Nancy S. Brewer, Esq.
Legal Aid of West Virginia
Huntington, West Virginia
Attorney for Appellant
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
CHIEF JUSTICE STARCHER concurs and reserves the right to file a concurring opinion.
This case is before this Court
upon appeal of a final order of the Circuit Court of Cabell County entered
on July 31, 2001. In that order, the circuit court denied a motion for a new
trial filed by the appellant and defendant below, Lawrence Walaszczyk. This
action was instituted by Clark Apartments by J.E. Woods,
(See footnote 1) the
appellee and plaintiff below, who alleged that the appellant had damaged the
apartment he leased and failed to pay his rent. The appellee sought $5,000.00
in damages plus costs. Following a bench trial, the circuit court entered
judgment in favor of the appellee in the amount of $2,610.00.
In this appeal, the appellant claims that the evidence presented at trial did not support the judgment granted to the appellee. This Court has before it the petition for appeal, the entire record, and the brief and argument of appellant's counsel.(See footnote 2) For the reasons set forth below, the final order is reversed, and this case is remanded to the circuit court for entry of an order containing findings of facts and conclusions of law to support the judgment.
In February 1998, the appellant, a student at Marshall University, began renting
an apartment in Huntington, West Virginia, from the appellee under a one-year lease. In
1999, the tenancy reverted to month to month. The appellant continued to rent the apartment
for the next two years.
In late January 2001, an intruder pushed open the door to the appellant's
apartment and damaged the door frame molding and lock. According to the appellant, a
previous repair to the door by the appellee had not been completed, and the door had not been
secure since that time. On January 29, 2001, the appellant discovered that the lock on his
apartment had been changed by the appellee. The appellee has said that he put a note on the
appellant's door on January 24, 2001, warning the appellant to pay his rent. The appellant
claims he never found the note. Shortly thereafter, the appellee instituted this action in
magistrate court in Cabell County seeking $5,000.00 in damages, including unpaid rent, from
The parties appeared in magistrate court pro se. The magistrate awarded
judgment in favor of the appellee in an unspecified amount and instructed him to provide the
court with invoices at his convenience. On March 15, 2001, the appellee presented invoices
to the magistrate in the amount of $4,664.87. Thereafter, the magistrate entered judgment
in favor of the appellee in the amount of $4,599.87 plus $65.00 for court costs. The appellant
appealed the magistrate's order to the circuit court.
The circuit court held a bench trial on May 10, 2001. The court found in favor
of the appellee and awarded judgment to him in the amount of $2,610.00. The appellant filed
a motion for a new trial which was denied. This appeal followed.
In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the
circuit court made after a bench trial, a two-pronged deferential
standard of review is applied. The final order and the ultimate
disposition are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard,
and the circuit court's underlying factual findings are reviewed
under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject
to a de novo review.
As noted above, the appellant claims that the judgment rendered by the circuit court in this case is not supported by the evidence. At the outset of his argument, the appellant points out that the circuit court failed to include findings of fact and conclusions of law in the order which granted judgment to the appellee. Indeed, the judgment order merely states,
The Court, having heard and considered the evidence and testimony presented on behalf of the respective parties and the argument of counsel, found judgment in favor of the Plaintiff and against Defendant, awarded damages to Plaintiff in the amount of $2,610.00, with credit against said amount of $300.00, representing the amount of a damage deposit paid by Defendant at the inception of the lease agreement which was the subject matter of this action, and further awarded to Plaintiff its costs incurred, together with interest at the legal rate from and after the entry of this Order. The Court further determined that Defendant shall take nothing from his Counterclaim (See footnote 3) and the same shall be dismissed with prejudice. The Court Reporter's fee in the amount of $25.00, is assessed against Defendant.
Pursuant to Rule 52(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, [i]n all actions tried upon the facts without a jury or with an advisory jury, the court shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon[.] This Court has long since held that the requirements of Rule 52(a) are mandatory. In SyllabusPoint 1 of Commonwealth Tire Co. v. Tri-State Tire Co., 156 W.Va. 351, 193 S.E.2d 544 (1972), this Court stated that:
Accordingly, for the reason set forth above, the final order of the Circuit Court
of Cabell County is reversed, and this case is remanded to the court with directions to make
findings of fact and conclusions of law as set forth in Rule 52(a) of the West Virginia Rules
of Civil Procedure.
Rule 52(a) mandatorily requires the trial court, in all actions tried upon the facts without a jury, to find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon before the entry of judgment. The failure to do so constitutes neglect of duty on the part of the trial court, and if it appears on appeal that the rule has not been complied with, the case may be remanded for compliance.
In this instance, the trial court clearly failed to follow the mandate of Rule 52(a). Consequently, our review of the circuit court's order is substantially hindered because we are unable to ascertain the court's reasons for granting the appellee a judgment in the amount of $2,610.00. Thus, we believe it is necessary to remand this case so that the trial court can comply with the requirements of Rule 52(a).
Reversed and remanded with directions.
Accordingly, for the reason set forth above, the final order of the Circuit Court of Cabell County is reversed, and this case is remanded to the court with directions to make findings of fact and conclusions of law as set forth in Rule 52(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure.