Coleman v. Thomas

Decision Date23 June 2000
Docket Number No. 981660., No. 981638
Citation2000 UT 53,4 P.3d 783
PartiesGary W. COLEMAN, dba Coleman Mobile Home Court, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Michael C. THOMAS and Harry S. Thomas, Defendants and Appellants.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Walter T. Merrill, Ogden, for plaintiff.

Wendy F. Fenton, Brigham City, for Michael Thomas.

Frank G. Smith, Ogden, for Harry Thomas.

RUSSON, Associate Chief Justice:

¶ 1 Defendants Michael Thomas and Harry Thomas, residents in plaintiff Gary Coleman's mobile home park, appeal from the trial court's order denying their motion for a new trial. After a bench trial, the court held that the Mobile Home Park Residency Act did not prevent Coleman from terminating the Thomases' lease without cause.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On May 21, 1993, Michael Thomas signed an agreement with Gary Coleman to lease a mobile home space in Coleman's mobile home park. The lease agreement stated in pertinent part:

The term shall begin on Jan. 1, 1993 and continue ... on a month to month basis. Until tenant shall terminate by giving owner 15 days notice prior to the end of rental period, or owner shall terminate by giving tenant 15 days notice prior to end of Rental period.

Michael Thomas then occupied a mobile home owned by his father, Harry Thomas, on the space leased from Coleman.

¶ 3 On June 12, 1996, Coleman mailed to Michael Thomas a notice stating:

The terms of the Contract you signed with me is [sic] on a month to month rental basis.
This agreement can be terminated by the renter giving a 30 day notice to the owner. The agreement also can terminate by the owner giving the tenant a 30 day notice. (In 1993 when you signed the agreement it was 15 days it is now 30)
This is a 30 day notice to vacate this Mobile Home Court.

The notice did not specify a reason for terminating the lease, but ordered Michael Thomas to remove the mobile home from Coleman's mobile home park by August 1, 1996. Harry Thomas received a similar notice from Coleman on July 31, 1996, again ordering that the mobile home be removed by August 1, 1996.

¶ 4 After receiving the two notices, the Thomases continued to reside in the mobile home. In addition, they continued forwarding monthly rental payments to Coleman, who returned each payment with a statement that the lease agreement had terminated on August 1, 1996.

¶ 5 On October 2, 1997, Coleman filed a complaint alleging that the lease had terminated and seeking an order of restitution, damages, and costs. Coleman also alleged in his complaint that the Thomases failed to comply with park rules and that their behavior endangered other residents of the park.

¶ 6 After a trial was held, the court entered judgment on behalf of Coleman. In its findings of fact and conclusions of law,1 the trial court stated that Coleman was entitled to terminate the lease with thirty days' notice, and that Coleman "properly terminated" the lease effective September 1, 1996. The court did not address whether the Thomases complied with park rules or endangered other residents. Concluding that the Thomases were in unlawful detainer pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 78-36-3 (1996), the court awarded Coleman (1) treble damages for rent due from September 1, 1996, until the Thomases quit the premises; (2) attorney fees and costs; and (3) restitution of the mobile home space.

¶ 7 The Thomases filed a motion for a new trial and stay of order of restitution, contending that the Mobile Home Park Residency Act ("MHPRA"), Utah Code Ann. §§ 57-16-1 to -15.1 (1994 & Supp.1999), precluded Coleman from terminating the lease without cause. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial but stayed execution of the restitution order pending an appeal of the court's decision. The trial court reasoned that the MHPRA did not apply in this case because Coleman did not actually "terminate" the lease. Rather, the court explained, the month-to-month lease agreement "naturally expire[d] at the end of the month, thus leaving no lease to terminate." The court stated that the MHPRA "applied to a termination of a lease rather than the expiration of a lease," and thus did not preclude Coleman from evicting the Thomases without cause after the lease "expired."

¶ 8 The Thomases now appeal, contending that (1) this case falls within the purview of the MHPRA, (2) Coleman was not entitled under the MHPRA to terminate the lease without cause, and (3) the notices they received did not comply with the MHPRA because they failed to state a cause.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 9 We review the trial court's legal conclusions for correctness. See Meadowbrook, LLC v. Flower, 959 P.2d 115, 116 (Utah 1998)

. Moreover, "when interpreting a legislative enactment, our primary role is to give effect to the legislature's intent as set forth in the statute's plain language." State v. McCoy, 2000 UT 39, ¶ 9, 393 Utah Adv. Rep. 17, 999 P.2d 572. We do not look beyond a statute's plain language unless it is ambiguous. See Evans v. State, 963 P.2d 177, 184 (Utah 1998).

