O'Connell v. Deering

Decision Date27 July 2021
Docket NumberNo. SD 36872,SD 36872
Parties Christine O'CONNELL and Greg O'Connell, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Leechia Raquel DEERING, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Attorney for Appellant: Kelby B. Stuckey of Springfield, MO.

Attorney for Respondents: Victoria M. Faulkner of Springfield, MO.


Defendant Leechia Raquel1 Deering (Deering) appeals from the trial court's judgment in favor of plaintiffs Christine and Greg O'Connell (hereinafter referred to collectively as the O'Connells and individually by their given names) in their unlawful detainer action. The judgment awarded the O'Connells immediate possession of their leased premises, unpaid rent, late fees, and attorney fees.

On appeal, Deering contends the trial court erred by granting relief on the unlawful detainer claim because: (1) according to the terms of the lease, she became a month-to-month tenant when she remained in possession of the property after the lease expired; (2) pursuant to the provisions of § 441.060, she was entitled to one month's written notice to vacate; and (3) the O'Connells failed to prove that they properly terminated Deering's month-to-month tenancy by giving her timely written notice.2 We agree. Therefore, we reverse the judgment and remand with directions for the trial court to enter an amended judgment awarding the O'Connells only their unpaid rent.

Standard of Review

The judgment is presumed correct, and the party challenging the judgment bears the burden of proving it erroneous. Denny v. Regions Bank , 527 S.W.3d 920, 924-25 (Mo. App. 2017). In this court-tried case, our review is governed by Rule 84.13(d) and Murphy v. Carron , 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). We are required to affirm the trial court's judgment unless it is not supported by substantial evidence, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Murphy , 536 S.W.2d at 32. We review questions of law decided in a court-tried case de novo. I-70 Mobile City, Inc. v. Cartwright , 595 S.W.3d 161, 163 (Mo. App. 2020).

Factual and Procedural Background

In April 2019, Deering signed a residential lease agreement (Lease), on a form presented to her by the O'Connells, to possess property they owned. The Lease obligated Deering to pay $790 per month for twelve months. The Lease term commenced on April 1, 2019 and expired on March 31, 2020. According to the Lease, "[n]either Landlord or Tenant shall be bound by any terms, conditions, statements, warranties or representations, oral or written, not herein contained unless made in writing and signed by both Landlord and Tenant." The Lease also specified the nature of the tenancy created if Deering remained in possession after the Lease expired: "if Tenant shall hold over after the expiration of the term of this Lease, Tenant shall, in the absence of any written agreement to the contrary, be a tenant from month to month, as defined by applicable Missouri law[.]"

On March 9, 2020, the O'Connells sent a letter to Deering informing her that the Lease terminated on March 31, 2020, and would not be renewed. Deering also was informed that the O'Connells would extend the Lease for an additional two weeks, if needed, to April 15, 2020. The letter included signature lines for Deering and the property manager to sign and date, but neither party signed the letter. Deering tendered her April rent in the full amount. The O'Connells accepted the rent.

On April 25, 2020, the O'Connells sent Deering a second letter, which stated that the Lease terminated on March 31, 2020, and her move-out date was extended until April 30, 2020. This letter told Deering to deliver possession of the premises by May 15, 2020. Signature lines for the parties to sign and date were included. The O'Connells signed the letter, but Deering did not do so. On May 6, 2020, Christine O'Connell sent Deering a text that reiterated the May 15th deadline to move out. Deering continued in possession during the month of May and tendered rent in two payments of $395 each. The O'Connells accepted the May 2020 rent payments.

On May 22, 2020, Christine called Deering and said that she would need to surrender possession of the premises by May 25, 2020. Christine had found a new tenant and wanted to put that tenant into possession the next day. Deering continued to possess the premises past the May 25, 2020 date set by the O'Connells. Around June 2, 2020, Deering attempted to pay rent for June, but the O'Connells would not accept that rent payment.3

On June 8, 2020, the O'Connells filed this unlawful detainer action against Deering in the associate division of the circuit court. The O'Connells sought immediate possession, unpaid rent, late fees accruing while the unlawful detainer claim was pending, attorney fees and costs. Deering was personally served on June 9, 2020. The return date on the summons was July 28, 2020. On July 20, 2020, Deering's attorney filed a motion to dismiss. The motion alleged that Deering did not receive the timely notice to vacate required by § 441.060. That motion was later denied. On August 26, 2020, Deering filed an answer, which pleaded the affirmative defense that "Plaintiff's claim is barred because the Plaintiff failed to cancel lease contract as required by RSMo. § 441.060." A bench trial was held September 24, 2020, at which time Deering was still in possession of the premises.

