Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Landlord - Tenant
Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al.
A landlord tried to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The tenant counterclaimed under Alaska’s Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA), seeking damages for a variety of alleged harms: retaliatory eviction; failure to return her security deposit; intentional misrepresentation of certain fees; and personal injury and emotional distress caused by mold in the apartment, which the tenant alleged was a violation of the landlord’s duty under URLTA to maintain fit premises. The eviction was denied; the court entered summary judgment against the tenant’s damages claim for personal injury on the ground that the tenant failed to provide expert opinion evidence supporting the link between mold exposure and her health problems. After trial, a jury awarded the tenant modest damages for misrepresentation and for emotional distress caused by mold exposure. The jury found in the landlord’s favor on the retaliatory eviction and security deposit claims. The superior court awarded the tenant partial attorney’s fees, using a “blended analysis” that relied on both Alaska Civil Rule 82 and on URLTA’s provision for full reasonable fees and then discounting the award due to the tenant’s limited success. The tenant appealed the grant of summary judgment on her personal injury claim and the attorney’s fees calculation. The landlord cross-appealed, arguing the superior court erred in a number of its evidentiary decisions, by permitting the tenant to recover emotional distress damages for a breach of URLTA’s duty to maintain fit premises, and by awarding the tenant attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. After its review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s evidentiary rulings. It also affirmed its decision to permit recovery of emotional distress damages caused by violations of the duty to maintain fit premises. But the Court reversed summary judgment against the tenant’s personal injury claim. Medical records in which the tenant’s treating physician suggested that mold exposure may have been the cause of her health problems amount to sufficient expert medical opinion that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the tenant as the non-moving party, created a genuine issue of material fact that had to be resolved at trial. View "Guilford v. Weidner Investment Services, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
Griffith v. Hemphill, et al.
A landlord leased a commercial building to two tenants who operated an automotive repair business on the property. The landlord refused to adhere to provisions in the lease requiring him to maintain and repair the property and to cover the property insurance, so the tenants paid for the property insurance and for substantial repairs that were needed after the roof failed. The landlord initiated a forcible entry and detainer action after the tenants held over at the end of the lease term; the tenants counterclaimed for breach of contract. After trial, the superior court ruled that the landlord had breached the lease and awarded the tenants damages. The superior court also awarded the tenants attorney’s fees. The landlord appealed, arguing: (1) the tenants did not file their counterclaim within the applicable statute of limitations; (2) the evidence did not support the damages award; and (3) the attorney’s fees award was an abuse of discretion. Seeing no error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decisions. View "Griffith v. Hemphill, et al." on Justia Law
Caswell, et al. v. AHTNA, Inc.
A miner signed a 20-year lease with a corporate landowner for an easement allowing him access to his limestone-mining operation. The lease included an option to extend it for up to three additional 10-year terms as long as the miner was not in default and gave prior written notice of his intent to extend. At the close of year 19, the miner sent a check prepaying the final calendar year, plus the six weeks following the lease’s expiration date. And after the expiration date the miner sent another check prepaying the next year (year 21) without ever providing the express notice of intent to extend required by the lease. The corporation accepted both of the rent checks. Five months later the corporation sued the miner and his company, contending that he was in breach and the lease had expired. The corporation later amended its complaint to add a claim for forcible entry and detainer seeking to recover possession of the premises by court order, and shortly afterward served the miner with a notice to quit. The court held a hearing nearly 11 months later and granted the forcible-entry claim. Appealing, the miner contended the parties’ dispute was too complex to be resolved through forcible entry and detainer proceedings with limited opportunities for discovery; that the forcible entry and detainer proceeding was unlawful because at the time the claim was asserted the corporation had not yet served the notice to quit; and that the miner’s company was improperly named as a defendant and included in the forcible entry and detainer judgment. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Caswell, et al. v. AHTNA, Inc." on Justia Law
Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority v. Mael, et al.
