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Presidential Village, LLC v. Phillips

Supreme Court of Connecticut

May 9, 2017

PRESIDENTIAL VILLAGE, LLC
v.
MELISSA PHILLIPS ET AL.

          Argued December 7, 2016

          Hugh D. Hughes, with whom, on the brief, was David E. Schancupp, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Shelley A. White, for the appellee (named defendant).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa, Robinson and Vertefeuille, Js.

          OPINION

          ROBINSON, J.

         The principal issue in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion by relying on the ‘‘spirit'' of certain regulations issued by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (department), which generally concern accommodations for handicapped persons, in support of an equitable defense to the eviction of a tenant who kept an ‘‘emotional support dog'' in her federally subsidized rental apartment in violation of a pet restriction clause contained within her lease. The plaintiff, Presidential Village, LLC, appeals[1] from the judgment of the trial court in favor of the named defendant, Melissa Phillips, [2]in this summary process action. On appeal, the plaintiff contends that the trial court improperly: (1) relied on the ‘‘spirit'' of the department's regulations because the defendant's niece, M, [3] who lived in the defendant's apartment, was not disabled within the meaning of those regulations and, as such, federal disability law did not require the plaintiff to allow M to keep a dog in the apartment as a reasonable accommodation; (2) weighed the equities as a defense to eviction when the plaintiff lacked notice of the defense of equitable nonforfeiture and, thus, could not offer evidence about the purpose of the pet restriction; and (3) admitted into evidence, over the plaintiff's hearsay objection, a letter signed by a physician and social worker who had provided services to M. In response, the defendant contends to the contrary, and also argues that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because this appeal was rendered moot when the plaintiff commenced an ancillary summary process action against the defendant. We conclude that the plaintiff's appeal is not moot, and further conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by relying upon an improper ground in determining that the defendant was entitled to equitable relief from the forfeiture of her tenancy in accordance with Fellows v. Martin, 217 Conn. 57, 66-67, 584 A.2d 458 (1991). Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case for a new hearing with regard to the defendant's equitable defense.

         The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. For her entire life, the defendant has lived in an apartment in New Haven in a complex owned by the plaintiff. Her mother, the previous leaseholder, kept a dog named Mellow[4] in the apartment prior to her death in August, 2013. After her mother's passing, the defendant obtained legal guardianship over four of her nieces and nephews, who also were living in the apartment. Mellow provides comfort in particular to M, who is the defendant's oldest niece.

         The defendant subsequently signed a new department model lease with the plaintiff. This lease included a clause prohibiting the defendant from keeping dogs on the property.[5] The defendant was aware that the lease did not permit her to keep a dog in the apartment when she signed it, but nevertheless thought it was acceptable to keep Mellow because her mother had done so. On the basis of this fact, the defendant believed that the plaintiff would not enforce the pet restriction and, accordingly, continued to keep Mellow in her apartment in violation of her lease.

         In May, 2015, the plaintiff senta pretermination notice in accordance with General Statutes § 47a-15[6] to the defendant, advising her that she had violated her lease by keeping a dog in her apartment. On June 23, 2015, the plaintiff served a notice to quit on the defendant and subsequently filed the present summary process action. The defendant, appearing as a self-represented party, responded by filing an answer to the complaint and the following special defense: ‘‘[T]he dog was originally mom's dog that occupied the apartment for [six] years prior to my leasing the place. Mom passed away in 2013 when I then took over residence. I have been able to keep the dog that the four children I am raising and myself have become attached to. Once I begin complaining again about the condition of the apartment I was given [fifteen] days to get rid of dog which was unreasonable. The dog has been given to brother on July 2, 2015. I tried to contact landlord but hasn't replied.'' The plaintiff subsequently denied the allegations in the special defense.

         During the first hearing before the trial court, Michelle Scott, the plaintiff's property manager, testified about the lease and confirmed that it included a clause restricting pets.[7] Scott stated that she personally had no knowledge that a dog was living in the apartment prior to the defendant signing the lease with the plaintiff. The defendant then testified that the children and Mellow resided in her apartment. Specifically, the defendant stated that Mellow had resided in the apartment before she signed the lease, which is why she did not think that the plaintiff would enforce the pet restriction. The defendant then testified that she had tried to find a new home for Mellow with someone who could provide continuing access for the children in light of their emotional issues and their attachment to Mellow. The defendant stated that she had learned recently that she could get Mellow certified as a service animal and that she would like to obtain such a certification in order for Mellow to remain in the apartment. The defendant also stated that she did not know whether her mother had received notification from the plaintiff, prior to her death, about having to remove Mellow from the apartment. The trial court then continued the case in order to give the defendant additional time to find a new home for Mellow or to certify her as a service animal.

