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Reise v. Rose

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware, New Castle

January 23, 2019

DAVID M. REISE, Plaintiff-Below, Appellant,
v.
SETH ROSE, SEAN MILLER, LYNN BLUMENTHAL, ANDREW BURDACK, EVAN BLUMENTHAL, DANIEL MILLER, NANCY BURDACK, FRANK ROSE Defendants-Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: January 2, 2019

          David M. Reise Pro Se Plaintiff'

          Frank H. Rose, Esquire (pro hac vice) Attorney for Appellees

          DECISION AFTER TRIAL

          HONORABLE CARL C. DANBERG, JUDGE

         Plaintiff-Below/Appellant, David M. Reise (hereinafter "Landlord"), appeals a Justice of the Peace Court 13 ("JP Court") Order dated February 23, 2017 pertaining to a landlord-tenant matter. Defendants-Below/Appellees, Seth Rose, Sean Miller, Andrew Burdack, Evan Blumenthal (hereinafter "Tenants"), and Frank Rose, Daniel Miller, Nancy Burdack, Lynn Blumenthal (hereinafter "Parents") counter-claim. In the court below, Landlord brought a debt action for unpaid rent and damages totaling $3, 289.00 and the defendants counter-claimed for damages totaling $17, 360.00.[1] The JP Court Order being appealed granted Landlord relief in the amount of $1, 249.50, which included $749.50 in past due rent and late fees and $500.00 in token damages. This resulted in a balance of $1, 240.50 owed to the defendants from the $2, 490.00 security deposit retained. The defendants were granted an award of $6, 914.31, plus post-judgment interest at the rate of 6.25% per annum. Included in the defendants' award was compensation for a new stove, lack of hot water, lack of heat, inability to use the stove, and return of the balance of the security deposit.

         This Court heard evidence from the parties during a two-day de novo trial held on December 19, 2018 and December 20, 2018. Present for trial were Plaintiff, Tenant Rose and Parent Rose.[2] The remaining six defendants were not in attendance. At the conclusion of trial, the Court took the matter under advisement. This is the Final Decision and Order of the Court.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Tenants entered into a lease with Landlord for the rental of a residence located at 55 New London Road in Newark, Delaware. At that time, Tenants were students at the University of Delaware and the residence, typically rented by students, was one of many older homes located close to campus. The lease, which was executed on December 9, 2013, was for a one-year term beginning June 1, 2014 and ending May 28, 2015. Tenants were responsible for paying $2, 490.00 in monthly rent plus a security deposit in the amount of one month's rent. The named parents are responsible for the lease as co-signers for their children's tenancy.[3]

         Tenant Rose, the only tenant present for trial, did not request to view the rental premises prior to executing the lease. Furthermore, Tenant Rose never requested to view the rental at any time prior to his arrival at the residence in July 2014, roughly one month after the commencement of the rental term. It is unclear when exactly keys to the premises were first obtained by Tenants.[4]It is also unclear whether Tenants were at their respective homes outside of Delaware during the initial summer months at the beginning of the lease. Parent Rose testified that Tenants were planning an official move-in during the third week of August 2014.[5] Landlord's video taken hours before the commencement of the lease term shows an older house, pained, cleaned, [6] and with no glaring code violations. The house was not a new pristine home, but was as would be expected for its age and use by student's year after year.

         The defendants claimed that the house was dirty upon first visiting the premises in July 2014, the cause of which is undetermined. Parents compiled a list of issues they found at the home during this July visit and Parent Burdack contacted Landlord requesting the issues be remedied. Landlord responded to the premises to address founded issues and sent notice to the defendants informing them of the resolution. A series of service calls ensued to which Landlord responded.[7]Notable was a call by Tenants in late July 2014 requesting service for a potential gas leak associated with the kitchen stove. Landlord responded and concluded that a gas leak could not be the issue because the gas company had the main service, located outside the home, locked in a closed position. Tenants later called Delmarva Power, who also found no gas issues upon inspection. Unbeknownst to Landlord, Parent Rose purchased a new stove for the premises without requesting permission to do so. Tenants later called the fire department after hearing a door to furnace blow open. The fire department found negative results on all meters. Sometime in late November or early December heat was not working on the second and third floors of the premises. Tenants called City of Newark Code Enforcement to report this issue. Witness, Ryan Straub, City of Newark Property Maintenance Inspector, (hereinafter "Code Inspector") responded to the residence on December 11, 2014. Code Inspector inspected the premises and found three violations: 1) bathroom sink faucet; 2) bathroom tub faucet; and 3) no heat on second and third floor. Code Enforcement also put a use restriction on the stove until confirmation was received that Delmarva Power's tests came back negative. Upon Code Inspector's arrival, Landlord was already working on the heat issue. After Code Inspector left the premises, he received a call from Landlord that the heat issue was corrected.[8] Code Enforcement also lifted the use restriction on the stove upon confirmation that Delmarva Power's tests revealed no gas issue.[9] A re-inspection took place the next day and all violations were corrected. Code Inspector testified that the house was old, but if anything else was found to be a threat to health and safety it would have been deemed a violation at that time. The defendants' requests for service continued for the remainder of the tenancy, some of which Landlord was responsible for maintaining, others of which Landlord was not responsible.

