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Gary v. Sophia's Place West

Court of Common Pleas of Delaware

June 28, 2019

CONSTANCE GARY, Plaintiff-Below/Appellant,
SOPHIA'S PLACE WEST and GALMAN GROUP, Defendants-Below/Appellees. AGNES WILLIAMS and CONSTANCE GARY Defendants-Below/Appellants,
GALMAN SCOTCH HILLS 2015, LP, Plaintiff-Below/Appellee.

          Submitted: May 13, 2019

         (JP13-18-012947), (JP13-18-013350)

          Constance Gary and Agnes Williams Appellants, Pro Se

          David C. Zerbato, Esquire Morton, Valihura & Zerbato, LLC Attorney for Galman Scotch Hills 2015 LP and Sophia's Place West


          Alex J. Smalls, Chief Judge.


         This is an appeal from the Justice of the Peace Court (hereinafter "JP Court") Judgment Order, issued on January 10, 2019, finding in favor of Defendant-below/Appellee, Galman Scotch Hills 2015 LP (hereinafter "Galman"). On November 7, 2018, Plaintiff-below/Appellant, Constance Gary (hereinafter "Gary"), filed a summary possession action in the JP Court seeking damages for retaliation and rent abatement (JP13-18-012947). On November 16, 2018, Galman, allegedly unaware of Appellants filing, filed its own summary possession action against Gary and Agnes Williams (hereinafter "Williams") for possession and back rent. Both cases were consolidated and a hearing was scheduled for January 10, 2019 (JP 13-18-013350).

         On January 10, 2019, Williams did not appear; thus, the JP Court entered default judgement against her. Gary appeared at the hearing and made a verbal motion to dismiss the action for failure to perfect service. However, the lower court denied Gary's motion on the basis that she subjected herself to personal jurisdiction by appearing for the hearing, and in addition, notice had not been returned to the court. After denying Gary's motion to dismiss, the JP Court offered Gary the opportunity to request a continuance; however, Gary elected to proceed to trial. It was noted during the proceeding that Gary and Williams surrendered possession on November 30, 2018. Thus, while the case was initiated as a summary possession action, it ultimately proceeded to trial that day as a debt action. The JP court found in favor of Galman.

         Thereafter, On January 15, 2019, Gary filed a motion to vacate the judgement arguing she was never served a complaint or summons to appear to the hearing on January 10, 2019. Further, Gary claimed Galman fraudulently misrepresented that service had been perfected at the leased property she had vacated. Nonetheless, the JP Court issued an order on January 17, 2019 denying Gary's motion to vacate on the basis that it had already ruled on the matter and Gary failed to list a valid basis for the JP Court to vacate the judgment.

         In addition, Williams also filed a motion to vacate the default judgement on January 15, 2019. Williams asserted she never resided at the leased property and was simply a cosigner for her daughter Gary. Furthermore, Williams claimed she supplied her address on the paperwork she filled out when she co-signed for the leased property. Thus, Williams argued Galman knew her correct address and acted fraudulently in obtaining default judgment against her. On July 16, 2019, the JP Court recorded an entry on the docket stating that a motion hearing with trial was to follow as to Williams. On January 17, 2019, a clerk for the JP Court updated Williams address in the system, and on January 24, 2019, the JP Court sent notice of the motion hearing, scheduled to be heard on February 19, 2019, as to Williams motion to vacate. However, on January 31, 2019, notice of the order on request for motion hearing sent to Williams was returned by the post office as the address was "not deliverable." On February 28, 2019, the JP Court issued a decision denying Williams motion to vacate. The JP Court stated that a hearing was held on February 19, 2019, regarding Williams motion to vacate default judgement. The court asserted there was no separate address listed for Williams and that Williams was listed as a tenant on the lease document. Further, the JP Court found proper service was mailed to the address indicated on the lease and posted on the door of the unit. Additionally, the court noted that Gary, her daughter, did not provide Williams with the notices sent to the property. Thus, the court found Williams motion failed to meet the burden of proof regarding the issue of service, as well as show how the outcome would have been different.

         On January 29, 2019, Gary appealed the JP Court decision to this Court naming Sophia's Place West and Galman Group as Appellees and asserted this Court has jurisdiction over the appeal.[1] Williams also filed an appeal to this Court on January 29, 2019 naming Gary as her co-Appellant and Galman as Appellee, but asserted no arguments.[2] On January 29, 2019, Gary and Williams (hereinafter "Appellants") filed a stay of execution until JP Court rendered an opinion. This Court granted the stay of execution until the completion of proceedings in the JP Court. On February 13, 2019, Appellees filed response to Gary's appeal from JP Court.[3] Appellees argue Gary failed to identify any new evidence or other basis to support a finding that the judgment should be vacated.

         On April 10, 2019, Appellees filed a Motion to Dismiss Gary's appeal alleging lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[4] In its Motion, Appellees aver the case began as a summary possession action and must go to a three-judge panel in the Justice of the Peace Court.[5]Further, Appellees argue that the process and procedures followed throughout the case below was "employed with summary possession actions."[6] Moreover, Appellees contend the JP Court based its order and motion to vacate on the summary possession statutes.[7] Therefore, Appellees argue this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the matter under 25 Del. C § 5717.[8] On May 10, 2019, Gary filed Response to Appellees Motion maintaining that this Court has jurisdiction over the debt, because the statute does not apply once the issue of summary possession is no longer at issue.[9] The Court heard the Motion on May 13, 2019 and reserved decision. This is the Court's opinion on Appellees Motion to Dismiss.


         In considering motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Court of Common Pleas Civil Rule J2(b)(6), the Court must assume that all well-pled facts in the complaint are true.[10] The complaint should not be dismissed unless "the plaintiff would not be entitled to recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible to proof."[11] The Court is required to accept only those "reasonable inferences that logically flow from the face of the complaint, [it] is not required to accept every strained interpretation of the allegations proposed by the plaintiff."[12]

         An appeal under the summary possession section of the Residential Landlord-Tenant Code is governed under 25 Del. C. § 5717, which provides that "a party to a summary judgment possession action must appeal within five days of the decision by requesting a trial de novo to be heard by a three-judge panel."[13] After receiving the request to appeal, the panel renders a "final judgment, by majority vote, on the original complaint."[14] Once the panel renders a decision, "... any review is pursuant to a common law writ of certiorari to the Superior Court to correct errors on the face of the record."[15]However, debt and other matters ancillary to summary possession are subject to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas pursuant to 10 Del. C. § 9571, which provides for a trial de novo.[16]


         The JP Court has exclusive jurisdiction over summary possession actions pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 5701. If a party wishes to appeal a JP Court decision, it must appeal to a special court comprised of three justices of the peace in accordance with 25 Del. C. § 5717. Further, the decision of the special court is "final and no further appellate jurisdiction on the merits exists."[17] Appellees argue the case cannot be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas and thus, must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In support of its argument, Appellees cite to a number of cases wherein the court did not permit the severing of summary possession and debt claims.[18]

         In the case of Neitzelt, a landlord filed suit against a tenant in the JP Court for summary possession and debt.[19] The JP Court dismissed the case and the landlord appealed to this Court.[20] However, the Neitzelt Court found "if a party brings a summary possession and debt claim before the Justice of the Peace Court, the only option for appeal is to the three-judge panel pursuant to Section 5717. Neither party can elect to sever the summary possession claim from the debt claim, ...

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