Gordon v. Dickerson, 2020-CA-00601-COA

CourtCourt of Appeals of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtMcCARTY, J.
Docket Number2020-CA-00601-COA
Decision Date14 September 2021



No. 2020-CA-00601-COA

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 14, 2021

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/23/2020.






¶1. A landlord sought to evict his longtime tenant, and a justice court ordered her to vacate and awarded the landlord $914 in damages. The tenant later appealed to county court and filed counterclaims, alleging in part that the deplorable condition of the home violated the implied warranty of habitability. After the landlord did not respond to her counterclaims, the trial court eventually awarded her a total of $50, 000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The county court denied the landlord's request to set aside the default judgment, and he appealed to circuit court, which affirmed the judgment.

¶2. Finding that the counterclaims were not procedurally barred and that the default judgment was not improper, we affirm.


¶3. In May 2016, a representative from the city of Tupelo, Mississippi, sent Julio Gordon a letter. The letter explained to him that a house he owned and rented out at 514 Lake Street was "IN A SERIOUS STATE OF DEMISE." The code enforcement officer informed him there were "HOLES IN WALLS[, ] CEILINGS [AND] FLOORS." There was "ROTTED WOOD INSIDE AND OUTSIDE." The letter continued: "FLOOR SYSTEM IS FAILING. PLUMBING SYSTEM IS FAILING. MOLD PRESENT IN LAUNDRY ROOM AND BATHROOM." But this house, which the city concluded was not up to the rental code standard, was not vacant. Gordon had been renting it to a woman named Christy Dickerson for over a decade.

¶4. Gordon and Dickerson had a rent-to-own agreement, where Dickerson would pay the $36, 000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300, plus $100 a month toward home insurance, and "after ten years [Dickerson] would get a deed from [Gordon]."[1] Under the agreement, Gordon was responsible for repairs to the house during the contract period. ¶5. The two successfully carried out the terms of the contract for about seven years. But in 2013, the condition of the house declined drastically. Just a few years before Dickerson was set to take ownership, the single-family home was in desperate need of repairs to the roof, kitchen, living room, bathroom, and laundry room. The plumbing, flooring, and electrical system all needed maintenance as well. Dickerson notified her landlord of the problems "on a regular basis."[2]

¶6. By the winter of that year, Dickerson was unable to use her kitchen. The floors were rotten and so unstable that she had to use two-by-fours to support the stove so that it "would not fall through the floor." The oven did not work, so she resorted to "cooking most meals on the grill outside." The only toilet in the house was "not functioning," and the bathroom pipes burst. Dickerson asked Gordon to repair them, but she eventually had to fix them herself. The roof in the laundry room leaked for years, and the room filled with mold that spread to other areas of the home. The floor in that room "rotted entirely." According to Dickerson, the only usable rooms in the house were two bedrooms. The rest of the house-including the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, and living room-was uninhabitable. ¶7. The tenant repeatedly asked Gordon to repair the damage, but he refused. Believing the property would one day be hers, Dickerson attempted some of the repairs herself. ¶8. In the fall of 2015, the house failed inspection by the city. The inspection report detailed the egregious conditions and included photographs depicting the "[r]otted wood and siding falling off," "[l]aundry room molded," and "pipe[s] not connected." Raw sewage leaked out from the kitchen. There were holes in the laundry room ceiling. One photograph shows the pliers Dickerson had to use to turn the bathtub on and off. Based on this report, the city rejected Gordon's application for a Certificate of Occupancy and demanded he make the necessary repairs.

¶9. Dickerson continued making payments until the conclusion of the rent-to-own contract in January 2016. Ten years-and more than a hundred payments-after entering into the agreement, Dickerson asked Gordon to transfer title to her. He refused and subsequently filed suit to evict her. Finding her in arrears on her rent, the justice court awarded Gordon a judgment of $914 and ordered Dickerson to vacate the premises.