         Upon move-out, Tenants left trash in the premises, holes and gouges in the walls, and damage to other parts of the residence. Admittedly, Tenants did not care for the lawn at any time during the term as agreed upon in the lease. The only tenant to provide Landlord with a forwarding address was Tenant Blumenthal. A security deposit letter was sent to Tenant Blumenthal and all Parents on June 15, 2015. Landlord received no letters disputing the alleged damages. Tenant Rose withheld payment of his portion of the last month's rent, requiring Landlord to seek relief by commencing an action in J.P. Court. Unsatisfied with the result in the court below, Landlord appealed to this Court for a trial de novo.

         PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

         Landlord contends that Tenants are responsible for the unpaid portion of the last month's rent and the associated late fee, plus damages contained in the itemized list sent to Tenants upon move-out pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5514.

         The defendants deny responsibility for the delinquent rent and alleged damages and counterclaim based on: 1) Landlord's alleged failure to provide a copy of the Landlord-Tenant Code ("Code") to Tenants pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5118, pleading ignorance of the law; 2) Landlord's alleged failure to fulfill his obligations pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5305, requesting $1, 000.00 in compensation for repairs; 3) Landlord's alleged willful or negligent deprivation of a substantial part of the benefit or enjoyment of Tenants' bargain pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5306(c)(2), requesting one month's rent plus return of the security deposit totaling $5, 120.00;[10] 4) Landlord's alleged failure to disclose the location of the security deposit pursuant to 25 Del. C. §5514, requesting double the amount of the security deposit totaling $5, 120.00;[11] 5) Landlord's alleged entries into the premises without proper notice pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5509, requesting $ 1, 000.00; 6) Landlord's alleged attempt to forego Tenants' rights or remedies under the Code pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5301, requesting damages in the amount of three month's rent totaling $7, 680.00.[12] Total damages sought by the defendants is $17, 360.00.[13]

         DISCUSSION

         Controlling in this case is the Delaware Residential Landlord-Tenant Code.[14] The "Code shall regulate and determine all legal rights, remedies and obligations of all parties and beneficiaries of any rental agreement."[15] Rental agreement provisions which conflict with the Code shall be unenforceable.[16] "The unenforceability shall not affect other provisions of the agreement which can be given effect without the void provision."[17]

         Landlord's Claims

         Landlord requests compensation for the arrears of rent owed by Tenant Rose and the associated late fee. Pursuant to the rental agreement, Tenants agreed to pay $2, 490.00 in monthly rent due on the first of the month or be subject to a late fee of five-percent of the monthly rent.[18]Such is permissible under 25 Del. C. § 5501. It was undisputed during trial that Tenant Rose withheld his rental contribution owed during the last month of his tenancy, therefore, Landlord is entitled to rent in the amount of $625.00, plus a five-percent late fee in the amount of $124.50.

