Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Howard-Hill v. Spence

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

October 11, 2017

DR. JEAN HOWARD-HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
CARLTON SPENCE, Individually and a/k/a Scott Spence, Individually, et al., Defendants,

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          SUSAN K. LEE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment and supporting memorandum filed by Defendants Carlton “Scott” Spence and Mini Max Storage (collectively, “Defendants”)[1] on August 2, 2017 [Docs. 28 & 29]. Pro se Plaintiff Dr. Jean Howard-Hill (“Plaintiff”) filed a response and supporting memorandum [Docs. 31 & 32], and Defendants filed a reply [Doc. 35]. Plaintiff then filed a motion to amend her response, with a supporting memorandum [Docs. 36 & 37]. Plaintiff also filed her own sur-reply to Defendants' reply [Doc. 39]. Defendants do not object to Plaintiff's motion to amend her response [see Doc. 38], nor have they objected to the Court's consideration of Plaintiff's sur-reply for the purpose of resolving this motion for summary judgment.[2] The Court will therefore grant Plaintiff's motion to amend her response [Doc. 37], and has considered all of Plaintiff's pleadings in issuing this decision.

         This matter is ripe. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant Mini Max Storage is a self-serve storage facility located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Plaintiff stored a number of her belongings in a total of ten storage units. Defendant Spence purchased the Mini Max facilities and took over the business in August 2013. As set forth in greater detail below, Plaintiff failed to timely pay her rent and other charges for the units, and on November 9, 2013, Defendants sold the contents of Plaintiff's storage units at a public auction. Plaintiff filed the instant suit against Defendants on November 1, 2016, alleging Defendants breached the contract-rental agreements (often referred to herein as “leases”) for the storage units, and that Defendants are liable for conversion and fraud. In her original complaint, Plaintiff sought $16, 803, 501.03 in damages [Doc. 1, Page ID # 1]. Plaintiff later amended her complaint and increased the amount of damages to $22, 153, 501.03, based on her calculation of the value of the property she had stored at Mini Max [Doc. 19, Page ID # 482].

         Through their motion for summary judgment, and in reliance on the Tennessee Self-Service Storage Facility Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 66-31-104 & -105, Defendants argue that they had a lien on Plaintiff's stored personal property and that they properly foreclosed on the lien pursuant to the requirements of the statute when they held the public auction of Plaintiff's belongings; therefore, they are not liable to Plaintiff for any damages. Defendants further argue that, even if they were liable, the leases for nine of the ten units Plaintiff occupied limited the amount of Defendants' liability for a wrongful sale of property to $1, 000 per unit.

         Defendants also argue that Plaintiff's fraud claim-which is based on an alleged agreement by an employee of Mini Max, Mr. Todd Kyle, to postpone the public auction in exchange for a partial payment of $2, 500 toward Plaintiff's past due bill-fails because Plaintiff cannot prove that Mr. Kyle made the agreement or that her reliance on any alleged misrepresentation that the auction would be postponed was reasonable. Finally, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's breach of contract claim based on this same alleged agreement fails because, even if Mr. Kyle did make the agreement and had the authority to do so, there would be no consideration for the agreement because Plaintiff was already legally obligated to pay her past due bill.

         Defendants' motion is supported by a memorandum [Doc. 29], the storage unit rental contracts [Doc. 28-1[3], Plaintiff's deposition testimony [Doc. 28-2[4], recorded notes concerning Plaintiff's account at Mini Max [Doc. 28-3], the deposition testimony of Plaintiff's cousin Mecshell Wright Ramseur [Doc. 28-4], an affidavit from Defendant Spence [Doc. 28-5], notices of the auction that were mailed to Plaintiff [Doc. 28-6], the newspaper advertisement for the auction [Doc. 28-7], and the deposition testimony of Mr. Nassar Salameh Jaser, a business associate and friend of Plaintiff's [Doc. 28-8].[5]

         In response, Plaintiff contends that she was not bound by most of the leases because she did not actually sign them, and the person who did sign them, Plaintiff's cousin Mecshell Wright Ramseur, did not have authority to bind Plaintiff. She relies on the same evidence as Defendants, as well as her own memorandum [Doc. 37-1], emails between Plaintiff and employees of Mini Max concerning the manner in which Plaintiff's payments were applied to her account balance [Doc. 31-18], transcripts of voicemails left on Plaintiff's phone by Defendant Spence and other Mini Max employees [Doc. 31-20], text messages between Plaintiff and Mr. Jaser [Doc. 31-21], Defendants' answers to interrogatories [Doc. 31-22], Defendant Mini Max's insurance policy [Doc. 31-23], and Plaintiff's inventory of the items stored in the units [Doc. 31-24]. In her sur-reply and other filings, Plaintiff also cites to Mini Max's phone records [Doc. 36-1].

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is mandatory where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and the moving party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A “material” fact is one that matters-i.e., a fact that, if found to be true, might “affect the outcome” of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The applicable substantive law provides the frame of reference to determine which facts are material. Id. A “genuine” dispute exists with respect to a material fact when the evidence would enable a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party. Id.; Jones v. Sandusky Cnty., Ohio, 541 F. App'x 653, 659 (6th Cir. 2013); Nat'l Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001). In determining whether a dispute is “genuine, ” the court cannot weigh the evidence or determine the truth of any matter in dispute. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Instead, the court must view the facts and all inferences that can be drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Nat'l Satellite Sports, 253 F.3d at 907.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Jones, 541 F. App'x at 659. To refute such a showing, the non-moving party must present some significant, probative evidence indicating the necessity of a trial for resolving a material, factual dispute. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. A mere scintilla of evidence is not enough. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; McLean v. 988011 Ontario, Ltd., 224 F.3d 797, 800 (6th Cir. 2000). The court's role is limited to determining whether the case contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 249; Nat'l Satellite Sports, 253 F.3d at 907.

