Justia Landlord - Tenant Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
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Lisa Poitra appealed an order of eviction, arguing the district court lacked jurisdiction to enter the eviction order because the Trenton Indian Housing Authority (“TIHA”) constituted a dependent Indian community, and a contract provision required the eviction to be handled by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Court. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the record supported the district court’s finding that TIHA was not a dependent Indian community, the court’s determination that it had subject matter jurisdiction, and the finding TIHA did not have a contractual obligation to bring the eviction action in the tribal court. View "Trenton Indian Housing Authority v. Poitra, et al." on Justia Law

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Ralph Fischer appealed from an order denying his request for attorney’s fees under N.D.C.C. 27-08.1-04. In February 2018, Fischer and Darin Hoyt executed a Cattle Share Lease. Under the terms of the lease, Fischer rented pasture land to Hoyt. In July 2019, Fischer sued Hoyt in small claims court arguing he was entitled to $15,000 for Hoyt’s failure to pay pasture rent in 2018. Hoyt removed the case to district court and filed an answer and counterclaim, asserting Fischer breached terms of the agreement. Fischer answered the counterclaim and requested attorney’s fees under N.D.C.C. 27-08.1-04. In February 2020, Fischer received leave of court to amend his complaint and increased his alleged damages to $25,000. After a bench trial, the district court found both parties breached the lease in different respects. Pertinent here, the district court found Hoyt breached the lease by failing to pay rent in 2018. The district court denied Fischer’s request for attorney’s fees, finding "the claims and counterclaims in this matter were far too complex for small claims court and would have been dismissed without prejudice to refile in district court." To the North Dakota Supreme Court, Fischer argues the district court erred in denying his request because he is the prevailing plaintiff after removal from small claims court. Fischer also argued he was entitled to attorney’s fees incurred in this appeal. The Supreme Court agreed, and reversed and remanded for an award of Fischer’s attorney’s fees in the district court action and on appeal. View "Fischer v. Hoyt" on Justia Law

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Tioga Properties, LLC, appealed a district court judgment awarding Wades Welding, LLC $27,669.90 relating to Wades Welding’s lawsuit for enforcement of construction liens and unjust enrichment. Janice Ellsworth owned Tioga Properties. Tioga Properties owned a restaurant and home (referred to by the parties as a “mobile home”) adjacent to each other in Tioga, North Dakota. Susan Gordon leased the restaurant from Tioga Properties. Gordon delivered rent payments to John Ellsworth Jr., Janice Ellsworth’s son. Gordon resided in the home but had no written lease for that property. In late 2016 and early 2017, Gordon hired Wades Welding to repair the home and restaurant. Wades Welding performed $19,840 of work on the home and $2,500 of work on the restaurant. Wades Welding delivered the invoices for its work to Ellsworth Jr. A day after Wades Welding completed its work at the home, Ellsworth evicted Gordon from the restaurant and home. Ellsworth Jr. supervised the eviction and Gordon left both properties within 48 hours. In December 2017, Wades Welding recorded construction liens against the properties after Tioga Properties failed to pay for the repairs. Tioga Properties sold the restaurant in July 2019. In September 2019, Tioga Properties served on Wades Welding a demand to enforce the home lien. In October 2019, Wades Welding sued Tioga Properties for breach of contract, foreclosure of the construction liens and unjust enrichment. Tioga Properties denied the allegations, claiming it did not authorize Wades Welding's work on the properties. The district court found Wades Welding's construction liens on both properties were valid, and ordered foreclosure of the home lien. The court found the lien on the restaurant was unenforceable due to a service error, but nonetheless awarded Wades Welding the amount of the repaired under the doctrine of unjust enrichment. Finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed judgment in favor of Wades Welding. View "Wades Welding v. Tioga Properties" on Justia Law

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Edwin Schulz appealed a judgment following a bench trial on the damages to his barn, pole barn and shed. Schulz sued Adam Helmers for negligence and breach of contract following a fire that destroyed the barn, pole barn and shed. At the time of the fire, Schulz was leasing the farmstead to Helmers, including the three buildings. He argued the district court applied the wrong measure of damages in his breach of contract claim against Helmers. The district court concluded N.D.C.C. 32-03-09.1 applied to the breach of contract claim, which provided the measure of damages for an injury to property not arising from contract was the diminution of value. The North Dakota Supreme Court concurred with the district court's finding and affirmed the judgment. View "Schulz v. Helmers" on Justia Law

