Justia Landlord - Tenant Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
In re 15-17 Weston Street NOV
Appellants Keith Aaron and Weston Street Trust appealed a trial court’s summary judgment upholding a Notice of Violation (NOV) concerning the Trust’s property on grounds it was occupied by more than four unrelated adults in violation of applicable zoning restrictions. The property at issue was an individual unit (unit #1) within a three-unit building (the property) located in the City of Burlington’s Residential Low Density Zoning District (RL District). In the context of cross motions for summary judgment, the Trust did not deny that more than four unrelated adults lived in unit #1, and did not contest that the applicable zoning ordinance prohibited such a use in the RL District. The Trust argued that the violation was unenforceable because it first occurred more than fifteen years ago or, in the alternative, that this enforcement action was barred by claim preclusion. The Environmental Division granted summary judgment to the City, upholding the NOV. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the City was not precluded from enforcing the zoning violation on account of 24 V.S.A. 4454 because a valid municipal ordinance established that if an unlawful use is discontinued for more than sixty days, resumption of the unlawful use constituted a new violation, and the Supreme Court rejected the Trust’s alternate argument that its use was a lawful preexisting nonconforming use based on the preclusive effect of permitting proceedings in 1972 and 1994. View "In re 15-17 Weston Street NOV" on Justia Law
Higgins v. Bailey
The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review was whether a landlord who had no knowledge that a tenant’s dog had dangerous propensities could be held liable for injuries the dog causes to individuals who enter the property with tenant’s permission. Plaintiff Katherine Higgins, who was badly injured by a tenant’s dog while on the leased property, challenged the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant landlords. When he was showing the house on landlords’ behalf after tenant moved in, a realtor who was representing landlords in marketing the property observed obvious signs around the house that a dog lived there, including door casings that were badly scratched by the dog. The realtor did not see the dog and did not know its size or breed or whether it had ever acted aggressively towards any person or other animal; based on the sound of the dog, he opined that it was “tough and loud.” Plaintiff, a neighbor, was attacked and seriously injured by tenant’s dog, an American Pitbull Terrier, while visiting tenant on the rental property. On appeal, plaintiff renews her argument that landlords have a general duty of care to the public, and that this duty includes a duty of reasonable inquiry concerning tenants’ domestic animals. In addition, she argues that landlords were on notice of the dog’s dangerous propensities on the basis of the observations made by realtor, acting as landlords’ agent. Finally, she contends that landlords are liable to plaintiff on the basis of a municipal ordinance. Finding no reversible error in granting summary judgment to the landlords, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "Higgins v. Bailey" on Justia Law
Kwon v. Edson
The trial court found that the parties to this landlord-tenant dispute had an oral rental agreement. Plaintiff-landlord was awarded plaintiff landlord back rent and reimbursement for electric bills. The court granted one tenant damages to compensate him for work he performed on landlord’s properties and another tenant compensatory and punitive damages for breach of the implied warranty of habitability and illegal eviction. Landlord appealed, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) finding there was an oral rental agreement between the parties and that defendants were tenants; (2) awarding rent for only a portion of the period tenants occupied the property; (3) awarding tenant Edson damages because the claim was not properly pled; and (4) awarding tenant Well punitive damages. Tenants cross appealed, arguing that the court abused its discretion in finding there was an agreement to pay rent once the building was compliant with the housing code and erred in awarding landlord back rent based on a theory of unjust enrichment. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the parties entered an oral agreement allowing tenants to stay in landlord’s apartment rent-free for some portion of time. The record did not support the court’s findings as to the terms of that agreement: that tenants agreed to pay rent after the building became compliant with the housing code and that the building did not become code-compliant until the third week of November 2016. Consequently, the award of back rent and reimbursement for electrical costs to landlord was stricken, and that issue remanded back to the trial court to make new findings regarding the nature of the parties’ agreement and to enter any revised judgment if supported by the facts. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s award of damages to tenant Edson for the work he performed for landlord, concluding that the issue was tried by implied consent. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded an award of punitive damages was allowable as damages for breach of the warranty of habitability and affirmed the award of punitive damages to tenant Well. View "Kwon v. Edson" on Justia Law
Gross v. Turner
At issue before the Vermont Supreme Court in this case was whether a landlord and a social guest of a tenant may be held liable for injuries caused by the tenant’s dogs to a third person outside of the landlord’s property. The Supreme Court concluded plaintiffs failed to establish that either defendant owed a duty of care to the injured plaintiff in this case, and therefore affirmed. View "Gross v. Turner" on Justia Law
Gill Terrace Retirement Apartments, Inc.