ANALYSIS
I. APPLICABILITY OF THE MHPRA

¶ 10 The first issue we must resolve is whether the trial court correctly concluded that the MHPRA is inapplicable in the instant case. The MHPRA, by its plain language, declares that "[a] mobile home park or its agents may not terminate a lease or rental agreement upon any ground other than as specified in this chapter." Utah Code Ann. § 57-16-4(1) (Supp.1999). Thus, the MHPRA governs acts by a mobile home park owner to terminate a lease within a mobile home park. We therefore must determine whether Coleman "terminate[d] a lease or rental agreement."

¶ 11 We begin by briefly examining the two most common types of tenancy that can be created with a residential lease agreement: periodic tenancy and term-of-years tenancy.2 See 4 Thompson on Real Property § 39.02(c), at 492 (David A. Thomas ed., 1994). Two important differences exist between these two forms of tenancy: the duration of the tenancy and the manner in which the tenancy is terminated. See id. at 491-92.

¶ 12 A term-of-years tenancy lasts for the term specified in the lease agreement. See Restatement (Second) of Property § 1.4 cmt. d (1977). At the expiration of the specified term, the tenancy automatically terminates. See id. cmt. e. No notice by either party is needed to terminate the tenancy unless the lease agreement provides otherwise. See id.; 2 Richard R. Powell, Powell on Real Property § 16.03[7][a] (1994).

¶ 13 A periodic tenancy, in contrast, involves a continuous succession of "periods" — one-month periods in the case of a month-to-month lease — and lasts for an indefinite time. See Restatement (Second) of Property, supra ¶ 12, § 1.5 cmt. c. Periodic tenancy does not terminate and renew itself at the beginning of each period; rather, each new period is simply an extension of the original period. See id.; 2 Powell on Real Property, supra ¶ 12, § 16.04[1]. Moreover, "periodic tenancies never expire automatically because they are continuous by definition." 4 Thompson on Real Property, supra ¶ 11, § 39.06(b)(1), at 526. A periodic tenancy may be terminated only when one party gives proper notice to terminate it. See Restatement (Second) of Property, supra ¶ 12, § 1.5 cmt. f.

¶ 14 The foregoing discussion exposes the fundamental flaw in the trial court's reasoning. The court reasoned that the month-to-month lease "naturally expired at the end of each month," taking Coleman's action outside the scope of the MHPRA, which deals with "terminating" a lease. This is not the case. A month-to-month lease, or any other periodic tenancy, does not simply "expire," as the court concluded. As discussed above, it must be "terminated," and it is the act of giving notice that triggers the termination of the lease.3

¶ 15 The lease agreement and notices concede this point. The lease agreement states that the Thomases' rental shall continue "[u]ntil tenant shall terminate by giving owner 15 days notice prior to the end of rental period, or owner shall terminate by giving tenant 15 days notice prior to end of rental period." (Emphasis added.) Similarly, the notice to Michael Thomas stated: "This agreement can be terminated by the renter giving a 30 day notice to the owner. The agreement also can terminate by the owner giving the tenant a 30 day notice." (Emphasis added.) In addition, the notice to Harry Thomas was labeled "termination of lease or rental agreement." (Emphasis added.)

¶ 16 Thus, when Coleman gave the notices to the Thomases, he was indeed taking action to "terminate a lease or rental agreement." His actions therefore invoke the application of the MHPRA.

II. TERMINATION OF THE LEASE WITHOUT CAUSE

¶ 17 We must next determine whether the MHPRA precluded Coleman from terminating the lease without cause. The MHPRA limits the grounds for terminating a lease as follows:

(1) An agreement for the lease of mobile home space in a mobile home park may be terminated by mutual agreement or for any one or more of the following causes:
(a) failure of a resident to comply with a mobile home park rule . . . after receipt of a notice of noncompliance from the mobile home park . . .;
(b) repeated failure of a resident to abide by a mobile home park rule . . .;
(c) behavior by a resident which substantially endangers the security and health of the other residents or threatens the property in the park;
(d) nonpayment of rent, fees, or service charges;
(e) a change in the land use or condemnation of the mobile home park or any part of it.

Utah Code Ann. § 57-16-5(1) (Supp.1999) (emphasis added). If a park owner elects to terminate a lease for any of these stated causes, the park owner must first provide proper notice to the resident, which must include, among other requisites, "cause for the notice." Id. § 57-16-6(2) (emphasis added). Moreover, the MHPRA dictates that "[n]o park or resident may agree to waive any right, duty, or privilege" that the MHPRA confers. Id. § 57-16-12 (1994).

¶ 18 In light of the plain language...

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  • Gorostieta v. Parkinson
    • United States
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    ...the statute. ¶ 47 When interpreting a statute, we must first look to the statute's plain language for the legislative intent. See Coleman v. Thomas, 2000 UT 53, ¶ 9, 4 P.3d 783. We look no further if the plain language of the statute is unambiguous on its face. See id. ¶ 48 Section 41-6-80 ......
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