I-70 Mobile City, Inc. v. Cartwright

Citation595 S.W.3d 161
Decision Date03 March 2020
Docket NumberWD 82790
Parties I-70 MOBILE CITY, INC., Respondent, v. Deidre CARTWRIGHT, Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)

Gary D. Witt, Judge

Deidre Cartwright ("Cartwright") appeals the judgment of the Circuit Court of Lafayette County dismissing her affirmative defense and counterclaim alleging that I-70 Mobile City ("I-70") breached the warranty of habitability in an unlawful detainer action brought by I-70. Cartwright requests that the Court reverse the circuit court’s judgment and remand for a new trial. We affirm.

Procedural and Factual Background1

On or about January 1, 2017, Cartwright and Mark O'Brien ("O'Brien") entered into a lease agreement with I-70 for the rental of real property to which I-70 has record title. On October 29, 2018, I-70 filed a petition for rent and possession against Cartwright and O'Brien. On December 6, 2018, an interlocutory default judgment was entered against O'Brien for possession of the property and damages.2 On December 12, 2018, Cartwright filed an answer and counterclaim, and on December 13, 2018, based on an oral motion in open court, the court granted I-70 leave to file an amended petition. On December 20, 2018, I-70 filed its amended petition amending the claim to solely request relief in unlawful detainer. In the amended petition, I-70 alleged that they had provided Cartwright with a written sixty-day notice of its intent to terminate the lease agreement on the same day that the amended petition was filed. I-70 further alleged that since the termination of the tenancy, despite numerous requests, Cartwright refused to relinquish possession of the property. Cartwright filed an answer to the amended petition that admitted all but one of the allegations in the petition. She only denied the allegation in the petition that despite numerous requests she had refused to relinquish possession of the property.3 She also raised an affirmative defense alleging that I-70 breached the implied warranty of habitability by shutting off water services on October 25, 2018 and refusing to provide running water to the property since that date. Cartwright also asserted a counterclaim for breach of the implied warranty of habitability alleging the same facts regarding the lack of running water, as well as a counterclaim for forcible entry and detainer on the ground that I-70 willfully diminished water services to her, its tenant, in violation of section 441.233.4

On April 1, 2019, I-70 filed a motion to strike Cartwright's affirmative defense and counterclaims, arguing that Missouri law does not permit affirmative defenses or counterclaims in unlawful detainer actions. On April 17, 2019, the circuit court dismissed Cartwright's affirmative defense and counterclaims and entered judgment in favor of I-70 for possession of the property and court costs.

This appeal followed.

Standard of Review

"[T]he judgment of the trial court will be affirmed unless it is not supported by substantial evidence, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law." McNabb v. Barrett , 257 S.W.3d 166, 169 (Mo. App. W.D. 2008) "We review de novo questions of law decided in court-tried cases." Rhea v. Sapp , 463 S.W.3d 370, 375 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015).

Analysis

Cartwright argues in her sole point on appeal that her affirmative defense and counterclaim for breach of the implied warranty of habitability were improperly struck because the claims were not equitable challenges to the title to the property or attacks upon title as prohibited by sections 534.200 and 534.210.5 She argues that as a result, she is entitled to assert these claims in this unlawful detainer action as permitted by Missouri Supreme Court Rules 41.01(d), 55.01, and 55.32(b) and sections 517.031 and 534.060.

I-70 contends that sections 534.200 and 534.210 preclude Cartwright from raising these affirmative defenses and counterclaims because they do not concern the right of possession, which is the only issue to be decided in unlawful detainer proceedings.

Unlawful detainer proceedings are governed by section 534.030. In pertinent part, section 534.030.1 states:

When 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 ... and after demand made, in writing, for the delivery of such possession of the premises by the person having the legal right to such possession, or the person's agent or attorney, shall refuse or neglect to vacate such possession, such person is guilty of an "unlawful detainer.".

Unlawful detainer has historically been employed as a swift and efficient remedy to restore an owner to possession of real property. See Wells Fargo, N.A. v. Smith , 392 S.W.3d 446, 453 (Mo. banc 2013). Accordingly, "such actions were confined to the question of possession and did not purport to address questions of ownership or validity of title." Id. Indeed,

In an unlawful detainer action, under section 534.200, RSMo 2000[6 ], the complainant shall not be compelled to make further proof of the forcible entry or detainer than that he was lawfully possessed of the premises, and that the defendant unlawfully entered into and detained or unlawfully detained the same. The principal issue in an unlawful detainer action is the immediate right of possession. Issues relating to title or matters of equity ... cannot be interposed as a defense in unlawful detainer actions. In addition, counterclaims are also prohibited in unlawful detainer proceedings, regardless of the subject matter, unless permitted by statute. Missouri statutes do not so permit.