Tenant Marie Johnson appealed a trial court’s conclusion that she violated two material terms of her residential rental agreement: a “no-smoking” policy and a “no pets” policy. After review of the trial court record, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed based on the no-pets violation: the court did not err in concluding that tenant was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a specific emotional support animal. The record reflected that the landlord approved tenant’s request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation, but did not approve of “Dutchess” as the specific animal because of the dog’s hostility, complaints from other residents, and tenant’s inability to restrain the dog. Given this holding, the Court did not address whether the trial court erred in finding that tenant violated the no-smoking policy. View "Gill Terrace Retirement Apartments, Inc." on Justia Law
Shires Housing, Inc. v. Brown
An interlocutory appeal arose from an eviction action in which landlord, Shires Housing, Inc., failed to provide tenant Carolyn Brown, with written notice of tenancy termination before filing for eviction under the Mobile Home Parks Act. The trial court denied defendant’s Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, ruling that 10 V.S.A. 6237(a)(3) contained an exception to the notice requirement. Because the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the relevant provision of the Mobile Home Parks Act was ambiguous and because the available tools of statutory interpretation all indicated the Act required pre-eviction notice, the Court reversed. View "Shires Housing, Inc. v. Brown" on Justia Law
Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC v. Mallets Bay Homeowner’s Assn., Inc.
Mallets Bay Homeowner’s Association appealed the trial court’s partial denial of its motion to stay the issuance of a writ of possession in favor of Mongeon Bay Properties (MBP) following the termination of the Association’s ground lease. Members of the Mongeon family set up a partnership to own the land under approximately 25 camps, and the partnership entered into a ground lease with the Association, rather than the individual owners of each residence. The ground lease was due to expire in 2036. The lease contained a forfeiture clause, providing that the lease would terminate “if the [Association] shall fail to perform or comply with any terms of this Lease.” MBP sued the Association in January 2012, seeking damages and termination of the ground lease because the Association had failed to perform reasonable repairs and upkeep as required by the lease. The trial court concluded that the Association’s failure to properly maintain the property and the resulting damage amounted to “waste,” and therefore the Association had violated the lease. However, the trial court determined that terminating the lease under the default provision was inequitable and instead awarded MBP damages to cover the cost of repairing the property. On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the Association had breached the lease, but remanded for reconsideration of MBP’s remedy. In 2016, the Association requested that the trial court stay the issuance of a writ of possession, arguing there was good cause for the court to stay the writ until 2036, when the lease was set to expire. The trial court entered judgment in favor of MBP, terminated the ground lease, and held MBP was to be granted a writ of possession for the property. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order in part, and remanded for the trial court to exercise its discretion. On remand, the question about which the trial court should exercise its discretion was whether to grant a longer stay than reflected in an October 31 order. The trial court could exercise that discretion on the basis of the parties’ pleadings, or decide to not hold any further hearings unless it chooses to. View "Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC v. Mallets Bay Homeowner's Assn., Inc." on Justia Law
Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC v. Mallets Bay Homeowner’s Assn.
