Virginia Lawyers Weekly//September 17, 2018
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//September 17, 2018//
Most of a tenant couple’s debt to their former landlord, based on unpaid rent and the poor conditions in which they left the rental, was dischargeable. The court held a small percentage to be non-dischargeable based on evidence that, in one instance, the tenant knew his actions would damage the property.
In August 2013, Debtors James and Jessika Horton signed a one-year lease with Plaintiffs Amy and John Hinty for property in Roanoke. The lease terms provided that the Debtors would pay $750 in monthly rent, plus a $100 pet deposit for each of their two dogs, and a $750 security deposit. If the Plaintiffs decided to sell the property, they could terminate the contract upon 45 days’ notice. In spring 2014, the Plaintiffs listed the property for sale. The Debtors notified the Plaintiffs of their intent to vacate and began moving out of the Property.
Upon inspection of the property, the Plaintiffs discovered an extensive amount of garbage on the ground outside of garbage cans and in the yard, as well as unsanitary living conditions inside the property that can only be described as deplorable. There was a hole in the shower wall and scratches on the hardwood floors. Additionally, the Debtors had removed four large boxwood bushes located by the property entrance and replaced them with small rose bushes.
To recover damages, including unpaid rent and an unpaid water bill, the Plaintiffs brought an action in the Roanoke City General District Court. The general district court awarded the Plaintiffs $3,020 in damages, plus interest, and $70 in court costs.
The Debtors petitioned for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on February 14, 2018, listing the Plaintiffs as an unsecured creditor in the amount of the judgment. The Plaintiffs then initiated this adversary proceeding seeking to except from discharge $1,706 in repair costs, plus interest, and court costs.
Under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6), any debt for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity, or to the property of another entity, is non-dischargeable. The controlling issue in the adversary proceeding is whether the Debtors intended to injure the Plaintiffs or their property.
The Plaintiffs allege that the general district court entered a default judgment against the Hortons for vandalism, unpaid rent and a water bill. They directed this court to the judgment entered by the state court filed as an exhibit. But nothing in the state court judgment even mentions vandalism, much less a finding that the Debtors intended an intentional injury to the Plaintiffs or their property. In fact, the Plaintiff’s state-court warrant in debt reflects that the only basis for their claim was in contract, apparently for breach of the lease. A simple breach of contract, even if intentional, does not give rise to a
§ 523(a)(6) violation.
There is no indication that the state court made findings to support a collateral estoppel claim in this court. The doctrine does not apply here.
Willful, malicious injury
Only the amount of damage sustained as to the sliding shower doors was willful and malicious. Mr. Horton knew he ran his lawnmower into paint cans in the storage shed and covered the shower doors with paint. He simply left them there with no effort to clean or reinstall them. The court finds that he knew with objective certainty that this action, and his subsequent failure to remedy the damage, would injure the Plaintiffs and their property. He did so knowingly, deliberately, and intentionally without just cause or excuse.
The court finds that $427 to install a new sliding shower door falls into the category of non-dischargeable debt under
§ 523(a)(6). This finding is against Mr. Horton only, as there is no evidence that Ms. Horton had any involvement in causing the shower-door damage.
The majority of the other damages are the consequence of “slovenly living habits, negligence, and deplorable housekeeping,” which the court has previously held not to give rise in itself to a claim of non-dischargeability. Moreover, the plaintiffs did not carry their burden to show that removing the boxwood bushes and planting rose bushes is anything more than a contract breach that does not rise to the level of non-dischargeable conduct.
The debt at issue in this case, less the $427 attributable to Mr. Horton, shall be discharged.
Hinton v. Horton, AP No. 18-07013, Aug. 21, 2018. WDVA Bankr. at Roanoke (Black). VLW No. 018-4-007, 8 pp.