Landlord Dire sought possession of her condominium unit from tenant Shooshanian who asserted he had an enforceable right to purchase it based on an option in his lease. After a Superior Court bench trial at which the tenant appeared pro se, the court ruled in favor of the landlord. The tenant appealed arguing 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.
In May 2004 Azuron Shooshanian and Suewanna Ekstrom began leasing a condominium from Colleen Dire for $800 per month. Dire hand wrote a one page lease agreement with blanks for the lessee’s names. Shooshanian wrote his name into some of the blanks and his and Ekstrom’s first names into others. The lease term was one year with an option to purchase within that year with all payments for repairs and upgrades factored into the “final cost” of the residence. Neither Shooshanian nor Ekstrom signed the lease. The parties agreed that when Dire signed the lease she said the residence was worth approximately $140,000.00.
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.” At trial he explained that if he purchased the house he would owe Dire interest on the remaining debt at one-half percent less than the “average going rate” in the mortgage industry. Dire testified that he must have added the sentence after she signed the lease and handed it to him. Shooshanian also claimed 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 within the lease period the tenants verbally informed Dire they wanted to buy the residence. They never applied for alternative financing, got an appraisal, or increased the $800 monthly rent payment, from which the cost of materials for repairs was deducted.
Title remained in Dire’s name and Shooshanian never paid taxes, insurance, or condominium dues. Although the parties later attempted to fill out a form “Residential Lease with Option to Purchase” it was never completed because of confusion about how to fill it out. Shooshanian also went to Dire’s friend and attorney Kevin Brady to discuss a new Lease Agreement which Shooshanian alleged fell through when Brady informed him the sales price had increased above $140,000 and that all back rent must be paid before addressing the lease.
Attorney Brady, using a limited power of attorney gave, Shooshanian a notice of termination of his tenancy and subsequently filed a Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) action in district court. Shooshanian opposed the eviction claiming two options to purchase which resulted in the case being transferred to superior court since it raised title issues. Shooshanian moved for a continuance of the trial to allow him to hire an attorney which was denied since he had seven months since the filing of the case to find one. Following trial, the superior court found that Shooshanian held an option to purchase the residence but that a further contract was needed to accomplish the purchase, which contact was not negotiated. Dire was granted a judgment for possession.
On Appeal the Supreme Court found the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to continue the trial. It was Shooshanian’s lack of diligence that caused any possible prejudice to him for not getting a continuance. It was also pointed out that a continuance would have cost Dire the opportunity to re-rent the residence for $1,200 to $1,500 per month – the rental value Shooshanian estimated at trial for the property. The Supreme Court further found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by not explaining how to make hearsay and relevance objections or not excluding hearsay evidence to which no objection had been raised. The Court held that when a pro se litigant is “obviously attempting to accomplish” an action, the trial court should inform the litigant of the proper procedure for that action; but that instructing a “pro se litigant as to each step in litigating a claim” would compromise the court’s impartiality.
The trial court did not commit plain error by not disqualifying Brady as trial attorney for Dire since neither party attempted to call Brady as a witness and Shooshanian never asked the trial court to disqualify Brady for any reason. It further held that his limited involvement did not make him a necessary witness at trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Dire was entitled to possession pointing out that it gives great deference to the trial courts credibility findings. It was not clearly erroneous to find that the parties never agreed on a price or financing terms. Since these are necessary terms for an enforceable real estate agreement, Shooshanian had no cognizable interest in the property other than as a month to month tenant.