Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Mark Rindner, Judge. Supreme Court No. S-13205 Superior Court No. 3AN-07-11512 CI
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Winfree, Justice.
Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the PACIFIC REPORTER. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878, e-mail email@example.com.
Before: Carpeneti, Chief Justice, Fabe, Winfree, Christen, and Stowers, Justices.
A landlord sought re-possession of her condominium from a tenant. The tenant asserted he had an enforceable right to purchase the residence based on an option in his lease (the option right). After a superior court bench trial at which the tenant appeared pro se, the court ruled in favor of the landlord. The tenant appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by: (1) refusing to postpone trial to allow him to retain counsel; (2) failing to assist him with evidentiary objections at trial; (3) failing to disqualify the landlord's attorney as trial counsel because the attorney was a necessary witness; and (4) concluding that there was neither an enforceable purchase agreement nor an unexpired option right. We affirm the trial court's decision because: (1) the trial court did not abuse its discretion or commit plain error with respect to the procedural issues the tenant raises; (2) the trial court's factual findings are not clearly erroneous; and (3) the trial court did not err in its legal conclusions.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
In May 2004 Azuron Shooshanian and Suewanna Ekstrom began leasing a condominium from Colleen Dire for $800 per month. Dire handwrote the one-page lease agreement, leaving blanks for the lessee's names. Shooshanian wrote his own name into some of the blanks and wrote his and Ekstrom's first names together in others. The lease included an option to purchase the residence and required that "[i]ntent . . . be informed to [Dire] within the year before the end of the lease. (first year)." The lease also provided that all payments for repairs and upgrades would factor into the "final cost" of the residence. Neither Shooshanian nor Ekstrom signed the lease. The parties agree that the lease had a one-year term.
The parties agree that when Dire signed the handwritten lease she said the residence was worth approximately $140,000. At some point Shooshanian handwrote at the bottom of the lease, squeezed above Dire's signature, "Sale price of house is 140,000 with - ½ % of going rate." Shooshanian explained at trial that "- ½ % of going rate" meant that after he told Dire he wanted to buy the residence he would owe her interest on the remaining debt at a rate of one-half percent less than the "average going rate" in the mortgage industry. Dire testified at trial that Shooshanian must have added the sentence after she had signed the handwritten lease and handed it to him.
According to Shooshanian the parties also agreed to important terms not reflected in the handwritten lease. Shooshanian testified that when Dire signed the handwritten lease she told him his monthly rental payments would count toward the purchase price and she would finance the purchase. Dire disputed both contentions at trial.
The parties agree that Shooshanian and Ekstrom verbally informed Dire within the lease period that they wanted to buy the residence. Shooshanian contended at trial that when he told Dire he wanted to buy the residence (1) she again said she would finance the purchase and (2) his $800 monthly payments started to function as mortgage payments. Dire disputed both contentions at trial. Shooshanian and Ekstrom never applied for alternative financing or sought an appraisal of the residence. Shooshanian made no payment to Dire beyond the monthly $800, and when he made repairs to the residence he deducted the cost of materials from his monthly payments. Title to the residence remained in Dire's name, and Shooshanian never assumed any responsibility for paying property taxes, insurance premiums, or condominium association dues. Shooshanian testified he understood a portion of his rent money had always gone toward paying the condominium dues and property taxes.
Shooshanian testified that Dire told him not to worry about the lease expiring because he would not be evicted and Kevin Brady, her friend and later her trial attorney, would prepare a new lease. At trial Dire confirmed that she had told Shooshanian she would attempt to get him a better lease. Shooshanian contended that at some point he gave Dire an "option to buy lease" and that she later told him she had filled it out and then lost it, but Dire testified that she did not remember telling him that.
In April 2006, nearly one year after the initial handwritten lease agreement expired and approximately one and one-half years after Shooshanian gave notice of his desire to purchase the residence, Shooshanian, Ekstrom, and Dire met to fill out a form entitled "Residential Lease with Option to Purchase." Together they wrote the date, the parties' names, and the security deposit amount into the blanks provided. Dire even signed at the bottom, but the form was never completed because they were confused about how to fill it out. Among terms left blank were the purchase price, closing date, and financing arrangements.
Shooshanian testified that at Dire's direction in late 2006 -- approximately one and one-half years after the initial handwritten lease expired and over two years after Shooshanian gave notice he wanted to exercise the option -- he went to Brady's office to complete a lease agreement. Shooshanian alleged that Brady then informed him the sale price had increased above ...