Margaret Stewart, Appellant, vs. Lori Anderson, Respondent.Annotate this Case
This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Filed August 21, 2007
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 27-CV-HC-06-1916
Douglass E. Turner, Hanbery & Carney P.A., 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 4040, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)
Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, 2929 Fourth Avenue South, Suite 201, Minneapolis, MN 55408 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Minge, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant Margaret Stewart challenges the district court's reversal of the housing court's decision granting a writ of recovery to appellant subject to respondent Lori Anderson's right to redeem, arguing that the district court erred by reversing the housing court's judgment, relying on evidence that was not part of the record, and reversing the housing court's evidentiary rulings. We affirm.
D E CI S I O N
Appellant-landlord brought a combination eviction action and conciliation court matter in housing court and respondent-tenant answered alleging a habitability defense. At trial, appellant objected to the admission of respondent's photographic evidence because she did not receive it prior to the discovery deadline. Respondent objected to appellant's evidence because it also did not comply with the discovery order. The housing court allowed appellant's evidence, but rejected respondent's evidence because it did not comply with the discovery order.
At trial, respondent sought to establish a habitability defense based on an allegedly defective dryer and rodent infestation. When respondent attempted to testify regarding the problems with the dryer, the housing court indicated to her that her testimony was not sufficient evidence and that expert testimony was needed to establish that the dryer was broken. In response to respondent's introduction of a letter written by her to appellant stating that the dryer was broken and had damaged her comforters, the following exchange took place:
THE COURT: Do you have any background or foundation that you know about dryers or what do you know anything about dryers? Do you have any training or experience in dryers?
[RESPONDENT]: No, I do not. I'm not a dryer repairperson.
. . . .
THE COURT: Okay, you're not really qualified to testify about a dryer or whether a dryer is broke or not broke; is that true?
[RESPONDENT]: I can state whether it dries or damages my clothing when I pull them out of the dryer, when I yank them out of the seam and they're stuck in there and I pull it out and there's grease marks on it, I can tell that the dryer is causing this damage to my clothing and my bedding. It was not damaged when I put it in the dryer, it was damaged when I had to yank it and pull it out.
The court engaged in similar questioning when respondent testified about rodents in her walls. After the housing court inquired what respondent wanted from appellant, the following exchange occurred:
[RESPONDENT]: Hire someone to remove any rodents or access that they may have to the walls that is probably causing the odor.
THE COURT: But see, you provided absolutely no proof that there's any rodents in this property other than you said it smells.
. . . .
[RESPONDENT]: -- how do I prove that I hear them in the walls?
THE COURT: You hire someone who is an expert in rodents to come out and do an inspection. And these people are they're experts. That's all they do for a living. They could probably figure it out in 30 minutes.
THE COURT: But absent evidence to that effect, I don't know whether there's rodents here or not. Are you an expert in determining are you an expert in pest control or rodents? I don't know what's your occupation? What do you do for a living?
[RESPONDENT]: I'm an administrative assistant.
THE COURT: Does that qualify you to make you a rodent expert?
[RESPONDENT]: No, sir, it does not.
THE COURT: Probably not, but you know what, there are plenty of people that are expert in that.
The housing court found that respondent had failed to pay part of her rent, late fee, and security deposit, and awarded possession of the property to appellant, subject to respondent's right to redeem.
Respondent filed a notice to review the referee's decision, and a hearing was granted in district court. Respondent argued to the district court that the housing court applied discovery sanctions in a prejudicial manner by refusing to admit respondent's evidence because it was not provided to appellant prior to the discovery deadline, but admitting appellant's evidence even though it was not provided to respondent prior to the discovery deadline. Respondent also argued to the district court that the housing court improperly required her to provide expert testimony.
Prior to the judge review, respondent obtained a report regarding rodents at the property. At the judge review, respondent's counsel notified the district court that respondent had obtained a pest report, and over appellant's objection, the district court viewed the report, which indicated some rodent infestation.
The district court reversed the housing court, correctly finding that the housing court erred by (1) receiving appellant's late exhibits, but refusing to receive respondent's late exhibits; and (2) requiring expert testimony for respondent's lay testimony regarding her observations of sounds of rodents, foul smells, and grease stains on personal property removed from the dryer.
On appeal from an unlawful detainer action, we consider whether the evidence supports the findings and whether the findings sustain the conclusions. Minneapolis Pub. Hous. Auth. v. Greene, 463 N.W.2d 558, 560 (Minn. App. 1990). We will not set aside findings of fact unless we find them to be clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
Here, the district court's findings of fact were not clearly erroneous and the evidence sustains the district court's judgment. Respondent testified that she heard rodents in the walls and sensed foul smells in the bedroom, that her personal property was damaged by grease leaking from the dryer, and that respondent made numerous requests to appellant that she stop entering respondent's property without proper notice. This testimonial evidence sustains the district court's conclusion that respondent proved by a preponderance of the evidence her habitability defense, and therefore defeated appellant's eviction action.
But appellant argues that the district court erred by improperly relying on the pest report, which was not a part of the record before the housing court, to reach this conclusion. A district court's evidentiary rulings will not be overturned absent a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Kelly, 435 N.W.2d 807, 813 (Minn. 1989).
We agree with appellant that the district court should not have viewed the pest report because it was not a part of the record established at the housing court. See Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 611 ("[A] judge's review of a decision recommended by the referee shall be based upon the record established before the referee."). But we will not reverse the district court if the error is harmless, and appellant bears the burden of demonstrating that the error is prejudicial. Bloom v. Hydrotherm, Inc., 499 N.W.2d 842, 845 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. June 28, 1993).
The district court did not recite or rely on the contents of the pest report in its findings of facts or conclusions of law. Rather the district court relied on respondent's sworn eyewitness testimony to support its conclusion that respondent had proved her habitability defense. On this record, we conclude that appellant has failed to prove that the district court committed prejudicial error.