Robert L. Follis, Georgia K. Follis v. State Armory Building Commission ( 2015 )

  •                          This opinion will be unpublished and
                             may not be cited except as provided by
                             Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2014).
                                  STATE OF MINNESOTA
                                  IN COURT OF APPEALS
                                        Robert L. Follis,
                                       Georgia K. Follis,
                              State Armory Building Commission,
                                    Filed December 7, 2015
                                       Halbrooks, Judge
                                  Todd County District Court
                                   File No. 77-CV-13-848
    Robert and Georgia Follis, Motley, Minnesota (pro se appellants)
    Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Erik M. Johnson, Assistant Attorney General, St. Paul,
    Minnesota (for respondent)
          Considered and decided by Hooten, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and
    Worke, Judge.
                            UNPUBLISHED OPINION
    HALBROOKS, Judge
          Appellants, pro se, challenge the district court’s grant of partial summary
    judgment to respondent. Appellants argue that the district court erred by not giving them
    an opportunity to present evidence of their damages and that the district court did not
    treat appellants appropriately as pro se litigants. We affirm.
           In 2002, appellant Robert Follis entered into a contract for deed with the state to
    purchase a former Minnesota Army National Guard armory building.               The contract
    required Follis to make a down payment of $5,000 and five annual payments of $8,900
    plus interest. The contract also required Follis to pay all property taxes. Follis provided
    the down payment, but he failed to make the annual payments due in 2003, 2004, and
    2005. He also failed to pay the property taxes. Because of Follis’s default, the state
    served him with a notice of cancellation on March 22, 2006. The notice advised Follis
    that if he did not pay the amount due or secure a court order suspending termination, the
    contract for deed would be terminated.
           Follis responded to the notice of cancellation by filing a petition to enjoin the
    termination of the contract for deed on May 22, 2006. The district court denied Follis’s
    petition, and Follis appealed. On December 11, 2007, this court affirmed the district
    court’s denial of Follis’s petition.
           In early 2008, the state brought an eviction action against Follis. The district court
    entered a judgment of eviction in March 2008. Follis appealed the eviction judgment to
    this court, and his appeal was dismissed as untimely on May 13, 2008.
           On May 16, 2008, appellants Robert and Georgia Follis filed a federal lawsuit
    against the state seeking to prevent the state from evicting them from the armory. The
    federal district court ruled against the Follises on September 4, 2008. The Follises
    appealed, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the federal district court on
    June 24, 2009.
           Although they did not prevail in any of their lawsuits, the Follises were successful
    in delaying their eviction from the armory for more than three years. The Follises were
    finally evicted from the armory on July 16, 2009. Over the next 60 days, the Follises
    were given access to the armory to remove their personal property.               The State
    Quartermaster for the Minnesota National Guard unlocked the armory for the Follises
    each day that they wanted to remove their property. In his affidavit, the quartermaster
    noted the unsanitary conditions he witnessed in the armory.             According to the
    quartermaster, “Large amounts of animal feces were located throughout the whole
    complex. . . . The smell of musty, rotting food and animal urine was so strong it was
    difficult to stay in the building for any length of time.” He also stated that he “never saw
    anything in the armory that appeared to have any resale value.” The Follises hauled away
    approximately 30 truckloads of personal property from the armory during the 60-day
    period. After the 60 days, the Follises still had property remaining in the armory but
    were not allowed to access it.
           The Follises filed the complaint in this case in 2013, alleging that respondent State
    Armory Building Commission (SABC) unlawfully denied them access to their property
    that was still left in the armory.    The Follises sought $3,000,000 in damages and
    $250,000 in “punitive damages for pain and suffering.”
           The SABC served the Follises with interrogatories that asked them, among other
    questions, to “identify any evidence that supports the amount of your claimed damages.”
    The Follises never responded to the interrogatories. The SABC also served the Follises
    with a request for production of documents. Among the requested documents were “[a]ll
    documents that support any allegation by you that you are entitled to recover any amount
    of damages in this lawsuit” and “[a]ll documents that support any allegation by you as to
    the value of the personal property that you allege you have been deprived of.” The
    Follises never responded to the request for production of documents.
