James E. Ayers
Wernle, Ristine & Ayers
Attorneys for Appellee
Ian A.T. McLean
Appellant (Plaintiff below),
JOSEPH T. HYTEN, Appellee (Plaintiff below ).
) Supreme Court No.
) Court of Appeals No.
August 8, 2002
Hyten resided in the Darlington house from May 1, 1995 until February, 1996.
On January 29, Hyten telephoned Turley and verbally informed Turley that Hyten
would be vacating the Darlington house on January 31, 1996. Turley drove
by the house several times between January 29 and January 31; at all
times Turley noted that Hyten was still in residence. On February 3,
1996, Turley entered the premises and discovered the extensive plumbing and water damage
caused by a window that Hyten had left open prior to vacating.
Turley commenced this action to recover for the damages, which totaled over $5,000.
Hyten counter-claimed for his security deposit, along with other claims. Hyten
moved for partial summary judgment on the security deposit claim, and this was
granted on March 10, 2000. The trial court awarded Hyten the return
of his security deposit, in addition to atto
rneys fees and costs. Turley
appealed to the Court of Appeals and the Court of Appeals upheld the
trial courts grant of summary judgment. Turley v. Hyten, 751 N.E.2d 249
(Ind. Ct. App. 2001). We now grant transfer and reverse.
In 1989, the Legislature passed the security deposit statute, Indiana Code §32-7-5-1 through
32-7-5-19. The specific section relevant to this case is Indiana Code §32-7-5-14,
In case of damage to the rental unit or other obligation against the security deposit, the landlord shall mail to the tenant, within forty-five (45) days after the termination of occupancy, an itemized list of damages claimed for which the security deposit may be used including the estimated cost of repair for each damaged item and the amounts and lease on which the landlord intends to assess the tenant.
We have not previously addressed the sufficiency of a landlord notice under this section. But the Court of Appeals has dealt with the requirements of the security deposit statute, and, more specifically, the notice requirement under Indiana Code §32-7-5-14, on many different occasions. See Pinnacle Properties v. Saulka, 693 N.E.2d 101 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998) (whether a vacate report was sufficient as an itemized damage notice required by the statute); Figg v. Bryan Rental Inc., 646 N.E.2d 69 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995) (whether merely referring to unpaid rent was a sufficiently itemized notice); Meyers v. Langley, 638 N.E.2d 875 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994) (whether general estimates of repair was sufficient itemization under the statute); Duchon v. Ross, 599 N.E.2d 621 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992) (whether providing no estimated costs was sufficient notice).
From these cases, it is apparent that the Court of Appeals has created
a strict compl
iance rule when it comes to the landlords notice of damages.
The Court of Appeals has counted the days to make sure the
landlords letter was sent within the prescribed forty-five day time period and the
level of itemization by the landlord has been scrutinized with great care.
See Figg, 646 N.E.2d at 71, 75; Meyers, 638 N.E.2d at 878.
With the exception of the mention of unpaid rent, the Court of Appeals
has consistently found for the tenant where the landlord was not extremely careful
to list each damaged item with a corresponding monetary amount. Compare Figg,
646 N.E.2d at 75 (unpaid rent sufficient) with Saulka, 693 N.E.2d at 104
(itemized vacate report which included a lump sum amount not sufficient).
When Hyten vacated the house in Darlington, he failed to tell Turley the
exact date of his departure. Hyten had initially called Turley on January
29, 1996 and told Turley over the phone that Hyten would be vacating
the Darlington house on January 31, 1996. When Turley inspected the Darlington
house on January 31, he found Hyten to still be in residence.
Turley returned to the house on February 3, 1996, and found that Hyten
had vacated the house, but had caused major plumbing damage by leaving the
window next to the thermostat open. In addition to the open window,
the furnace thermostat had been set on high, and as such, the propane
tank which fueled the furnace was empty. The condition in which Hyten
left the house, along with the extremely cold weather conditions, caused the toilets
and water pipes to burst.
In order to make the house habitable,
Turley had to replace the entire plumbing system.
