Judge Belittled, Disparaged Tenant In $38 Rent Spat


Dave Stafford for www.theindianalawyer.com

A small-claims judge who failed to swear in litigants in a small-change rent lawsuit drew a rebuke and a reversal from the Court of Appeals Friday, who found she not only improperly shifted the burden of proof to the plaintiff, but also belittled and disparaged her.

Dyamond Harris was sued by her landlord in Lafayette who said she owed $38 in rent. Lafayette LIHTC LP’s Romney Meadows apartments also sought to evict her and collect court costs and other fees. At a hearing, Harris disputed the debt and produced copies of money order receipts that she said proved she had paid, but representatives of Romney Meadows disputed this. Tippecanoe Superior Judge Laura W. Zeman ruled for the landlord.

“Harris contends that the trial court committed clear error by improperly shifting the burden of proof and violated her due process right to an impartial decision maker. We agree on both counts and therefore reverse,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the panel in Dyamond Harris v. Lafayette LIHTC, LP,  79A02-1703-SC-638.

Crone wrote that Harris never admitted she owed past rent, consistently maintained that there was money in her account to cover rent, and the Lafayette landlord’s argument was without merit. The court improperly shifted the burden to Harris. “Consequently, the judgment is clearly erroneous and must be reversed.”

The COA also found the small claims court failed to preside as a neutral, impartial decision-maker, citing Zeman’s conduct from the bench that may have violated Indiana Judicial Conduct Canons 1.2, 2.3(B) and 2.8(B).

“Here, the trial court asked questions and made comments throughout both hearings that were improper. The trial court asked Harris, ‘Who else is paying your rent? Somebody is paying rent. Me as a taxpayer?  …. [What] is it about you that requires Section 8 housing such that you can’t keep track of thirty-eight dollars?’ … The trial court told Harris, ‘Okay, if they say you owe thirty-eight dollars for February just pay them the thirty-eight to get it done’ … The trial court also commented, ‘You have people who don’t work and free apartments[,] and the rest of us have to work to pay for it. That’s one of the problems in our country.’ … The trial court asked Harris, ‘Why are you not paying rent? I pay rent. I pay a mortgage. Why don’t you. … So [you] don’t work you get free rent? … What a country, what a country.’

“Lafayette contends that ‘none’ of the trial court’s comments are ‘disparaging’ of any person. … We disagree. The questions and comments belittle Harris for living in government-subsidized housing and not paying Lafayette $38.00. … We conclude that the trial court failed to preside over the hearing as a neutral, impartial decision maker in violation of Harris’s due process rights. The trial court’s actions and demeanor ‘crossed the barrier of impartiality and prejudiced’ Harris’s case,” Crone wrote, citing in a footnote to the Canons of Judicial Conduct.

“Accordingly, even if we were not reversing the judgment based on the trial court’s error regarding the burden of proof, we would reverse and order a new hearing by an impartial judge.”