           The SABC moved for summary judgment. The Follises did not respond to the
    motion before the summary-judgment hearing. At the summary-judgment hearing, the
    Follises requested time to respond to the motion in writing, and the district court gave
    them two weeks to file a written argument.            The Follises subsequently filed a
    memorandum in opposition to summary judgment. In their memorandum, they made
    general assertions but still did not offer any evidence regarding the value of their property
    in the armory.
           The district court granted the SABC’s motion for summary judgment in part and
    denied it in part. The district court concluded that since the Follises had not offered any
    evidence concerning the value of their property remaining in the armory, they could not
    survive summary judgment on their claim for actual damages under Minn. Stat.
    § 504B.231 (2014) because damages were an essential element of that claim. But the
    district court ruled that the SABC was not entitled to summary judgment on the claim for
    the statutory penalty of $500 under section 504B.231 because the Follises did not need to
    prove actual damages in order to recover $500 under the statute. Because the SABC
    never denied the allegation that it had not completed an inventory of the Follises’
    property required by Minn. Stat. § 504B.365, subd. 3(d) (2014), the district court
    concluded that there was a genuine issue of material fact about the inventory requirement.
          At a pretrial hearing, the SABC stipulated that it had not completed the required
    inventory of the Follises’ property left in the armory. Because the SABC violated the
    statute, the district court entered judgment in favor of the Follises for the statutory
    penalty of $500. The Follises now appeal the summary-judgment dismissal of their claim
    for actual damages.
          The Follises argue that the district court erred by granting partial summary
    judgment in favor of the SABC on the issue of actual damages.            On appeal from
    summary judgment, we review de novo whether a genuine issue of material fact exists
    and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. STAR Ctrs., Inc. v.
    Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., 
    644 N.W.2d 72
    , 76-77 (Minn. 2002). “We view the evidence
    in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted.”
    Id.   Summary judgment is granted when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to
    interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that
    there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that either party is entitled to a
    judgment as a matter of law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.
    A.    Genuine Issue of Material Fact
          “The party opposing summary judgment may not establish genuine issues of
    material fact by relying upon unverified and conclusory allegations, or postulated
    evidence that might be developed at trial, or metaphysical doubt about the facts.” Dyrdal
    v. Golden Nuggets, Inc., 
    689 N.W.2d 779
    , 783 (Minn. 2004). “[W]hen the nonmoving
    party bears the burden of proof on an element essential to the nonmoving party’s case, the
    nonmoving party must make a showing sufficient to establish that essential element.”
    DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 
    566 N.W.2d 60
    , 71 (Minn. 1997).
           The Follises offered no evidence of their actual damages other than conclusory
    allegations in their complaint and memorandum opposing summary judgment. They
    failed to answer any interrogatories about their damages. They did not respond to the
    request for production of documents.         They did not offer evidence to rebut the
    quartermaster’s claims about the unsanitary conditions of the armory, and they offered no
    evidence to contradict his statement that nothing in the armory had any resale value. The
    Follises had the burden of proof on the element of their damages. Since they offered no
    evidence to show that their property remaining in the armory had any value, they did not
    make a showing sufficient to establish that element.
           Without citing to the record or any legal authority, the Follises argue that the
    district court erred by not giving them “an opportunity to present the true value of the
    property to the court.”    The Follises actually had multiple opportunities to present
    evidence of the value of their property. They could have done so if they had answered
    the SABC’s interrogatories; they could have done so if they had responded to the request
    for production of documents; and they could have done so in responding to the motion
    for summary judgment. The district court was correct to conclude that there was no
    genuine issue of material fact regarding the value of the Follises’ property.
    B.     Application of the Law
           Minn. Stat. § 504B.365 (2014) governs eviction procedures. Because the Follises’
    property remained in the armory after they were evicted, the relevant part of the statute
                  If the defendant’s personal property is to be stored on the
                  premises, the officer shall enter the premises, breaking in if
                  necessary, and the plaintiff may remove the defendant’s
                  personal property. Section 504B.271 applies to personal
                  property removed under this paragraph. The plaintiff must
                  prepare an inventory and mail a copy of the inventory to the
                  defendant’s last known address or, if the defendant has
                  provided a different address, to the address provided.
