         ¶7 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 $21, 950.

         ¶8 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.

         ¶9 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 ...

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