¶10. Dickerson appealed the judgment to the county court and provided notice to Gordon under Uniform Rule of Circuit and County Court Practice 5.04.[3] Over a year later, the clerk of the county court sent Dickerson a notice of intent to dismiss the case as stale. See MRCP 41. Dickerson responded shortly thereafter by filing an "Appellant's Counterclaims for Breach of Contract, Fraudulent Misrepresentation, Trespass and Wrongful Possession, Unjust Enrichment, and in the Alternative for Breach of the Implied Warranty of Habitability, Breach of the Implied Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, and Constructive Eviction." The certificate of service attached to Dickerson's counterclaims indicated that a copy was sent to Gordon at his mailing address. The county court then entered an order reinstating the case on the active docket.[4]

¶11. Seven months passed with no response from Gordon as to the counterclaims. Dickerson then filed an application with the county clerk for an entry of default, citing Gordon's failure to respond. A certificate of service of the application for the entry of default was mailed to Gordon, and several days later the clerk entered a notice of default judgment. A couple of months passed, and Dickerson filed a "Motion for Default Judgment" and a "Notice Setting Hearing Date for Appellant's Motion for Default Judgment." Still, Gordon did not respond to the pleadings. A hearing was held with Gordon appearing pro se. The court noted that since the default judgment had already been entered against Gordon, the only issue to be considered at the hearing was "what amount, if any amount, of damages to award Ms. Dickerson."

¶12. The county court found that although Gordon had been "properly served with the Notice of Appeal from Justice Court, Mrs. Dickerson's counterclaims, the Application for Entry of Default, the Notice of Entry of Default, the Motion for Default Judgment, and the Notice Setting Hearing Date for March 20, 2019," he had not shown good cause for his failure to respond to the aforementioned pleadings. With regard to damages, the county court noted that Dickerson had requested that Gordon make "repairs to her kitchen and bathroom, appliances, fixtures, and plumbing, floors throughout the home, roof, and the ceiling in the laundry room" during her tenancy, but Gordon had refused to do so, resulting "in the City of Tupelo's condemnation of the property in 2016 and Ms. Dickerson's subsequent constructive eviction therefrom."[5] Because Dickerson had continued to pay full rent "when the property's condition violated the implied warranty of habitability," the county court determined that she was entitled to a rent offset of $10, 800. The court further awarded Dickerson punitive damages of $39, 200 based on Gordon's "malicious and grossly negligent conduct."

¶13. Following the damages hearing, Gordon filed a "Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment or in the Alternative to Reconsider, Alter or Amend Judgment or for a New Trial and for Dismissal and Stay of Judgment Pending Post-Trial Motions[.]" Dickerson responded with a "Motion to be Excused from or to Cancel Hearing and Opposition to Appellee's Motion to Set Aside Default, to Alter of Amend, for a New Trial, for Dismissal, and for Stay." The county court entered an order to stay execution of judgment until a hearing could be held.

¶14. Gordon later filed an amended motion to set aside the default judgment, claiming:

(1) "he had not only an arguable defense to the counter complaint filed by [Dickerson] but also a legitimate claim for damages against her as well"
(2) he was never personally served with a summons, depriving him of notice that he was required "to file a responsive pleading or that a judgment by default would be rendered against him" if he failed to do so
(3) neither he nor the county court granted Dickerson consent or leave to amend her responsive pleading
(4) the county court lacked jurisdiction because Dickerson failed to perfect her appeal under Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-51-85; and
(5) Dickerson "should not have been allowed to proceed on her compulsory counterclaims because they were filed past the deadline mandated by Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 13(k)."

A hearing on Gordon's motion was held, and the county court entered an order denying Gordon's motion and lifting the stay on the execution of the judgment. The circuit court affirmed the county court's judgment.

¶15. Gordon appealed, and the case was assigned to us for review.


¶16. Gordon raises three arguments on appeal: the counterclaims that formed the basis of the default were untimely; the county court should have granted his motion to set aside the default judgment; and the award of punitive damages should be reversed.

I. The trial court had discretion to allow the counterclaims.

¶17. On appeal, Gordon argues that Dickerson's counterclaims were untimely under the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. He points to the plain text of the Rule to argue that the counterclaims were beyond the time to file, but he fails to cite any case in support of his interpretation.

¶18. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 13(k) governs actions appealed from justice court to county court or circuit court. In relevant part, the Rule states that "any counter-claim made...

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