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Biron D. Baker Family Medicine, PC and Biron D. Baker, M.D. (collectively, "Baker Medicine") appealed a district court judgment awarding Big Pines, LLC attorney’s fees and costs. In 2011, Baker Medicine signed an agreement to lease commercial property from Phoenix M.D., L.L.C. Baker executed the lease personally and for Baker Medicine as its president. Baker Medicine allegedly vacated the premises several months prior to the end of the lease and in a damaged condition. Phoenix subsequently sold the building to Big Pines, and assigned its interest in the lease to Big Pines as part of the sale. Big Pines sued alleging breach of the lease by Baker Medicine and breach of the personal guaranty by Baker. A jury found Baker Medicine and Baker breached the lease and awarded Big Pines $18,750 in damages. Big Pines later moved for an award of attorney’s fees under the personal guaranty. The district court denied Big Pines’ request, concluding the personal guaranty was not assigned to Big Pines. The district court's judgment with respect to the fees was reversed by the North Dakota Supreme Court on Big Pines' appeal. On remand, Big Pines again moved for attorney's fees, "as well as any future fees and costs until the case is “fully and finally dismissed." This motion was granted, and Baker Medicine appealed, arguing the district court erred in calculating the recoverable amount of attorney's fees incurred by Big Pines. Concluding the district court provided it with a discernible basis for the fee award, the Supreme Court found the district court did not abuse its discretion in issuing its judgment on fees. Accordingly, judgment was affirmed. View "Big Pines, LLC v. Baker, et al." on Justia Law

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Shadow Industries, LLP, appealed a district court judgment dismissing its eviction action and holding the tenants David and Chris Hoffman had timely exercised their option to extend the term of the parties’ lease agreement. Shadow argued the district court erred in finding the parties’ lease agreement to be ambiguous, finding the option to extend the lease expired on February 1, 2019, and finding the Hoffmans timely exercised their option to extend the lease. The North Dakota Supreme Court found the district court’s interpretation of the lease as having ambiguity as to when the lease terminated was premised upon the court’s observation that “[w]hen ‘crop years’ end and begin is undefined.” To this, the Supreme Court disagreed that the lease was ambiguous and failed to define the end of the lease. The Supreme Court found the lease terminated at the end of the 2018 crop year. "While determining when the end of the 2018 crop year occurred may be a question of fact, the term is not ambiguous simply because it requires a future event or contingency." There was testimony that the crop year ended no later than October 2018; following the harvesting of their crops and still in 2018, the Hoffmans deep ripped the land, tilled to create fall bedding, and applied fertilizer to prepare for the 2019 crop year. "On the basis of these facts, and the absence of any contrary facts in the record, we conclude as a matter of law the 2018 crop year ended and the lease terminated in 2018." Because the facts of this case compelled a finding the 2018 crop year ended in 2018 and the lease terminated at the end of the 2018 crop year, the Court found the exercise of the option in January 2019 was not timely and the lease terminated. It therefore reversed judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Shadow Industries, LLP v. Hoffman, et al." on Justia Law

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Big Pines, LLC, appealed from a district court order denying its “Motion for Award of Attorneys’ Fees and Costs.” Phoenix M.D., L.L.C., as landlord, entered into a lease agreement for real property with Biron D. Baker Family Medicine PC, as tenant, on May 3, 2011. The lease began on June 15, 2011, and ended on June 14, 2016. At the same time the lease was entered, Biron Baker signed a personal guaranty agreement making him personally liable for a breach of the terms of the lease. Under the guaranty, the landlord was also entitled to recover “all costs and attorneys’ fees incurred in attempting to realize upon [the guaranty].” In August 2016, Big Pines, LLC purchased the property formerly leased by Baker Medicine from Phoenix. The guaranty agreement was not specifically mentioned in the assignment agreement. However, the assignment stated a copy of the “Lease Agreement” was attached to the assignment as “Exhibit A.” In March 2017, Big Pines contacted Baker regarding damages to the property in violation of the terms of the lease that resulted from Baker Medicine’s tenancy. Baker denied any responsibility and refused to pay for the alleged damages. Big Pines filed suit against Baker and Baker Medicine in February 2018 claiming the property damages resulted from Baker Medicine’s tenancy and were in violation of the terms of the lease. The case proceeded to trial, and at trial a jury found Baker and Baker Medicine liable for breaching the terms of the lease and awarded $18,750.00 in damages to Big Pines. Big Pines filed a post-trial motion under N.D.R.Civ.P. 54(e)(3) requesting the district court award Big Pines its attorney’s fees for having to bring suit against Baker and Baker Medicine for breaching the terms of the lease. Finding that the district court erred in interpreting the lease and guaranty as separate agreements, the North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the district court which denied the attorneys' fees. View "Big Pines v. Baker, et al." on Justia Law