On October 14, 2020, the trial court entered a docket order stating that the court found in favor of the O'Connells on their claim. The court found that the O'Connells consented to extensions of time to allow Deering to move out, "allowing three separate extensions to April 15, April 30 and May 15." By accepting payment for rent for those periods, the O'Connells "showed consent for these short extensions of tenancy" but not "to a month to month tenancy[.]" The trial court referenced the two letters sent by the O'Connells and found that "the agreement was simply an extension of the final date of a fixed term" and that, after May 16, 2020, Deering was a holdover tenant not entitled to notice to vacate.

On October 27, 2020, the trial court entered judgment for the O'Connells for immediate possession of the premises and $7,888.50, which included five months’ unpaid rent from June through October, late fees of $436, and attorney fees in the amount of $3,502.50. This appeal followed.

Discussion and Decision

Deering presents one point for decision. She contends the trial court misapplied the law by entering judgment in favor of the O'Connells on their unlawful detainer claim. Deering argues that she was a month-to-month tenant after the lease expired, and she was not given the timely written notice to vacate required by § 441.060. We agree.

"An action for unlawful detainer is a limited statutory action where the sole issue to be decided is the immediate right of possession to a parcel of real property." Federal Nat. Mortg. Ass'n v. Wilson , 409 S.W.3d 490, 495 (Mo. App. 2013) ; Williams v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A. , 467 S.W.3d 836, 841 (Mo. App. 2015). Unlawful detainer occurs "[w]hen any person willfully and without force holds over any lands, tenements or other possessions, after the termination of the time for which they were demised or let to the person[.]" § 534.030.1. "There can be no unlawful detention by the tenant until [the leasehold] estate is terminated[.]" Fisher v. Payton , 219 S.W.2d 293, 296 (Mo. App. 1949). With respect to termination of the leasehold, "Missouri also follows the principle that the statutes governing notice in an unlawful detainer action must be strictly construed." Davidson v. Kenney , 971 S.W.2d 896, 899 (Mo. App. 1998) ; see also Fisher , 219 S.W.2d at 296 (landlord must prove that notice to vacate was timely and in strict compliance with requirements of the statute); § 441.060 (requiring "one month's notice, in writing, to the person in possession").

Here, the 12-month rental term specified in the Lease expired on March 31, 2020. An extension of the Lease term required a writing signed by both parties, which did not occur. Therefore, the term of the Lease was not extended. Although the O'Connells argue the parties agreed to three separate extensions of the Lease (April 15th, 30th and May 15th), none of the purported extensions comply with the terms of the Lease. See Fuller v. TLC Property Management, LLC , 402 S.W.3d 101, 104 (Mo. App. 2013) (a lease, as both a conveyance and a contract, must be construed as a whole and viewed from end to end and corner to corner). The two letters the O'Connells sent Deering were never signed by her, which was necessary to change the term of the Lease. The text sent to Deering was ineffective for the same reason – because it was not signed by both parties. Thus, the trial court erred by concluding that the term of the Lease was extended.

Further, since Deering remained in possession after March 31, 2020, the Lease required that she became a month-to-month tenant. Because of that contract provision, the O'Connells consented in advance to the creation of a month-to-month tenancy when Deering remained in possession. No other consent on the part of the O'Connells was required.

The O'Connells argue that, for a tenant to become a month-to-month tenant, the landlord must indicate consent to the new term of tenancy. Their reliance on Cusumano v. Outdoors Today, Inc. , 608 S.W.2d 136 (Mo. App. 1980), is misplaced because that case is factually distinguishable. Cusumano involved a hold-over tenant under a fixed-term lease with no hold-over provision. Id . at 137-38. The trial court was asked to decide, inter alia , whether a landlord-tenant relationship existed during the hold-over period, and the court decided no such relationship existed. Id . at 138. On appeal, the eastern district of this Court deferred to trial court's finding. Id . at 139. The eastern district held that, for some character of tenancy to...

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