Stout v. Kokomo Manor Apartments

Decision Date17 March 1997
Docket NumberNo. 34A05-9611-CV-459,34A05-9611-CV-459
Citation677 N.E.2d 1060
PartiesChristine STOUT, Appellant-Defendant v. KOKOMO MANOR APARTMENTS, Appellee-Plaintiff. Maida Vawter, Appellee-Counter-Defendant.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
OPINION

ROBERTSON, Judge.

Christine Stout appeals an adverse judgment which awarded her Landlord, the Kokomo Manor Apartments, immediate possession of the apartment she had rented. The Landlord had learned of alleged criminal activity on the premises and filed a lawsuit in which it sought to evict the Tenants, Stout and her son, from the apartment. The trial court ultimately ordered the Tenants to vacate the premises. On appeal, Stout presents the following issues:

I Is the July 11, 1996 ruling or judgment of the Howard Superior Court # 3 granting a final judgment of "immediate possession" supported by the evidence and/or contrary to law?

II Was the Tenant denied a fair hearing by the Court's evidentiary rulings, and/or are the rulings contrary to law, an abuse of discretion and/or constitute reversible error?

III Is the ruling of July 11, 1996 a final judgment, or is the ruling merely a pre-judgment order granting the Landlord's verified application for immediate possession, and/or are there matters or issues still unresolved and pending for trial on the merits?

IV Is the ruling denying the Tenant's Motion for Sanctions and Fees contrary to law and/or an abuse of discretion?

V Does the ruling denying the Tenant's Motion for Sanctions and Fees constitute an unlawful denial of compensation for violation of Tenant's rights to due process and/or compensation for the invasion of her and her son's privacy?

We affirm.

I

Stout rented one of the apartments located at Kokomo Manor, specifically Apt. # 1 at 614 Elk Drive, Kokomo, Indiana. The Landlord eventually filed a claim in Howard Superior Court III, on the small claims docket, in which it sought, in part, the immediate possession of the apartment based upon an allegation that the conduct of Stout's thirteen-year-old son had caused a breach of the following portion of the lease agreement:

23. (b) Any termination of this Agreement by the Landlord must be carried out in accordance with FmHA regulations, state and local law, and the terms of this Agreement. The Landlord may terminate this Agreement only for * * *

(3) criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants or any drug-related criminal activity on or near such premises, engaged in by a tenant, any member of the tenant's household, or any guest or other person under the tenant's control ...

Counsel for Stout subsequently filed a demand for a trial by jury and then filed a counterclaim against the Landlord.

The trial court eventually heard evidence on the claims. Because the court reporter did not record the proceedings, the court submitted the following statement of the evidence:

The Witnesses were sworn. The following witnesses and testimony was presented by the [Landlord].

1. Maida Vawter testified that:

a. She is the resident manager of the Kokomo Manor Apartments.

b. A resident Cheryl A. Minns filed an incident report, offered as Exhibit A.

c. An eviction notice was sent to the [Tenant], offered as Exhibit B.

d. She had no personal knowledge of the alleged incident other than the report from Cheryl A. Minns.

e. The [Tenant] was current on and had fully paid, in advance, the rent due for the month of July, 1996.

f. Christine Stout entered into a lease agreement and addendum, offered as Exhibit C.

g. Dan J. May, attorney for the [Tenant], Christine Stout had sent a letter to her attention in response to the eviction notice, offered as Exhibit D.

h. The sole violation of the terms of the lease alleged to have been violated by Christine Stout for which eviction is sought, is found at subsection 23(b)(3) of the lease as supplemented by the addendum.

The following exhibits were offered by the [Landlord] with the following objections and rulings:

Exhibit A: An incident report filed by Cheryl A. Minns and filed with the [Landlord]. Exhibit A was objected to by Dan J. May, Attorney for the [Tenant], on the grounds that Exhibit A as offered would violate the confidentiality provisions of IC 31-6-8 and the Court's motion in limine; additionally Exhibit A would be hearsay as to the truthfulness of the factual matters asserted or contained in the incident report as alleged by Cheryl A. Minns.

The court ruled that the incident report would be admitted for the limited purpose of showing that a report was made, and that all references to the name of the juvenile allged [sic] to be involved would be stricken.

