United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga
DR. JEAN HOWARD-HILL, Plaintiff,
CARLTON SPENCE, Individually and a/k/a Scott Spence, Individually, et al., Defendants,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
K. LEE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
the Court is a motion for summary judgment and supporting
memorandum filed by Defendants Carlton “Scott”
Spence and Mini Max Storage (collectively,
“Defendants”) 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. The Court will therefore grant
Plaintiff's motion to amend her response [Doc. 37], and
has considered all of Plaintiff's pleadings in issuing
matter is ripe. For the reasons stated below, Defendants'
motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and
denied in part.
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].
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.
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.
motion is supported by a memorandum [Doc. 29], the storage
unit rental contracts [Doc. 28-1, Plaintiff's deposition
testimony [Doc. 28-2, 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.
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].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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.
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].
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].
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.
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].
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].
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].
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].
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 ...