A boiler exploded in a home owned by a nonprofit regional housing authority, severely injuring a man who lived there. He sued the housing authority in both contract and tort, claiming that his lease-purchase contract included a promise that the authority would inspect the boiler, which it failed to do with reasonable care. After the man dismissed his contract claim, the housing authority asked the court to decide as a matter of law that a breach of a contractual promise could not give rise to a tort claim. But the superior court allowed the man to proceed to trial on his tort claim, and the jury awarded over $3 million in damages, including over $1.5 million in noneconomic damages and separate awards to several of his family members for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The court reduced the man’s noneconomic damages award to $1 million because of a statutory damages cap, but it excluded the family members’ awards from the amount subject to the cap. The housing authority appealed, maintaining it should have been granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the contract did not create a continuing legal duty to inspect the boiler with reasonable care. It also argued it should have been granted a new trial because it had established that the boiler explosion was caused by a product defect rather than negligent inspection. Finally, the authority argued the family members’ damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress should have been included in the amount subject to the statutory damages cap. The man cross-appealed, arguing that the damages cap violated due process because it failed to account for inflation or the severe nature of his physical injuries. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court's judgment on all issues. View "Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority v. Mael, et al." on Justia Law
Kimp v. Fire Lake Plaza II, LLC
A business owner formed a brewing company with plans to open a brewpub. He signed a lease that provided rent-free access to a commercial unit for a period of time to allow him to prepare the rental space prior to opening for business. But the brewing company encountered numerous delays during construction and did not open for business as planned. It also did not pay rent once the rent-free period ended. After the property owner received no rent for several months, it entered the property and changed the locks. The business owner then sued, claiming the property owner breached the lease, tortiously interfered with a business relationship, and breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The property owner counterclaimed that the brewing company breached the lease. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the superior court dismissed all claims against the property owner and ruled in the property owner’s favor on its counterclaim. The court also denied the business owner’s request to compel discovery and awarded the property owner over $200,000 in damages. The business owner appealed the superior court’s grants of summary judgment, its denial of his motion to compel discovery, and its award of damages. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Kimp v. Fire Lake Plaza II, LLC" on Justia Law
Punches v. McCarrey Glenn Apartments LLC
In March 2014, Evvie Punches rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Conifer Groves complex in Anchorage; she renewed the lease in April 2015. The complex was owned by McCarrey Glen Apartments, LLC and managed by Weidner Property Management, LCC. Punches complained to the property manager since moving in regarding air quality in the apartment, and mold around the toilet. These issues continued despite a number of attempts by Weidner’s maintenance staff to fix them. Punches nonetheless renewed her lease in April 2015. When the property manager tried to arrange an inspection, Punches refused to allow maintenance staff into her apartment because she would not be home. Punches moved out of her apartment on March 2016 after delivering Weidner a “Notice of Defects in Essential Services.” Her notice listed issues with the front door, mold on the ceiling, mold on the carpet, damage from a previous fire, water damage, and “insufficient windows” that permitted “free flowing air throughout” the apartment. Punches moved to Minneapolis some time after she left her Alaska apartment, and sought care in Minnesota for various skin infections and reported that she had been exposed to mold for two years. She continued to pursue a connection between mold exposure and her recurring skin infections and other ailments. In 2017, she sued her former landlord and the property management company, claiming the companies negligently failed to eradicate mold in her apartment, thereby breaching the habitability provisions of the lease and causing her to suffer personal injury and property damage. After considerable delay involving discovery disputes, the superior court granted summary judgment dismissing Punches' personal injury claim. The parties went to trial on the tenant’s property damage and contract claims after the superior court precluded the tenant from introducing evidence relating to her personal injury claim. The jury rejected Punches' claims, and judgment was entered in favor of the companies. Punches appealed, contending that the court erred by ruling against her in discovery disputes, by denying her a further extension of time to oppose summary judgment, and by limiting the evidence she could present at trial. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion when making the challenged rulings, and therefore affirmed the judgment against the tenant. View "Punches v. McCarrey Glenn Apartments LLC" on Justia Law
Zwiacher v, Capstone Family Medical Clinic, LLC