Exhibit B: An eviction notice sent by the [Landlord] to the [Tenant]. The Exhibit was objected to by Dan J. May, attorney for the [Tenant] on the grounds that it would violate the confidentiality provisions of I.C. 31-6-8 and the Court's motion in limine.

The Court ruled that the eviction notice would be admitted but that all references to the name of the juvenile allged [sic] to be involved would be stricken.

Exhibit C: The lease and addendum. No objection to admission was made and the Court admitted the exhibit without objection.

Exhibit D: A letter from Dan J. May to the [Landlord] dated November 10, 1995. The Exhibit was objected to by Dan J. May, attorney for the [Tenant] on the grounds that it would violate the confidentiality provisions of IC 31-6-8 and the Court's motion in limine; that the letter is inadmissible as an offer of compromise or settlement and/or settlement demand.

The Court ruled that the letter would be admitted but that all references to the name of the juvenile alleged to be involved would be stricken.

2. Tondra Cockrell testified that:

a. She is an officer employed by the Kokomo Police Department with duties of investigating juvenile offenses.

b. In the course of her duties she investigated an incident occurring on or about July 29, 1996 at 614 Elk Drive, Apt. # 3, Kokomo, Indiana involving a juvenile.

c. The nature of the incident was that of child molestation.

d. The subject of the investigation was a male person 13 years of age and resided at 614 Elk Drive, Apt. # 1, Kokomo, Indiana.

As noted, the trial court ultimately awarded the Landlord immediate possession of the real estate ordered the Tenants to vacate the premises.

Stout claims that the evidence does not support the decision of the trial court and that the decision therefore is contrary to law. He advances several arguments in support of his claim, and we will address each of his contentions in turn.

The provision of the lease involved here allows termination of the agreement for, among other conduct:

criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants or any drug-related criminal activity on or near such premises, engaged in by a tenant, any member of the tenant's household, or any guest or other person under the tenant's control ...

Stout claims the evidence does not support the determination that the conduct of her son amounted to "criminal activity" as provided in the lease agreement.

A lease is construed in the same manner as any other contract. Scott-Reitz Ltd. v. Rein Warsaw Associates, 658 N.E.2d 98, 103 (Ind.Ct.App.1995). This Court will give effect to the parties' intent as shown by their written expression in the lease. Id. The lease will be read as a whole to ascertain its intended meaning; and, in so doing, this Court gives the words of the lease their ordinary and common meaning unless a different meaning is clear from the subject matter of the lease. Id.

Where the terms of a contract are clear and unambiguous, the terms are conclusive and we will not construe the contract, or look at extrinsic evidence, but will merely apply the contract provisions. Jackson v. DeFabis, 553 N.E.2d 1212, 1215 (Ind.Ct.App.1990). A contract is not ambiguous merely because the parties espouse differing interpretations of the terms. Hastings Mutual Ins. Co. v. Webb, 659 N.E.2d 1049, 1052 (Ind.Ct.App.1995) (insurance contract). A contract is ambiguous only if reasonable people reading the contract would differ as to the meaning of the terms. Id.

Stout claims the language of the lease agreement is specific and unambiguous but then urges us to accept her interpretation of the phrase "criminal activity." Stout notes that the conduct involved in the present case is the alleged commission of an act of child molestation by the thirteen-year-old individual who lived in the apartment covered in the lease. She asserts that such conduct is, at most, an act of juvenile delinquency. She notes that proceedings in juvenile court are civil proceedings, not criminal in nature, and that an act of juvenile delinquency is not a crime. See M.R. v. State, 605 N.E.2d 204, 207 (Ind.Ct.App.1992). She contends that, under the laws of this State, the alleged conduct of the thirteen-year-old individual are not considered a crime. We agree with this first contention.

Stout next asserts that, for certain conduct to be considered "criminal activity," a crime must have been committed. She then notes that the acts of her son are not considered a crime and therefore concludes that the conduct of her son was not "criminal activity" and cannot form a proper basis for the breach of the lease agreement.

We do not agree that, for certain conduct to be considered "criminal activity" under the lease agreement, a crime must have been committed. While we agree that reasonable people reading the contract would not differ as to the meaning of the language used there, we conclude that the allegation of child molesting by the thirteen-year-old resident of the apartment is "criminal activity" as that phrase appears in the contract.

...

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