The Massachusetts Landlord Tenant Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s recent Clark v. Leisure Woods Estates, Inc. decision, an appeal involving the important issue of damages in landlord tenant cases. Attorney Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appeals Court Partially Affirms and Vacates Damages To Tenants At Manufactured Housing Community in Orange
On February 23, 2016, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided Clark v. Leisure Woods Estates, Inc., 89 Mass. App. Ct. 87 (2016). (full copy of the decision is below). Justice Gregory Massing wrote for a unanimous Court and held that a Housing Court judge properly awarded treble damages under G.L. c.93A for breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment but erroneously awarded each household two triple rent awards under G.L. c.186, §14.
Leisure Woods Estates is a large manufactured housing community in Orange, Franklin County, home mainly to senior citizens. Id. at 88. Residents own their own units but pay a monthly rental fee for the lots. Id. Twenty-two residents sued Leisure Woods in the Western Housing Court over conditions there and a three-day bench trial followed. Id. at 89. On the last day, Leisure Woods’ president, Glenn Gidley, was set to testify but did not arrive at court until plaintiff’s counsel began her summation. The judge refused to reopen evidence to permit Gidley’s testimony. Id. at 95.
The judge found that Leisure Woods committed “three distinct violations” of the convent of quiet enjoyment codified in Section 14. First, since 2007, Leisure Woods blocked access to common walking trails, which had been their selling point. Second, Leisure Woods permitted retaining walls to collapse, walkways to deterioriate, and flooding, which were particularly aggravating to Leisure Woods’ aged population. Third and finally, Leisure Woods “chronically failed” to clear snow and ice, causing potholes and impassable roads. Id. at 89. Leisure Woods appealed, asserting that (1) the Housing Court judge erred in determining damages and (2) in barring Gidley’s testimony.
The Appeals Court recalled that “an injury party may recover damages for claims or injuries that are ‘factually separable and distinguishable [but not] multiple awards for the same injury based on different theories.” 89 Mass. App. Ct. at 90-91. Section 14 permitted a tenant to recover either “actual and consequential damages [of] all reasonably foreseeable [personal and economic] losses”, or, three months rent, if the tenant could not calculate actual damages. Id. Against this backdrop, the plaintiffs had not received “repeated [or otherwise duplicative] damages for each rental period, but rather one triple rent award for each of two factually distinct breaches.” Id. at 92.
However, the Appeals Court held that “only one triple rent award is available in a single proceeding under §14, no matter how many ways the landlord interferes with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment.” Id. at 92-93, citing Simon v. Solomon, 385 Mass. 91, 112-113 (1982). Since the plaintiffs could not prove actual damages, only one triple award was proper-unless Leisure Woods continued to violate Section 14. Id. at 93, n.6.
Turning next to c.93A, the trial judge had found that Leisure Woods willfully and knowingly failed to repair extensive pot holes and permitted snow and ice to accumulate. 89 Mass. App. Ct. at 89. Leisure Woods contended that natural snow accumulation in and of itself could not constitute a defect. Although the Appeals Court noted that this specific position was of dubious merit in light of recent caselaw, the Appeals Court instead concluded that Leisure Woods’ conduct violated the Attorney General’s regulations on manufactured housing requiring maintenance of community roadways promulgated pursuant to c.93A. Id. at 93, and n.7. Because the regulations required removal of snow and pothole repair, “overwhelming evidence” of damaged roads caused by these conditions made the treble damages award appropriate. Id. at 94.
Finally, the judge did not abuse his discretion in refusing to permit Gidley to testify. The defendants had multiple opportunities to bring Gidley to court timely that they missed, despite the judge calling a recess and tending to other matters. Because Gidley did not arrive until summations, the judge correctly precluded his belated testimony because it would likely prejudice the plaintiffs. Id. at 95-96.
Two open issues emerge from this case. First, although a landlord may commit multiple breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, only one default award of triple rent is available under Section 14, unless the breach survives the initial suit-or actual damages can be calculated. 89 Mass. App. Ct. at. 93, n.6. Although this rule will avoid duplicative damage awards, it does not appear to incentivize the landlord to remedy the breach-and may undervalue a tenant’s damages, frustrating the purpose of Section 14.
Second, does negligent snow accumulation in and of itself breach the covenant of quiet enjoyment? As the Court noted, the law of premises liability no longer distinguishes between natural and unnatural snow accumulation. 89 Mass. App. Ct. at 93, n.7, citing Papadopoulos v. Target Corporation, 457 Mass. 368 (2010). In light of that case and the attendant hazards of snow accumulation to tenants and visitors from snow accumulation, such accumulation should constitute a freestanding breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. Papadopoulos, 457 Mass. at 382-384. Given the severe winters of 2014-2015, landlords should take care to clear snow or risk a litany of litigation.
Joseph N. Schneiderman has an appellate practice “on circuit” in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Joe gratefully thanks Adam for the opportunity to guest blog!