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Dunn v. Baker

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

November 21, 2017

DONNA DUNN, Respondent,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1622-AC13736 Honorable Jason M. Sengheiser



         Tiffiny Baker (Baker) appeals the judgment of the trial court on Donna Dunn's (Dunn) petition to recover unpaid rent and possession of a premises owned by Dunn. Baker argues that the lease at issue between Dunn and Baker was ambiguous and the trial court erred in granting relief to Dunn. We affirm.


         On March 2, 2016, Baker and Dunn entered into a commercial lease agreement for premises owned by Dunn, described in the lease as "3000 Wyoming Ave." Baker rented the property for her salon business, which was located on the first floor of the building. There was a unit upstairs in the building as well, and the parties dispute whether the lease included the upstairs unit. The parties refer to the upstairs unit as "3000A Wyoming."

         On November 16, 2016, Dunn filed a petition for rent and possession of 3000A Wyoming, alleging that Baker owed $2, 000 in past due rent. Baker filed a response arguing that 3 000A Wyoming was included in the commercial lease she signed, and Baker was current in her payments under the lease.

         The trial court held a hearing on January 12, 2017, and the parties presented the following evidence. Dunn described the property at issue as a mixed-use building: the downstairs is commercial space, and the upstairs unit is residential. She testified that for sale purposes, the entire building is referred to as 3000 Wyoming, but there are two separate units, and she had rented them separately in the past. Dunn testified that the lease signed was titled a "commercial lease" and concerned only the downstairs commercial space, for an amount of $500 per month. Dunn testified that she and Baker talked about Baker also utilizing the upstairs residential space, but they agreed it was not ready for occupancy because it needed some work. Specifically, Dunn had to put in a kitchen and make bathroom improvements. Dunn testified that they orally agreed Dunn would perform the necessary work to make the space livable, and then Baker would begin paying additional rent of $500 monthly to occupy the upstairs unit as well. Dunn testified Baker also agreed she would be responsible for painting in the upstairs unit.

         Dunn presented receipts for work performed on the upstairs unit in May and June of 2016. Dunn testified that she found out on the first weekend in July that Baker had moved into the upstairs unit. At that point the space was almost ready and had been painted, but Dunn had not yet told Baker she could move in. Baker discovered some gas leaks in the unit and had them repaired, and Dunn and Baker agreed to split the cost of those repairs, which was $300 each. Baker then gave Dunn an additional $700, which Dunn took as payment of $500 for the downstairs unit and $200 for the first month's rent of the upstairs unit. Dunn presented emails in which Baker said she assumed that her payment toward the gas repairs would be credited as rent. Baker's email also stated, "It was my understanding that you would get the second floor livable, I would paint, then pay rent." Dunn also presented an email from Baker saying she was told by her attorney that she needs "a lease for upstairs or a revised lease detailing the expectations & requirements for both parties . .. There is no problem with money, but I was advised to have everything signed prior to the rent for upstairs." Dunn testified she had not received payment for the upstairs unit since July of 2016.

         Baker testified that her understanding at the time she entered the commercial lease was that it included the entire building at 3000 Wyoming. Besides the lease, Baker offered into evidence a draft of a sales contract for Baker's potential purchase of the entire building, prepared by Dunn at the same time Dunn prepared the commercial lease. Baker did not sign the sales contract at that time, but the contract described the entire building as "3000 Wyoming Ave, " the same as the description of the building on the lease. Baker testified that she believed she was leasing the whole building and "doing a rehab at the same time." She said when she signed the lease, she was given keys to the whole building. Baker testified at that time, there was no separate address designation for the upstairs and downstairs units, and her salon clients were often confused as to which door was the entrance to the salon space. Baker said that she labeled the door to the upstairs "3000A" to avoid confusion.

         Baker presented invoices from her contractor showing work she paid for on both units in May of 2016. She testified that she was doing work on the upstairs unit and Dunn and her husband were aware of it. Regarding the $300 she spent on gas repairs, Baker testified that she paid the additional $700 that month in order to get one month ahead on rent, not as an additional $500 for the upstairs unit. Baker testified that she requested a new lease in her emails because she did not understand how she could be paying for repairs and also need to pay for rent. Baker testified that her email discussing paying rent after painting was because Dunn wanted "a little bit more" for rent, but the whole time Baker was renting the entire building. She testified that from the beginning of her lease, she had used the upstairs unit for storage. She said was willing to pay more in rent once the upstairs became livable, but that she and Dunn never reached an agreement.

         The trial court found Baker's testimony regarding the extra rent she paid in July not to be credible. The trial court found Dunn's testimony that the parties entered an oral agreement that Baker would lease the upstairs unit for $500 per month to be credible. The trial court found that this oral agreement was separate from the written commercial lease. The trial court found that Baker failed to pay rent for the upstairs unit for the months of August 2016 through January of 2017, resulting in $3, 000 that Baker owed to Dunn in back rent. The trial court found Baker's testimony credible that any repairs she made to the upstairs unit would be credited as rent. Based on the evidence presented, the trial court credited $1, 103.31 to Baker, leaving $1, 896.69 due in back rent. The trial court also granted Dunn possession of the upstairs unit. This appeal follows.

         Standard of Review

         We review a court-tried case according to the principles set forth in Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). We will affirm the judgment of the trial court unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Id. We defer to the trial court's credibility determinations and view the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's judgment. Neal v. Neal,281 S.W.3d 330, 337 (Mo. App. E.D. ...

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