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Williams v. McMillian

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

August 15, 2019

ANTHONY WILLIAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
MELISSA MCMILLIAN, Defendant-Appellee.

          Civil Appeal from the Shaker Heights Municipal Court Case No. 17 CVG 00703


          Rick L. Ferrara, for appellant.

          Melissa M. McMillian, pro se.



         {¶ 1} Anthony Williams appeals the judgment entered in his favor in the amount of $1, 728.09 and the offsetting judgment entered upon Melissa McMillian's counterclaim in the amount of $1, 911.00, both of which stemmed from a landlord-tenant dispute leading to a bench trial in Shaker Heights Municipal Court. For the following reasons, we reverse the decision of the trial court and vacate the judgment entered in favor of McMillian, but affirm the judgment entered in favor of Williams.[1]

         {¶ 2} McMillian rented a property from Williams for over seven years. In December 2016, Williams took steps to increase the monthly rental fee, which had remained the same since McMillian moved in. McMillian rented the property through a government subsidy program, but she personally paid the $707 monthly rent toward the end of her tenancy. Williams sought an increase to $832 a month and an additional $40 per month for pets. In order for Williams to increase the rental price, McMillian had to sign paperwork and return it to the appropriate authority. McMillian and Williams disagreed with the process and the amount of the increase, including the additional pet fee. By April 2017, their relationship was irreconcilable. Williams provided McMillian with her 30-day notice of terminating the rental agreement as of the end of April and requesting that McMillian vacate the premises. McMillian held over in May and June without paying any rent, although McMillian provided her own 30-day notice of intent to leave in the first week of May, which would have been ineffective to terminate the lease agreement at the end of May and was the same week that Williams initiated the forcible entry and detainer action based on Williams's 30-day notice sent in March. Williams claims McMillian owed $2, 644 for unpaid rent and pet and late fees, which is in part based on the increased rental price.

         {¶ 3} McMillian left the property in mid-June. In other words, McMillian held over even from her own notice of termination. Williams claims the property was damaged by McMillian and in support of his damages presented a repair estimate for the front handrail, door, and weatherproofing, totaling $1, 895. Williams also offered the testimony of a contractor who stated that the cost to fix the front door, handrail, and tile in the hallway would be at least $1, 200. Williams also sought the $475 cost to repair drywall in a bedroom, the replacement cost of damaged fixtures, carpet, and other items, the cost to repair landscaping, and the costs to clean the property.

         {¶ 4} McMillian conceded that she damaged the drywall, but she claimed the repair cost was under $300 and she already paid $100 of that cost to the contractor directly. McMillian introduced approximately 90 photographs of the property, claiming that the defects highlighted by Williams were limited to normal wear and tear. McMillian also cross-claimed for her own money damages. In that cross-claim, McMillian claimed Williams was liable for $1, 600 because he violated R.C. 5321.16(C) by failing to return her $800 security deposit within 30 days, owed her $111 for the cost of a post office box she used for a forwarding address, and owed her $200 for the cost of food that was destroyed when the refrigerator broke two years before the eviction. She also sought $1, 500 in additional damages for emotional distress.

         {¶5} After the bench trial, the trial court awarded Williams $1, 728.09. Nothing in the record establishes how that award was calculated. The trial court also awarded McMillian $1, 911.00, which was based on all counterclaims except the emotional distress claim. Before trial, the parties were ordered to produce trial briefs that contained the anticipated evidence to be presented at trial and notified that exclusion of any unproduced evidence "may" result in its exclusion. Williams complied, but McMillian did not. At trial, McMillian was permitted to introduce the photographs of the property and several other pieces of evidence that were from her cellphone, notwithstanding the pretrial order and Williams's objection. Williams unsuccessfully objected to the evidence as constituting "trial by ambush."

         {¶ 6} In the first assignment of error, Williams claims that McMillian is not legally entitled to the damages she was awarded. Our review over purely legal questions is de novo. Crutchfield Corp. v. Testa, 151 Ohio St.3d 278, 2016-Ohio-7760, 88 N.E.3d 900, ¶ 16, citing Akron Centre Plaza, L.L.C. v. Summit Cty. Bd. of Revision, 128 Ohio St.3d 145, 2010-Ohio-5035, 942 N.E.2d 1054, ¶ 10.

         {¶ 7} R.C. 5321.16(B) provides that the money held as a security deposit may be applied to the payment of unpaid rent or for damages that were caused by the tenant's failure to comply with R.C. 5321.05, but that any deduction must be itemized and identified in a written notice provided to the tenant within 30 days of the termination of the rental agreement if the tenant must provide a forwarding address. A tenant may recover the amount wrongfully withheld, including reasonable attorney fees based on the landlord's noncompliance with the statutory section. R.C. 5321.16(C). However, a tenant may recover under that statutory section only if the landlord wrongfully withheld the deposit. Vardeman v. Llewellyn, 17 Ohio St.3d 24, 29, 476 N.E.2d 1038 (1985). If the security deposit is not wrongfully withheld, a tenant cannot recover damages despite the landlord's noncompliance with R.C. 5321.16(C).

         {¶ 8} In this case, the trial court awarded Williams damages totaling $1, 728.09. Although it is unclear from the record whether that award was based on the unpaid rent or the damage to the property or a little bit of both, a landlord may lawfully apply the security deposit to both categories of damages. As a matter of law, therefore, Williams was entitled to withhold the security deposit. The security deposit was not wrongfully withheld for the purposes of the statute. Vardeman; McGreevy v. Bassler, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 09AP-381, 2010-Ohio-126, ¶ 14; Adaranijo v. Morris Invest. Co., 1st Dist. Hamilton No. C-070453, 2008-Ohio-2705. The trial court erred as a matter of law by awarding McMillian the $1, 600 in damages based on Williams's failure to timely provide McMillian an itemized breakdown of the withheld security deposit.

         {¶ 9} In addition, as it pertains to the counterclaim, McMillian was not legally entitled to recover the costs of her post office box she used as her forwarding address, nor did she provide a reasonable method of calculating the damages based on the cost to ...

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