         III. FACTS

         Plaintiff leased her first Mini Max storage unit, unit #163, in 2007 [lease, Doc. 28-1, Page ID # 628-30]. Plaintiff's friend and former business partner, Ms. Derilla Frazier, signed the lease on Plaintiff's behalf on November 21, 2007 [Id.]. Plaintiff does not dispute that Ms. Frazier was acting as Plaintiff's agent and that Plaintiff is bound by the terms of this lease [Plaintiff Dep., Doc. 28-2 at Page ID 664, lines 8-13]. Out of the ten leases at issue in this case, the lease for unit #163 is the only one that does not contain a limitation on the value of property that can be stored in the unit [Doc. 28-1, Page ID # 628].

         Plaintiff acquired the other nine storage units in late 2012. On November 20, 2012, shortly before moving from Chattanooga to Washington, D.C., Plaintiff signed a lease for Unit #271 [lease, Doc. 28-1 at Page ID # 636-40]. This lease contains a limitation of value paragraph, which provides:

Customer agrees that in no event shall the total value of all property stored be deemed to exceed $1, 000 unless Landlord has given permission in writing for Customer to store property exceeding that value. Customer agrees that the maximum liability of Landlord to Customer for any claim or suit by Customer, including but not limited to any suit which alleges wrongful or improper foreclosure or sale of the contents of a storage unit is the total value referenced above. Nothing in this section shall be deemed to create any liability on the part of Landlord to Customer for any loss or damage to Customer[']s property, regardless of cause.

[Doc. 28-1 at Page ID # 639].

         Plaintiff asserts that on November 27, 2017, she “personally acquired” an additional four units: #62, #64, #119, and #135 [see Doc. 37-1 at Page ID # 1265]. Within a short span of time thereafter, Plaintiff acquired four more units: #139 on November 28, 2012, #150 on December 3, 2012, #198 on December 5, 2012, and #161 on December 6, 2012 [id. at Page ID # 1265-66; see also leases, Doc. 28-1]. Plaintiff, however, did not actually sign the leases for any of these eight units when she acquired each. Instead, on December 12, 2012, when Plaintiff's cousin, Ms. Ramseur, appeared at Mini Max to place some of Plaintiff's belongings into the storage units [see Ramseur Dep., Doc. 31-13 at Page ID #1110], Ms. Ramseur signed her own name and Plaintiff's name to the leases for seven of the eight units, those units being #62, #64, #119, #139, #150, #198, and #161 [see leases, Doc. 28-1]. The lease for unit #135 was never signed by anyone.

         Plaintiff contends that Ms. Ramseur never had any authority to sign the leases on Plaintiff's behalf [Plaintiff Dep., Doc. 28-2 at Page ID # 665, lines 9-19], and Ms. Ramseur testified in her deposition that she believed she was signing a document simply to gain access to the units [Ramseur Dep., Doc. 28-4 at Page ID # 685, lines 18-25]. Defendants dispute this, and point to a note recorded by a former Mini Max employee which states, “sent cousin to sign leases” [Doc. 28-3 at Page ID # 682]. It is undisputed, however, that Plaintiff did receive copies of three of the eight leases via email, although the copies that Plaintiff received had not yet been signed by her cousin [Plaintiff Dep., Doc. 28-2 at Page ID # 666, lines 6-22].

         It is worth noting that all eight leases (including the three that were emailed to Plaintiff) were identical to the lease Plaintiff signed for unit #271 on November 20, 2012, and included the limitation of value paragraph [see leases, Doc. 28-1]. It is also worth noting that, after receiving the emailed copies of the leases, Plaintiff continued to make payments to Mini Max, albeit somewhat sporadically [see Mini Max account notes, Doc. 28-3 at Page ID # 682; emails between Plaintiff and Mini Max, Doc. 31-18 at Page ID # 1140].

         By August 2013, when Defendant Spence purchased Mini Max, Plaintiff was in default on all ten of her units for failing to pay rent [Spence Aff., Doc. 28-5 at Page ID # 689, ¶ 4]. When Plaintiff did make a payment, the payment was divided across each of the ten units, rather than applied to satisfy the balance on one particular unit [emails, Doc. 31-18 at Page ID # 1156].

         On October 1, 2013, an employee of Mini Max mailed ten separate “Auction Notifications” to Plaintiff's former address in Chattanooga [Doc. 28-6]. The Notifications informed Plaintiff that her right to access the storage units had been terminated and that Mini Max would auction the contents of the units “on or after” November 2, 2013, at 9:00 a.m., unless Plaintiff paid the balances owed prior to that date [id.]. Plaintiff contends that she did not receive the notices; regardless, at some point she discovered Defendants intended to auction the contents of her storage units. Therefore, on October 31, 2013, Plaintiff's friend Elaine Powe contacted Mini Max and inquired about making a partial payment to avoid the auction [Powe Aff., Doc. 31-15 at Page ID #1133].

         According to her affidavit, Ms. Powe spoke with Mr. Todd Kyle, an employee of Mini Max, who, after checking with his boss (presumably Defendant Spence), agreed to accept a $2, 500 payment from Plaintiff to “stop the sale of the 10 units on November 2, 2013” and to “give her time to pay whatever balance in a few days.” [id. at Page ID # 1133-34]. Ms. Powe then made the $2, 500 payment on November 1 [id. at Page ID # 1133]. Plaintiff claims that Mr. Kyle agreed to postpone the auction until November 22 as a result of this payment [see Doc. 19 at Page ID # 499], although Ms. Powe does not specifically attest to the November 22 date. Defendant Spence denies having made such an agreement, and claims that “[t]he only way I was ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.