Law School Case Brief
Effel v. Rosberg - 360 S.W.3d 626 (Tex. App. 2012)
It is the long-standing rule in Texas that a lease must be for a certain period of time or it will be considered a tenancy at will. Courts that have applied this rule to leases that state they are for the term of the lessee's life have concluded that the uncertainty of the date of the lessee's death rendered the lease terminable at will by either party.
The parties settled a dispute and signed a settlement agreement and release of claims. As part of the settlement, Rosberg purchased residential property owned by Henry and Jack Effel. The settlement agreement stated that the current resident of the property, appellant, "shall continue to occupy the property for the remainder of her natural life, or until such time as she voluntarily chooses to vacate the premises." The settlement agreement further stated that a lease agreement incorporating the terms of the settlement agreement would be prepared before the closing date of the purchase. Appellant was neither a party nor a signatory to the settlement agreement. The property in question was deeded to Rosberg with no reservation of a life estate. A lease for appellant was prepared by the Effels' attorney. The term of the lease was "for a term equal to the remainder of the Lessee's life, or until such time that she voluntarily vacates the premises." The lease also contained various covenants relating to payment of rent and charges for utilities as well as the use and maintenance of the grounds. The lease provided that if there was any default in the payment of rent or in the performance of any of the covenants, the lease could be terminated at the option of the lessor. The lease was signed by Rosberg as lessor and by Henry Effel on behalf of appellant under a power of attorney as lessee. Three years later, Rosberg, through his attorney, sent a letter to appellant stating that he was terminating her lease effective immediately. The reason for the termination, according to the letter, was Rosberg's discovery that appellant had installed a wrought iron fence in the front yard of the property in violation of two covenants of the lease. The letter stated that appellant was required to leave and surrender the premises within ten days and, if she did not vacate the premises, Rosberg would commence eviction proceedings. Appellant did not vacate the property. Rosberg filed this forcible detainer action in the justice court. The justice court awarded possession of the property to Rosberg, and appellant appealed the decision to the county court at law. The county court held a trial de novo without a jury and, again, awarded the property to Rosberg. The court concluded the lease created a tenancy at will terminable at any time by either party. The court further concluded that Rosberg was authorized to terminate the lease, whether because it was terminable at will or because appellant violated the terms of the lease, and the lease was properly terminated on February 24, 2010. Appellant now appeals the county court's judgment.
Was Rosberg authorized to terminate the lease?
The appellate court noted that the evidence demonstrated that the resident's legal status in connection with the property was solely that of a tenant. The fact that it was necessary to introduce evidence of title to prove the landlord-tenant relationship did not deprive the court of jurisdiction because the validity of the title was not at issue. The resident was a party only to the lease. It was the lease, and not the settlement agreement, that formed the basis of the forcible detainer action. The rule continued to be that a lease for an indefinite and uncertain length of time was an estate at will. Not only was the term of the lease stated to be for the uncertain length of the resident's life, but her tenancy was also until such time that she voluntarily vacated the premises. If a lease could be terminated at the will of the lessee, it could also be terminated at the will of the lessor. The evidence showed that the landowner's notice to vacate the property complied with Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 24.005. The landowner's February 24 notice letter complied with § 24.005 as the claimed false statements were irrelevant to the sufficiency of the notice.
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