         As to damages, Landlord requests compensation in the amount of $2, 539.50, in addition to the $2, 490.00 security deposit retained. The Code establishes among other things that the purpose of the security deposit is to "reimburse the landlord for actual damages caused to the premises by the tenant which exceed normal wear and tear, or which cannot be corrected by painting and ordinary cleaning."[19] "Within 20 days after termination or expiration of any rental agreement, the landlord shall provide the tenant with an itemized list of damages to the premises and the estimated costs of repair for each."[20] Tenants' failure to object in writing to the landlord's list of damages will constitute agreement to the damages outlined by landlord.[21] Such notices by the landlord shall be sent to the tenants at an address specified in the rental agreement or a forwarding address provided by the tenant by the time the rental agreement is terminated.[22] Failure of tenants to provide a forwarding address relieves a landlord of this notice requirement and liability under this section.[23]

         Landlord compiled an itemized list of damages which includes services completed during the tenancy and damages discovered upon inspection at the end of the lease term. Tenant, Evan Blumenthal, was the only tenant to provide Landlord with a forwarding address. The list, which was attached to a letter, was sent to the parties on June 15, 2015, which was within the twenty-day period prescribed by Section 5514.[24] Notice was properly provided to Parents at addresses provided on their co-signer forms at the beginning of the tenancy and Evan Blumenthal at his forwarding address. Remaining Tenants' failure to provide forwarding addresses to Landlord relieved Landlord from responsibility to those tenants under the Code. No objection was sent by Tenants or Parents to Landlord within the required ten-day period, thus constituting agreement with the alleged damages.

         Most of the controversy between the parties center around the damages to the premises. The Court has been tasked with evaluating numerous exhibits, determining the responsibility of the parties under the lease agreement and determining the validity of the lease terms under the Code. Section 5513 outlines a variety of permissible remedies landlords have available to them in the event a tenant breaches a material rule or covenant in the rental agreement. Section 5513(a)(2) provides, "If the tenant's breach can be remedied by the landlord, as by cleaning, repairing, replacing a damaged item or the like, the landlord may so remedy the tenant's breach and bill the tenant for the actual and reasonable costs of such remedy. Such billing shall be due and payable as additional rent, immediately upon receipt."[25] The lease executed by the parties sets forth under paragraph 14, titled "Additional Tenant Responsibilities," "Should Tenant fail to perform these responsibilities, the Landlord without notice, may perform these responsibilities and bill Tenant the cost of the same, which payment shall be due five (5) days from the date of the bill or be deducted from any deposits. [26]The lease seems to contemplate the billing provision provided by Section 5513(a)(2), but adds the option to deduct from the security deposit. Section 5514 provides no indication that other methods of billing are precluded where the parties have agreed upon such in their lease, therefore, leaving open the possibility of deducting the damages from the security deposit.

         An issue for Landlord is that some of the charges are not compensable under Section 5514(c)(1). Landlord is only permitted to bill for damages that exceed normal wear and tear or which cannot be corrected by paint or ordinary cleaning.[27] Additionally, Landlord must "[m]ake all repairs and arrangements necessary to put and keep the rental unit and the appurtenances thereto in as good a condition as they were, or ought by law or agreement[28] to have been, at the commencement of the tenancy."[29] Lastly, Landlord cannot bill for preexisting conditions to the premises not caused by the defendants.[30] Given that the damages list is six and one half pages long, it would be too cumbersome to detail each issue listed. Generally speaking, the Court does not find that Landlord has acted intentionally in including the impermissible charges. Rather, it is the Court's impression that Landlord's recordkeeping as to this premises became overwhelmed and unorganized given the deterioration of the relationship between the parties and the frequency of the calls made to Landlord by the defendants. The Court finds that Landlord was responsive and prompt in addressing requests made by the defendants and he shall be compensated for the damages where the law allows.

         Another dispute in the billing of damages was the Landlord's use of an hourly rate rather than the mere value of the damaged item. Section 5513(a)(2) says that where a landlord can clean, repair, or replace a damaged item, Landlord may bill "for the actual and reasonable costs of such remedy." What Landlord had done was bill simply for his time in servicing the damage, rather than the cost of the product. Landlord explained that since he is in the business of owning multiple rental properties, he has an inventory of extra household items. Therefore, Landlord does not always need to go to the hardware store to replace a broken item in the premises, and thus does not have a receipt. The defendants argued that actual costs include parts only and not Landlord's time or hourly rate. In using the terms "actual and reasonable costs" the Code does not preclude reasonable hourly rates. "Actual [c]ost means the actual cost incurred to provide the relevant goods or services, including the cost of direct labor and direct material used."[31] Additionally, the lease, signed by Tenants, explicitly states that Tenants will be billed at an hourly rate of $35 an hour. So long as the rate is reasonable, Landlord should be compensated for his trouble. Although such an evaluation can be burdensome, especially in a case with lengthy damages such as this one, it is just to do so. It would be unreasonable to find that the Code meant to promote highly disproportionate and unjust outcomes. Choosing to simply not provide Landlord with sufficient compensation where the law allows would go against what the Code was meant to achieve, given that Landlord's premises was completely trashed by Tenants upon move-out.