At issue in this appeal was whether, and under what circumstances, a court may decline on equitable grounds to enforce a provision in a long-term ground lease giving the lessor the right to terminate the lease and reenter the premises in the event of a default. Plaintiff Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC (MBP) sued defendant Mallets Bay Homeowner’s Association seeking to void a multi-year ground lease for property abutting Lake Champlain on account of alleged breaches of the covenants in that agreement. After a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the Association had violated its obligations under the lease by failing to reasonably maintain the embankments abutting Lake Champlain to protect them from erosion. However, the court declined to enforce the forfeiture clause in the lease against the Association, and awarded MBP damages to enable it to undertake the necessary restoration and bank protection. The Association appealed the ruling that it breached the lease, and MBP appealed the trial court’s award of damages in lieu of forfeiture. After review of the particular facts of this matter, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the Association breached the lease, but reversed its refusals to declare termination of the lease and to issue a writ of possession to MBP. The case was remanded for reconsideration of MBP’s remedy. View "Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC v. Mallets Bay Homeowner's Assn." on Justia Law
Panagiotidis v. Galanis
Plaintiffs owned a building, with a mortgage, in Hartford, Vermont, where they operated a pizza business. In 2013, they sold the pizza business to defendant and leased him the premises. In November 2013, plaintiffs brought an eviction action, asserting that defendant had failed to pay rent. The court granted plaintiffs a default judgment and a writ of possession in December 2013. The court subsequently granted defendant’s request to vacate the default judgment and stay the writ of possession. Defendant then filed an answer and a counterclaim. In his counterclaim, defendant argued that he was fraudulently induced into entering into the lease agreement and that the lease should be declared void. Alternatively, defendant argued that he had cured any breach of the lease by paying money into an escrow fund. Defendant appealed the trial court’s order granting judgment to plaintiffs on their complaint for ejectment and damages. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Panagiotidis v. Galanis" on Justia Law
Terry v. O’Brien
Defendant-landlords appealed a jury verdict and post-judgment order involving warranty-of-habitability and consumer-protection claims. Landlords William and Susan O’Brien purchased the subject property in the 1980s, which included a two-story house and brick building (referred to as the creamery) with a common wall to the rear of the house. In December 2002, following foreclosure proceedings on their home, plaintiff-tenants, Timothy and Penny Terry, along with their two children, accepted landlords’ offer to occupy the house rent-free for a short period. After their first year in the house, tenants began paying rent. There was no written rental agreement, but from at least December 2005, six years before tenants filed this lawsuit, there was an oral agreement to pay monthly rent in an amount that varied over the years. Eventually, the parties’ relationship deteriorated. In March 2005, Burlington Code Enforcement (BCE) inspected the house and cited landlords for multiple problems that required repair. A follow-up inspection in January 2006 confirmed that most of the repairs had been completed. BCE inspected the property again later in 2006 and found additional items that required repair, most of which were completed soon thereafter. In 2008, BCE performed several more inspections and issued notices of violations, many of which concerned the creamery. In May 2008, Vermont Gas inspected the house’s furnace and determined that it needed to be repaired or replaced because it was in extremely poor condition. In November 2008, landlords had space heater installed on the first floor of the house, but it was insufficient to heat the second floor. As a result, tenants began using space heaters on the second floor at night. In late 2008, a fire broke out in the attic of the house above one of the bedrooms. The state fire investigator determined that the fire had begun at an electrical splice located in the attic. The investigator also noted tenants’ use of multiple extension cords and supplemental wiring due to the insufficient number of functioning outlets. The investigator concluded that the fire was caused by a combination of the load on the older electrical system, moisture from the cellulose insulation, and the inability of the knob-and-tube wiring to shed heat due to it being buried in the insulation. In 2011, the Terrys filed suit against landlords, alleging: (1) breach of the oral rental agreement; (2) breach of the warranty of habitability; (3) breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment (with respect to public health hazards); (4) violation of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA); (5) negligence; and (6) negligent infliction of emotional distress. Tenants sought, among other things, compensatory, consequential, punitive, and exemplary damages, as well as attorney’s fees. Landlords counterclaimed for unpaid rent. Landlords’ arguments on appeal of the jury verdict were: (1) the trial court’s jury instructions misled the jury on tenants’ habitability and CPA claims, resulting in prejudice to landlords; (2) the court erred by vacating the jury’s unpaid-rent award in its post-judgment order; and (3) the court abused its discretion by awarding tenants attorney’s fees on their habitability and CPA claims and by denying landlords’ attorney’s fees based on tenants’ contributory negligence. The Supreme Court found that the trial court’s CPA instruction was overly broad and prejudicial to the landlords, and therefore the verdict was vacated with respect to the CPA claim. Absent their habitability claim, there was no basis for tenants to withhold rent. Therefore, the jury’s verdict regarding unpaid rent must stand. The Court also vacated the award of attorney fees, and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Terry v. O'Brien" on Justia Law