The district court entered a default judgment against a litigant in a dispute over real property improvements and rent. Following a levy on his bank account, the litigant moved for relief from the default judgment, attesting that he had stopped participating in the lawsuit because he believed it was about to be dismissed. The district court denied the motion, but on appeal the superior court reversed on procedural grounds. On remand the litigant amended his answer to assert a counterclaim for conversion of personal property; the counterclaim would have been time-barred unless allowed to relate back to the date of the litigant’s original answer. The district court held that the litigant was judicially estopped from pursuing the counterclaim because it was contradictory for him to assert it after attesting that he believed for years that the case against him had been dismissed. The superior court affirmed this decision. The Alaska Supreme Court granted certiorari review to address one issue: whether judicial estoppel barred the conversion counterclaim. The Court concluded the litigant’s two positions — his asserted belief that the case had been dismissed and his later assertion of a counterclaim — were not clearly inconsistent and that the judicial estoppel doctrine therefore was inapplicable. The superior court’s decision affirming the district court’s judgment on this issue was reversed and the matter remanded to the district court for further proceedings on the counterclaim. View "Zwiacher v, Capstone Family Medical Clinic, LLC" on Justia Law
Bachner Company, Inc. v. Alaska Department of Administration
The Bachner Company leased office space to the State of Alaska. The lease stipulated that the State would occupy 15,730 square feet of space but would not have to pay rent on 1,400 square feet of that space during the lease’s initial ten-year term. The lease further specified that if it was extended beyond the initial term the parties would negotiate a rate for the free space and the State would pay for it. Toward the end of the initial term the State exercised its first renewal option and opened negotiations with the company over the free space’s value. The parties retained an expert to value the space, but the State questioned his methods and conclusions. The State also resisted the company’s claim that the State should begin paying rent for additional space, not identified in the lease, that the company contended the State had been occupying. The parties failed to reach agreement, and the State did not pay rent for any of the extra square footage. Eventually the State executed a unilateral amendment to the lease based on the expert’s valuation and, ten months after the end of the lease’s initial term, paid all past-due rent for the formerly free space identified in the lease. The company filed a claim with the Department of Administration, contending that the State had materially breached the lease, the lease was terminated, and the State owed additional rent. A contracting officer rejected the claim, and on appeal an administrative law judge found there was no material breach, the lease had been properly extended, and the company had waived any claim regarding space not identified in the lease. The Commissioner of the Department of Administration adopted the administrative law judge’s findings and conclusions. The superior court affirmed the Commissioner’s decision except with regard to the space not identified in the lease; it directed the company to pursue any such claim in a separate action. Both parties appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the administrative law judge's findings were supported by substantial evidence, and because the lease did not terminate under the Supreme Court's interpretation of it, the Court affirmed the Commissioner's decision except with regard to the company's claim to rent for space not identified in the lease. The Court concluded that, to the extent it sought rent after the end of the initial term, it was not waived by the document on which the administrative law judge relied to find waiver. Only that issue was remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration. View "Bachner Company, Inc. v. Alaska Department of Administration" on Justia Law
Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. v. Hwang
Tok Hwang owned a lessee interest in, and related improvements on, a commercial lot (the leasehold) near the Denali National Park entrance. Hwang leased the lot from a third party for $20,000 annually. Hwang subleased the leasehold to Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. in April 2012. The sublease (the lease) provided that Alaska Fur would pay $55,000 annual rent for a three-summer term. The disputed provision stated, in full: “Lease includes an option to purchase premises with lease amount to be applied to negotiated purchase price.” When the sublessee attempted to exercise the option the lessee declined to sell, claiming the option was unenforceable. The sublessee sued, seeking, among other things, to enforce the option provision. The superior court held that the provision was too uncertain to enforce either as an option or as an agreement to negotiate. The sublessee appealed; but finding no reversible error in the superior court’s decision, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. v. Hwang" on Justia Law
Bachner Company Incorporated v. State, Dept. of Administration
In September 2003, Bachner Company Inc. entered into a contract with the Alaska Department of Administration, to lease portions of the Denali Building in Fairbanks. After a ten-year lease term and a one-year renewal, Bachner alleged that the State was in default on its rent payments, and it filed suit in superior court to recover. The State moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the claim was governed by the Alaska State Procurement Code and that Bachner had failed to exhaust its remedies under the code before filing suit. The superior court agreed and granted the State’s motion to dismiss. Bachner appealed. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the procurement code covered a rent dispute over an ongoing lease, that the Bachner's claim fell under the procurement code, and Bachner had to exhaust its administrative remedies before filing suit in superior court. View "Bachner Company Incorporated v. State, Dept. of Administration" on Justia Law