         In accordance with the aforementioned Code provisions, Landlord proved by preponderance of the evidence that he is entitled to the following damages: 1) change of locks on five doors due to Tenants failure to return all keys to Landlord at the end of lease term, totaling $175.00;[32] 2) lawn maintenance services for entire tenancy which was the responsibility of Tenants under the lease, totaling $385.00;[33] 3) replacement of battery in smoke alarm, [34] additional cleaning of refrigerator almost two months after lease began, [35] extermination services, [36] repeated rear entry lock replacements caused by forced entry, [37] and placement of plastic over windows at Tenants' request while heat was operable in the house, [38]all of which were Tenants' responsibilities under the lease or Code; 4) damage to the premises upon move out consisting of broken porch window, [39]broken porch light switch panel, [40] inoperable hall light, [41] broken living room light fixture, [42] hole in living room wall that Tenants insufficiently patched, [43] stairway ceiling damage, [44] bedroom door damaged by Tenants' installation of deadbolt which was removed by Tenants at end of term, [45]removal and disposal of a bed which was left behind by Tenants and too large to remove in one piece, [46] bath towel rod ripped out of wall, [47] and a broken wash cloth ring.[48] There are numerous other damages which cannot be quantified by the evidence such as: 1) wall damage beyond what can be remedied by paint;[49] and 2) extensive cleaning exceeding that of an ordinary cleaning. It was clear by the evidence that Tenants abused the premises and left Landlord with a significant amount of work in order to restore the premises to the condition it was at the beginning of the lease term. For that reason, the Court will grant Landlord nominal damages in the amount of $500.00. Landlord is entitled to a total of $1, 905.00 in damages to the premises, plus $749.50 in rent and late fees, totaling $2, 654.50. Since Landlord has withheld the $2, 490.00 security deposit, the defendants will owe the remaining balance of $164.50.

         The Defendants' Counterclaims

         As to Count I, the defendants assert ignorance of the law as a defense due to Landlord's alleged failure to provide them a copy of the Code as required by Section 5118. The lease conspicuously and in no uncertain terms states immediately above Tenants' signatures that Tenants acknowledge receipt of the Landlord-Tenant Code. Parties to a contract are presumed to have read what they have signed. Landlord needs not submit a copy of the Code as evidence that he provided the Code to Tenants as Parent Rose argues he should have. A mere copy of the Code would not be helpful in determining Tenants' receipt. The defendants' defense fails.[50]

         As to Count II, the defendants claim Landlord violated obligations under Sections 5305 and 5303 by failing to provide heat, hot water, a safely working stove and other necessary repairs, including front door locks, rear door lighting, and removal of carpets. The defendants assert that such entitles them to $1, 000.00 in damages, justifying Tenant Rose's lack of payment for the last month's rent. As to heat, Landlord denied receiving any notification of a heat issue prior the defendants' complaint to City of Newark Code Enforcement.[51] No evidence of Landlord's knowledge of the heat issue was presented to the contrary. Landlord remedied the heat the same day that he learned of the problem, which was the same day code enforcement officers inspected the premises. As to hot water, the defendants claim that hot water was not working upon move-in. Sufficient evidence of notice to Landlord was not provided to the Court. Landlord's testimony and ledger of events marked as Exhibit PI 5 reveal that Landlord was made aware of the hot water issue on August 25, 2014 and remedied the issue the same day by turning the knob to the on position. As to the stove which was suspected of leaking gas, the testimony of the parties conflicts as to their opinion of the stove. Photos show that the gas stove was certainly an older model, but an older model stove is not sufficient to render it a violation of the Code. Tenants contacted Landlord, [52] the fire department, and Delmarva Power regarding a smell of gas they believed was emanating from the stove. All parties concluded that there was no gas issue. Parent Rose testified that upon replacing the existing stove with a new one, the alleged smell of gas persisted. Therefore, the Court concludes that the replacement of the stove was unwarranted and without Landlord's permission, and therefore, the defendants are not entitled to compensation. As to the remaining repairs, upon receipt of the defendant's list of complaints in August 2014, Landlord promptly addressed the issues complained of and sent confirmation to the defendants ...


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