This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A05-2538

 

 

Engelsma Limited Partnership,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Jeffrey Wayne Danielson,

d/b/a Northern Life Chiropractic,

Respondent.

 

 

Filed November 21, 2006

Reversed and remanded

Crippen, Judge*

 

Dakota County District Court

File No. C9-04-15716

 

 

Joseph A. Wentzell, James W. Moen, Wentzell Law Office, PLLC, 2855 Anthony Lane South, Suite 200, St. Anthony, MN 55418 (for appellant)

 

Patrick H. Elliott, Elliott Law Offices, P.A., 2409 West 66th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55423 (for respondent)

 

            Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Crippen, Judge.


U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

CRIPPEN, Judge

            Appellant landlord Engelsma Limited Partnership contends that the district court excused appellant’s tenant from a lease agreement, premised on a constructive-eviction determination, without making necessary findings to identify conditions of interference with the tenant’s enjoyment of the property and to tie these conditions to the landlord’s conduct.  Because there is merit in this contention, and the record contains too little evidence to permit omitted district court findings, we reverse and remand for a determination of appellant’s damages.

FACTS

On November 12, 1998, appellant and respondent tenant Jeffrey Danielson, d/b/a Northern Life Chiropractic, entered into a seven-year lease agreement for clinic space in the Valley Ridge Shopping Center in Burnsville. The lease stated that taking possession “shall be conclusive evidence that the leased premises were, on that date, in good, clean, and tenantable condition as represented by the LANDLORD.”

            The lease required respondent to be responsible for repair and maintenance of, among other things, the heating and air conditioning equipment:

LANDLORD shall have the right at TENANT’S cost and expense but shall not be obligated to make repairs, replacements or improvements of any kind upon the leased premises, or any equipment, facilities or fixtures therein contained, including heating and air conditioning equipment or other equipment serving only the leased premises even if located outside the leased premises, which at all times TENANT shall repair, replace and keep in good order and in a clean, sanitary and safe condition, in accordance with all applicable laws, ordinances, and regulations of any government authority having jurisdiction.  

 

            Danielson took possession on February 1, 1999.  According to Danielson, as early as nine months after moving his practice into the building, his employees began to experience sore throats, headaches, stuffy noses and dripping sinuses, which they attributed to the building.  But in July 2002 Danielson completed a survey of building satisfaction in which he did not mention any problems with air quality or employee sickness.

            In March 2003, Danielson received a bid to build a new clinic.  Two months later, Danielson complained for the first time to Engelsma’s management company that there was a problem in the building relating to the air quality and that his employees were experiencing health problems.  

Appellant asserts that nothing changed with respect to the heat and air system, carpet, walls, or ceilings from what was in place at the start of the lease.  Respondent attempted to remedy the problem by changing janitorial services, changing vacuums, having the carpets shampooed, servicing the air conditioning system, and purchasing two air purifiers.  (The servicing of the air system is somewhat disputed, as appellant asserts that it should be done semi-annually or quarterly and points out that respondent provided evidence of servicing it only once in the four-year period he occupied the premises.)

Respondent also contracted with the Institute for Environmental Assessment to conduct an initial fungal assessment.  The Institute’s October 2003 assessment did not identify a mold problem or any other cause of the allergy-like systems.  Rather, air samples showed that the fungal levels were within the acceptable range, and the “species were associated with deposition from the outdoors.”  Testing also showed that carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperature, and relative humidity results were within the recommended levels.

Although the Institute report recommended additional testing to determine the source of water damage observed on a soffit, as well as additional testing of the carpet and the air handling unit, respondent did not provide this report to appellant or its management company.  The management company only learned of its existence in May 2004, when it contacted the Institute to conduct an assessment and learned that tests had already been conducted.

In the meantime, on March 1, 2004, respondent signed a purchase agreement for a new building.  On May 24, respondent sent appellant a letter stating that he was vacating the building as of June 2004 due to health and environmental concerns.  The management company met with respondent the following day and requested the Institute report.  Appellant notified respondent that he was expected to pay rent through the end of the lease term.

Respondent vacated the premises June 17, 2004, and refused to pay the remaining rent due on the lease.  In August 2004, appellant sought three months unpaid rent in conciliation court.  After his claim was denied, appellant removed the case to district court for a trial de novo, where it sought the full rent due under the remaining lease, plus fees, totaling $38,963.72.

Following a bench trial in August 2005, the district court dismissed appellant’s complaint, concluding that respondent was constructively evicted.  This appeal follows.

