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Helfrich v. Valdez Motel Corp.

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 22, 2009

Richard Steve HELFRICH, Appellant,
v.
VALDEZ MOTEL CORPORATION, Appellee.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Tim Cook, Cook & Associates, Anchorage, and Paul H. Bratton, Law Offices of Paul H. Bratton, Talkeetna, for Appellant.

Paul D. Stockler, Law Office of Paul D. Stockler, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The main issue in this appeal is whether a landlord violates the anti-retaliation statute, AS 34.03.310(a)(2), of the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) by evicting a tenant who demands personal injury compensation following an on-premises slip and fall. The superior court held that it does not, and therefore granted a directed verdict to the landlord on the tenant's URLTA retaliation claim. Because a claim for personal injury damages resulting from an on-premises fall is not for " rights and remedies granted" under URLTA,[1] we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Richard Steve Helfrich was employed by the Valdez Motel Corporation to perform general repairs and maintenance for one of its properties, the Pipeline Inn. [2] Helfrich rented a room at the Inn on a month-to-month basis at a reduced employee rate.

After finishing work on March 21, 2005, and while walking in an area behind the Inn, Helfrich slipped, fell, and broke his leg. Helfrich spent four or five days in hospitals in Valdez and Anchorage, returning to the Inn on March 24 or 25. He continued to reside at the Inn through May 2005. Helfrich was initially unable to work, but at some point he resumed working for the Inn on a part-time basis.

Helfrich asserts on appeal, and Valdez Motel does not dispute, that he did not have health insurance or other means to pay his medical bills. Mark Lee (Lee) and James " Bill" Lee are shareholders of the Valdez Motel Corporation. Helfrich testified in his deposition that he spoke with Bill Lee after returning from the hospital about how he " needed help with [his] medical bills." Helfrich testified that the Lees never responded whether they were willing to help. Mark

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Lee testified in his deposition that he paid for Helfrich's medicine and some of his trips to the doctor, and ensured that Helfrich had transportation to his medical appointments. Lee testified that he asked Helfrich whether he was " going to seek an attorney" and that Helfrich said he was not. Helfrich testified that he consulted attorney Tim Cook after he never heard back from the Lees about whether they would cover his medical expenses.

On May 26, 2005, Cook sent Mark Lee a demand letter on Helfrich's behalf, asserting that Valdez Motel was liable for " in excess of $40,000" in medical bills that Helfrich had incurred. Cook's letter asked the Lees to seek coverage with their insurance provider and concluded that it would be in Pipeline Inn's best interest " to accept responsibility and provide for [Helfrich's] care and settle this matter as expediently as possible." On June 1, 2005, Cook spoke with Mark Lee by telephone. Lee told Cook that Helfrich could continue to stay at the Inn, but that he could no longer stay at the reduced rental rate.[3]

Helfrich testified in his deposition that, on the same day Cook called Lee, Lee and Helfrich had a conversation in the hallway of the Inn. Helfrich testified that Lee told Helfrich that he wanted Helfrich off the premises as soon as possible and that he did not like getting threatening letters from attorneys. Helfrich testified that after the conversation he found a letter posted on the door to his room. The letter stated:

June 1, 2005
Steve,
I guess we should have learned from the past and had nothing to do with you, but that's not how we do things. Unfortunately, it has come back and bit us in the ass again and for that I thank you. I really don't appreciate getting a threatening letter from an attorney. I think at this[ ] point Steve, it is best you move out as fast as you can. I recommend perhaps moving in with whoever gave you such back stabbing advice. If no one, I guess it is time for a tent (on someone else's property).
Mark

Helfrich testified that he packed his things and left the Inn within ten minutes of receiving the letter. He testified that he never approached Lee to ask if he could stay in his room either for the night or until he could make other living arrangements.

Cook wrote Lee a letter on June 2, 2005 confirming their June 1, 2005 conversation and urging Lee not to raise Helfrich's rent because it would likely render Helfrich homeless. Lee testified that at some point after Helfrich received Lee's letter and left the premises, Lee told Helfrich that he could stay if he paid increased rent. Lee testified in his deposition that he decided to raise the rent because Helfrich was no longer an employee. Lee testified that Helfrich was " let go" for lying about hiring an attorney and because he suspected that Helfrich was also lying about whether his fall was actually on Valdez Motel's property.

On June 8, 2005, Helfrich sued Valdez Motel in superior court, asserting both claims of negligence and claims of violations of URLTA.[4] In August 2006 Helfrich sought partial summary judgment on the alleged URLTA violations. Helfrich argued that Valdez Motel unlawfully failed to provide him with a written eviction notice that met URLTA's notice requirements.

The superior court denied Helfrich's motion for partial summary judgment in early December 2006. The court also denied Helfrich's subsequent motion for reconsideration. The court clarified that a factual dispute barring judgment as a matter of law existed about the " nature of the purported June 1, 2005 eviction notice."

A three-day jury trial took place in May 2007. At the close of Helfrich's case, Valdez Motel moved for a directed verdict on Helfrich's claims. The court denied Valdez Motel's directed verdict motion on the negligence claim, but granted Valdez Motel a

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directed verdict on the URLTA and punitive damages claims. Helfrich had advanced two URLTA claims: (1) that the eviction was in retaliation for seeking remedies under URLTA, and (2) that the eviction was a wrongful ouster. Only Helfrich's negligence claim was submitted to the jury, which returned a verdict finding that Valdez Motel was not liable. The court later entered ...


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