MENG V. RAHMI, 2022 OK 11

Opinion:Meng v. Rahmi, 2022 OK 11
Subject matter:Forcible Entry and Detainer
Date Decided:February 1, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Cleveland County
Route to this Court:Writ of Certiorari to review an interlocutory order
Facts:Tenant closed her massage business on March 19, 2020 after she and her sole employee became ill with symptoms of Covid-19. The tenant did not pay rent after March 2020, and she never reopened her business. On June 15, 2020, the landlord filed this action for past due rent and eviction. At the hearing on August 12, 2020, tenant argued that rent was not due from April through August because performance of the contract had become impossible in light of the public health risk with massage which temporarily excused the payment of rent under the doctrine of frustration of purpose or impracticability. The landlord argued that the lease at issue expressly excludes the possibility of rent abatement in the case of an interruption to the tenant’s business. The trial court stated that the tenant was asserting a defense that was not a legitimate excuse for the nonpayment of rent and did not allow the tenant to present any evidence in support of the tenant’s defense. The trial court awarded the landlord $6,400 in past due rent and granted the landlord possession. The trial court certified its order for discretionary interlocutory appellate review (landlord’s claim for future rent was reserved so the order was not a final order) and the tenant filed a Petition for Certiorari seeking review of the certified order, which the Court granted.  
Standard of Review:De novo. 
Analysis:The principal issue for review is whether the trial court erred in failing to permit the tenant the opportunity to present evidence of her affirmative defense. During part of the time of non-performance by the tenant in this case, personal care businesses were prohibited by law from operating on account of an executive order of the Governor of Oklahoma. However, personal care businesses were allowed to reopen in late April 2020, but the tenant in this case chose not to reopen. The Court has previously recognized that under limited circumstances supervening impossibility can be a defense to non-performance of a contract. While the Court offers no opinion on the tenant’s ability to establish the requirements of her defense, and for what length of time, if any, an impossibility existed, The trial court erred as a matter of law by not allowing the defendant tenant to present evidence of her defense. 
Outcome:Reversed and remanded, 6-3
Vote:Concur: Darby, C.J., Kauger, Edmonson (author), Combs, and Gurich,  JJ. Concur in result: Kane, V.C.J. (by separate writing) Dissent: Winchester and Kuehn, JJ (by separate writing)
OtherV.C.J. Kane’s separate writing states that he concurs procedurally with the result because the trial court appears to have decided the issue based on a motion filed by the tenant and the landlord’s written response. No pretrial motions are allowed under small claims procedure except for motions to transfer the small claims action to the regular civil docket. Therefore, he believes the matter should be remanded to the trial court to complete the evidence before the issue is finally resolved. J. Winchester’s written dissent states that the lease agreement between the parties ends the inquiry. The affirmative defenses are not applicable as a matter of law, and there is no reason to remand this case back to the trial court to allow the tenant the opportunity to present evidence of her extra-contractual theories.