Hyten had not failed to inform the gas company that he was vacating
the Darlington house. Hyten had called early in the month of January
to place the bill back in Turleys name effective January 16, 1996.
But Hyten did not vacate the Darlington house until early February. Turley
was alerted to a potential problem at the house by the water company.
Due to the water damage to the pipes, carpeting and wall paint,
Turley was unable to rent the Darlington house until March, 1996, and did
not have a tenant for the house until May, 1996.
On February 16, 1996, Turley received a letter from Hyten asking for his security deposit of $450 to be returned. Hyten had also enclosed the keys to the Darlington house. Turley responded to Hytens letter on February 25, 1996. It is this letter to which Hyten objects, arguing that the letter did not meet the requirements of Indiana Code §32-7-5-14. The letter reads as follows:
In response to your registered letter of February 7, 1996, this is notification to you regarding expenses chargeable to you under the terms of your lease.
Pictures have been taken, and the Town Marshall was invited in to see
the house in the condition you left it. You left behind trash
and there are many holes in the wall to be patched before it
can be painted. There is also damage to the building.
When you called to say you were moving, you didnt tell us there
was no heat in the house and all the pipes froze and burst.
The damage to the carpet and floors is very bad. The
toilet bowl burst, to name just a few of the problems. The
house will have to be totally replumbed.
The Water Company called and said you had told them early on in
the month that you were moving and they put the billing back in
our name. That is why they called to tell us something might
be wrong because 24,000 gallons of water had gone through leaving a pretty
large bill for Mark to have to pay. Had you told us
you were moving, perhaps this could have been avoided.
All though we dont have a complete estimate yet, the damage is already
more than $1400.00. After a complete assessment is made, we will give
you a full itemized statement. It will also include lost rent due
to our inability to lease the house again on a timely basis.
(R. at 58)
With respect to Turleys letter to Hyten, the Court of Appeals acknowledge[d] that [Turleys] letter rather thoroughly identified various damaged items and stated that total damages exceeded $1,400 . But the court went on to find that Turleys letter failed to meet the requirements of Indiana Code §32-7-5-14 because an estimated cost for each of the damaged items was not given. Turley, 751 N.E.2d at 252. The Court of Appeals stated that due to this, Hyten was unable to discern whether the individual charges that comprised the $1,400 were proper or reasonable. Id.
Looking at the facts of this case, however, we reach the opposite result.
We find that the discussion of the security deposit statute in
v. Langley to be helpful. In Meyers, the landlord had sent a
notice letter to the former tenant with estimates of material and labor to
fix the damages caused by the tenant. In holding that the letter
was sufficient under §32-7-5-14, the court stated, [t]he purpose of the notice provision
is to inform the tenant that the landlord is keeping the security deposit
and for what reason. It provides the tenant an opportunity to challenge
the costs for which the deposit is being used. That purpose has
been served here. Meyers, 638 N.E.2d at 878-79.
Under the facts of this case, we find that Indiana Code §32-7-5-14 has been complied with. We find that Turley fulfilled, in good faith and to the best of his ability under the circumstances with which he was presented, the purpose of the statute. Turley informed Hyten of the types of damages that Hyten had caused to the Darlington house. Turley also informed Hyten that due to the extensive nature of the damages, Turley did not have a complete estimate of the total amounts each of the repairs would cost.
Turleys February 25 letter gave Hyten more than enough information with which to
contest the costs to which his security deposit was being applied. Hytens
security deposit was a mere $450, whereas Turley alleged that the repairs, as
of February 25, 1996, would amount to more than $1400. In addition,
Turley alleged in the February 25 letter that Turley would hold Hyten responsible
for lost rent due to Turleys inability to lease the Darlington house in
a timely fashion. Under the lease between Turley and Hyten, one months
rent was equal to the security deposit paid by Hyten at the beginning
of the lease.
Under facts such as these, the purpose of the security deposit statute has
SHEPARD, C.J., and BOEHM, J., concur. RUCKER, J. dissents with separate opinion,
in which DICKSON, J. concurs.