Walker v. Anderson , 182 S.W.3d 266, 268-69 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (emphasis added).

In a 2013 decision, upon which Cartwright principally relies, the Missouri Supreme Court addressed the seemingly categorical bar to counterclaims that had all but cemented itself in Missouri case law. Wells Fargo , 392 S.W.3d at 455. In that case, the Court explained that "though cases came to refer to a prohibition on counterclaims or affirmative defenses, such references simply were a shorthand statement on the effect of the substantive limitations imposed by sections 534.200 and 534.210." Id. In other words, counterclaims and affirmative defenses are not procedurally barred per se but rather barred only if they exceed the limitations of 534.200 and 534.210. Id. These statutes thereby create a substantive "prohibition against a defendant raising equitable defenses and/or challenges to the validity of the plaintiff's title in an unlawful detainer action." Id. at 455 n.7.

a. Cartwright's claims are not barred by section 534.210

Section 534.210 specifically prohibits any inquiry into the "merits of the title" in an unlawful detainer action. As such, "Missouri law recognized that claims for unlawful detainer do not—and cannot—determine ownership of, or validity of title to, real property[,]" instead requiring that claims resting on any issue of title be brought in a separate action. Wells Fargo , 392 S.W.3d at 454.

While section 534.210 makes clear that title may not be questioned in unlawful detainer proceedings, Missouri courts have often interpreted chapter 534 as providing a categorical bar to affirmative defenses and counterclaims, regardless of their subject matter. Id. ("Missouri courts repeatedly have stated that equitable defenses and counterclaims are not permitted in response to [unlawful detainer] claims."). As such, even counterclaims unrelated to title are substantively barred in an unlawful detainer action. "The sole issue is the immediate right of possession. Issues relating to title or matters of equity, such as mistake, estoppel and waiver, cannot be interposed as a defense." Broken Heart Venture, L.P. v. A & F Rest. Corp. , 859 S.W.2d 282, 286 (Mo. App. E.D. 1993) (citations omitted).

Neither Cartwright’s affirmative defense nor her counterclaims—directly or indirectly—require an inquiry into title. Cartwright states, and I-70 does not dispute, that her claims "solely raised the issue of whether [I-70] had, during the course of the tenancy, breached the implied warranty of habitability.... No allegation in the affirmative defense and counterclaim even indirectly or by implication pose [sic] any challenge to [I-70's] title to the subject premises."

As such, the case is distinguishable from many unlawful detainer cases in which courts dismissed counterclaims and affirmative defenses wherein the responsive pleadings directly or indirectly questioned title. See Wells Fargo , 392 S.W.3d at 461 ("Because the Smiths' ‘standing’ and ‘real party in interest’ claims merely are restatements of their attacks on the validity of Wells Fargo's title, the Smiths must raise these claims in a separate suit and not in response to an unlawful detainer action."); Walker v. Anderson , 182 S.W.3d 266, 269 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006) ("The true nature of Ms. Anderson's claim is that Ms. Walker does not have a right to possess the property at issue in this case because she procured the warranty deed by fraud and, therefore, Ms. Walker is not the owner of the property. Such a claim is, in essence, a challenge to Ms. Walker's title to the property and, therefore, is not cognizable in an unlawful detainer action."); State ex rel. Deutsche Bank Nat. Tr. Co. v. Chamberlain , 372 S.W.3d 24, 30 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012) ("The Lisenbees' creatively framed ‘standing’ argument is indistinguishable from an equitable claim requiring inquiry into the merits of Deutsch Bank's title," which is expressly prohibited by section 534.210.); Cent. Bank of Kansas City v. Mika , 36 S.W.3d 772 (Mo. App. W.D. 2001) (affirming the trial court's decision deeming impermissible, in an unlawful detainer case, the defense that plaintiff did not have "legal title" to the property); Cmty. Bank of Raymore v. Patterson Oil...

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