    Minn. Stat. § 504B.365, subd. 3(d).
           Minn. Stat. § 504B.271 (2014) refers to a tenant’s personal property remaining in
    the premises. “If a tenant abandons rented premises, the landlord may take possession of
    the tenant’s personal property remaining on the premises, and shall store and care for the
    property.” Minn. Stat. § 504B.271, subd. 1(a). “The landlord may sell or otherwise
    dispose of the property 28 days after the landlord receives actual notice of the
    abandonment, or 28 days after it reasonably appears to the landlord that the tenant has
    abandoned the premises, whichever occurs last.” Id., subd. 1(b). In 2009, when the
    Follises were evicted, the period of time under this statute was 60 days. Id., subd. 1
    (2008). This section applies to contract-for-deed cancellations. Id., subd. 4 (2014).
           Abandoned property traditionally means property that is voluntarily surrendered.
    Black’s Law Dictionary 1411 (10th ed. 2014).           The district court concluded that
    abandoned property under section 504B.271 does not have its traditional meaning. The
    district court reasoned that property left behind after an eviction is considered abandoned
    under the statute because the word abandonment refers to “an event, the occasion when
    departure from the premises actually occurs.”        We agree with the district court’s
    interpretation of section 504B.271.     Section 504B.271 is incorporated into section
    504B.365, which deals with eviction procedures.        A tenant surrenders the premises
    involuntarily when evicted. If the term abandon in the statute had its traditional meaning,
    a landlord could not dispose of an evicted tenant’s property left in the premises because
    the tenant would not have voluntarily surrendered the premises. Such an interpretation
    would improperly render a section of the Minnesota Statutes superfluous. See Allan v.
    R.D. Offutt Co., 
    869 N.W.2d 31
    , 33 (Minn. 2015). The SABC was therefore free to
    dispose of the Follises’ property 60 days after they were evicted. The district court
    properly applied the law when it ruled that the SABC had complied with section
    504B.271 by allowing the Follises 60 days to access their remaining property in the
    armory after they had been evicted.
           A landlord who removes a tenant’s property in violation of section 504B.365 is
    guilty of an unlawful ouster under section 504B.231. Minn. Stat. § 504B.365, subd. 5.
    Because the SABC did not complete an inventory of the Follises’ property required by
    section 504B.365, subdivision 3(d), the SABC violated section 504B.365 and was
    therefore guilty of an unlawful ouster under section 504B.231.
           Minn. Stat. § 504B.231 addresses what damages a tenant may recover for an
    unlawful ouster. The tenant may recover treble damages or $500, whichever is greater.
    Minn. Stat. § 504B.231(a). Because there is no genuine issue of material fact concerning
    the Follises’ actual damages, their only remedy is the $500 statutory penalty. The district
    court did not err in applying the law. Summary judgment was appropriate.
             The Follises allege that the district court did not treat them appropriately as pro se
    litigants. Without citing any legal authority, the Follises contend that the district court
    should have “assisted” them with their case. The Follises’ contention is wrong. District
    courts have “a duty to ensure fairness to a pro se litigant by allowing reasonable
    accommodation so long as there is no prejudice to the adverse party.” Kasson State Bank
    v. Haugen, 
    410 N.W.2d 392
    , 395 (Minn. App. 1987). Although courts may make some
    accommodation to ensure fairness to a pro se party, “this court has repeatedly emphasized
    that pro se litigants are generally held to the same standards as attorneys and must
    comply with court rules.” Fizgerald v. Fitzgerald, 
    629 N.W.2d 115
    , 119 (Minn. App.
             The record here demonstrates that the district court properly accommodated the
    Follises. The Follises appeared at the summary-judgment hearing without filing any
    response to the summary-judgment motion. They asked the district court for time to
    respond in writing to the motion, and the district court gave them two weeks. Transcripts
    of the hearings demonstrate that the district court was extremely patient with the Follises
    and gave them ample opportunity to be heard. This claim is without merit.