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Linus and Raymond Poitra appeal the district court judgment of eviction. The Poitras argue the district court erred by exercising jurisdiction over this matter, and by sending a North Dakota law enforcement officer onto the reservation to evict tribal members from property within the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The North Dakota Supreme Court determined the Poitras did not meet their burden under either "Montana" exception, and did not explain how a district court was divested of subject matter jurisdiction to grant a judgment of eviction. The district court judgment was therefore affirmed. View "Gustafson v. Poitra, et al." on Justia Law

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Willis Swenson appealed, and Kyle Mahlum cross-appealed dismissal of Swenson’s claims against Mahlum and Mahlum’s claims against Carol Hodgerson, Gerard Swenson, Lee Alan Swenson, and Mary Ann Vig (“third-party defendants”). This suit arose over the ownership and leasing of real property in Burke County, North Dakota. Willis Swenson (“Swenson”) and the third-party defendants are the children of Robert and Junietta Swenson. In 2004, Robert and Junietta conveyed the property to their children as joint tenants, reserving a life estate for themselves. In 2005, Robert died and Junietta became the sole life tenant. In 2008, Junietta leased the property to Swenson. Swenson agreed to rental payments of $20,016 per year, due in installments. In December 2009, Swenson leased the property to Mahlum for $31,022.50 per year. The Swenson-Mahlum lease became effective in March 2010 and stated it would expire in October 2019. In November 2011, Swenson signed a new lease with Junietta, beginning in 2012 and ending in 2022. The lease permitted Swenson to assign or sublet the property to any person. In July 2012, Lee Swenson was appointed guardian and conservator for Junietta. In January 2013, Lee Swenson, as guardian and conservator, leased the same property to Mahlum that Willis Swenson already was leasing to Mahlum in the December 2009 lease. The new lease required Mahlum to pay Junietta $31,122.50 each year. Junietta died in November 2013. Mary Vig, as personal representative of Junietta’s estate, informed Mahlum that future rental payments should be split and made to each of Junietta’s children in equal amounts. In January 2017, Willis and his daughter, Dayna Johnson, sued Mahlum for unpaid rent. Swenson alleged Mahlum was required to pay him under the 2009 lease, and Mahlum failed to pay any rent in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. Mahlum answered and filed a third-party complaint, suing the third-party defendants for unjust enrichment. He alleged in 2013 he paid Junietta under the terms of the 2013 lease. He also alleged in 2014, 2015, and 2016 he paid rent to each of Junietta children. Mahlum claimed that the third-party defendants have been unjustly enriched, and that the third-party defendants be ordered to pay Mahlum any amounts the court finds he owed Swenson if Swenson obtained a judgment against him. After review of the circumstances of this case, the North Dakota Supreme Court determined the trial court erred in its findings, and reversed dismissal of Swenson’s breach of contract claim. On remand, the court must decide the amount of damages Swenson was entitled to recover for his breach of contract claim against Mahlum for unpaid rent in 2013, including whether Swenson failed to mitigate those damages. In addition, the court must decide Mahlum’s claims against the third-party defendants. View "Swenson, et al. v. Mahlum, et al." on Justia Law

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Watford City Lodging LLC (“WCL”) appealed the denial of its motion to amend a judgment vacating a default eviction judgment. WCL argued the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the eviction proceedings, exceeded its jurisdiction by making extraneous findings and conclusions of law, and abused its discretion by denying WCL’s motion to amend the judgment. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the district court misapplied the law and abused its discretion by denying WCL’s motion to amend the judgment. View "Watford City Lodging LLC v. Miskin" on Justia Law