D E C I S I O N

            The district court reasoned that respondent’s “beneficial enjoyment of the leased office space was sufficiently interfered so as to justify abandonment.”  Appellant’s allegation of a breach of the lease was not otherwise questioned.  Appellant contends that the court’s conclusion is not supported by adequate findings of fact or evidence in the record.[1] 

A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to a district court’s decision on a purely legal issue.  Modrow v. JP Foodservice, Inc., 656 N.W.2d 389, 393 (Minn. 2003) (citing Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n v. Minn. Pub. Utils. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984)).  When the district court’s conclusions of law include a determination of mixed questions of law and fact, determination of “ultimate” facts, and legal conclusions, the appellate court may correct erroneous applications of the law.  Maxfield v. Maxfield, 452 N.W.2d 219, 221 (Minn. 1990).  But the district court’s determination of the ultimate fact is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard.  Id.  Underlying factual findings must be sustained unless they are clearly erroneous or “manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.”  Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650, 656 (Minn. 1999) (quoting N. States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975)).   

A constructive eviction occurs when the beneficial enjoyment of the leased premises “is so interfered with” that it “justif[ies] an abandonment.” Colonial Court Apartments, Inc. v. Kern, 163 N.W.2d 770, 771 (Minn. 1968).  The interference must be “done by the landlord or those acting under his authority,” and it must be “of a grave and permanent character.”  Donaldson v. Mona Motor Oil Co., 193 Minn. 283, 286, 258 N.W. 504, 506 (1935). 

The only district court finding relevant to the determination of wrongful interference is that “[s]everal years into the lease, employees of [respondent] were complaining on a regular basis of air quality issues; many suffered migraines and allergy-like symptoms.”  The court made no finding as to why the employees suffered migraines and allergy-like symptoms or as to whether the symptoms were caused by conditions in the building.

Moreover, as appellant contends, there is no evidence in the record to support findings as to the nature and cause of the symptoms.  Respondent failed to prove the cause of the symptoms or to tie the symptoms to any condition of the building.  Although respondent and his employees testified that the symptoms only occurred at work, and the district court included in its memorandum a finding that the symptoms lessened when they left the building, this evidence permits only speculation as to whether a condition in the workplace may have contributed to the symptoms or whether the landlord was responsible for the condition. 

The lease provided for a division of responsibility, leaving duties to respondent for the heating, air conditioning, carpet, wall coverings, and trade fixtures.  Neither the findings nor the record supports any indication that interference occurred that comes within the scope of responsibility of the landlord.  See Colonial Court Apartments, 163 N.W.2d at 771 (holding that landlord must have caused interference to support finding of constructive eviction).

Without indicating its significance, the district court’s findings and memorandum mention that the October 2003 report of the Institute for Environmental Assessment suggested further investigation.  But the court made no finding, and there is no evidence, suggesting fault of the landlord in this regard.  Additionally, the record indicates that respondent neglected to pursue an additional investigation and failed to notify his landlord of the Institute’s recommendations until sometime after respondent’s decision to vacate the premises.

Because there is neither evidence nor findings of fact regarding the medical nature of symptoms reported by staff or the root cause of those conditions, the determination of wrongful interference and constructive eviction was an abuse of the district court’s discretion.  Moreover, there is nothing in the record to show that conditions were of a sufficiently “grave and permanent character”[2] to justify abandonment.  Donaldson, 193 Minn. at 286, 258 N.W. at 506.

Appellant also contends that the evidence found wanting in the case is not in the common knowledge of the fact finder and requires expert testimony.  Because the findings do not reach the cause of the symptoms we need not discuss here how those findings may be proven.  And because the record does not support a finding of constructive eviction, we have no occasion to address the issue of whether or not respondent waived his constructive-eviction argument.

The proceedings are remanded to the district court for a determination of damages and entry of a judgment consistent with this opinion.

            Reversed and remanded.



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1] Respondent asserts that appellant has introduced arguments beyond the scope of review, and indicates that a posttrial motion to the district court is necessary to challenge the absence of findings.  See Antonson v. Ekvall, 289 Minn. 536, 539, 186 N.W.2d 187, 189 (1971) (holding that failure of district court to make any findings cannot be reviewed on appeal, absent a posttrial motion to the district court).  To the contrary, the district court here made its supporting findings of fact, and the issue on appeal is whether those findings are adequate to permit the district court’s ultimate finding of wrongful interference.  See Pillandco, Inc. v. State, 718 N.W.2d 470, 474 (Minn. App 2006) (stating that the scope of review on appeal when there was no motion for a new trial extends to whether the evidence sustains the findings of fact, whether the findings support the conclusions of law and the judgment, and if the district court erred on substantive issues of law raised at trial).

 

[2] Respondent alleges that

his enjoyment of the premises was diminished to a material degree, if not totally, by the significant infestation of airborne contaminants within the office location.  The airborne contaminants presented under these circumstances, where the location is used for the purpose of providing medical treatment, presents no less of a health hazard than the vermin infestation presented in Building Ass’n of Duluth. As a result of the poor air quality within the building, Dr. Danielson and NLC employees unnecessarily suffered from continued and significant immunological illnesses and allergy like symptoms and Dr. Danielson’s patients were potentially exposed to hazardous conditions.

However, neither evidence nor findings show the existence of “significant infestation of airborne contaminants” nor of “poor air quality.”