         At the second hearing date, the defendant still had not found a new home for Mellow. Rather, the defendant obtained a letter from M's physician and social worker indicating that Mellow provided comfort to M, who was dealing with a personal loss.[8] In addition, the defendant obtained an Internet certificate declaring Mellow to be an ‘‘Emotional Support Dog.'' The trial court admitted both documents into evidence over the defendant's hearsay objections. The trial court then continued the hearing to permit additional evidence and arguments with respect to federal disability law and its application to the present case. Subsequently, on October 8, 2015, the defendant indicated to the court that Mellow does not accompany the children to school, that none of the children are physically disabled, and that Mellow was providing comfort to the children and, in particular, M.

         After the hearings, the trial court credited the defendant's testimony and found that Mellow had lived in the house for years prior to her mother's death, and that the plaintiff was aware of Mellow's presence in the apartment. The trial court also credited the defendant's testimony that M takes great comfort from Mellow and has started to ‘‘ ‘act out' '' because of the emotional circumstances in her life. The trial court further noted that the letter from M's physician and social worker supported the defendant's testimony. Ultimately, the trial court determined that ‘‘the spirit of the [department's] regulations has been followed by the defendant in this case. She has established that [Mellow] acts as a therapy dog for [M]. Furthermore, the court has weighed the harm to the plaintiff that would come from [Mellow's] continued presence . . . and the harm that would come to [M] from having [Mellow] removed from the household and finds that the equities favor the defendant. Therefore, the court invokes its equitable powers to rule in favor of the defendant.''[9] This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         Because it implicates our subject matter jurisdiction; Housing Authority v. Lamothe, 225 Conn. 757, 762-64, 627 A.2d 367 (1993); we begin with the defendant's claim that this appeal is moot. Specifically, the defendant argues that this appeal cannot afford the plaintiff meaningful relief because, while this appeal was pending, the plaintiff commenced a second summary process action against her in March, 2016, the filing of which had the effect of affirmatively reinstating her tenancy. In supplemental briefing, the defendant contends, in the alternative, that the trial court's subsequent dismissal of the plaintiff's second action reinstated her lease, meaning that reversal of the judgment in this appeal will not result in an order granting possession to the plaintiff.[10] In response, the plaintiff claims that the final judgment in favor of the defendant in the first action, which the plaintiff is challenging in this appeal, reinstated the defendant's lease. The plaintiff then argues that the second action does not affect this court's sub- ject matter jurisdiction because the trial court dismissed the second action on the ground that the underlying notice to quit, which is a prerequisite to a summary process action, was invalid because it was served in the wrong month. The plaintiff contends that an invalid notice to quit is void and, as such, the status of the case before this court is as if the second action never occurred. We agree with the plaintiff that the second notice to quit, which was invalid and therefore void, did not operate to terminate the defendant's lease. Accordingly, we conclude that the present appeal is not moot.

         The defendant's mootness claim requires us to determine the effect of the service of an invalid notice to quit during the pendency of a landlord's appeal from a judgment in favor of the tenant in a prior summary judgment action. ‘‘Summary process is a statutory remedy which enables a landlord to recover possession of rental premises from the tenant upon termination of a lease. . . . It is preceded by giving the statutorily required notice to quit possession to the tenant. . . . Service of a notice to quit possession is typically a landlord's unequivocal act notifying the tenant of the termination of the lease. The lease is neither voided nor rescinded until the landlord performs this act and, upon service of a notice to quit possession, a tenancy at will is converted to a tenancy at sufferance.'' (Citations omitted.) Housing Authority v. Hird, 13 Conn.App. 150, 155, 535 A.2d 377, cert. denied, 209 Conn. 825, 552 A.2d 433 (1988). ‘‘A legally invalid notice to quit is, however, considered ‘equivocal' because of that legal defect and, therefore, does not operate to terminate a lease.'' Waterbury Twin, LLC v. Renal Treatment Centers-Northeast, Inc., 292 Conn. 459, 473 n.18, 974 A.2d 626 (2009); see also Bargain Mart, Inc. v. Lipkis, 212 Conn. 120, 134, 561 A.2d 1365 (1989) (‘‘it is self-evident that if the notice [to quit] is invalid, then the legal consequence of ‘termination' arising from the service of a valid notice [to quit] does not result''); id., 135 (‘‘[b]ecause the trial court in the summary process action did not determine whether the notices to quit were valid, we have no basis for concluding that those notices terminated the . . . lease''); Bridgeport v. Bar-bour-Daniel Electronics, Inc., 16 Conn.App. 574, 582- 83, 548 A.2d 744 (notice to quit invalid because of untimely service did not terminate month-to-month tenancy and cannot serve as basis for summary process action, thus requiring service of second notice to quit), cert. denied, 209 Conn. 826, 552 A.2d 432 (1988).

         We find instructive the Appellate Court's decision in Housing Authority v. Hird, supra, 13 Conn.App. 150. In Hird, the tenant entered into a written lease with the landlord on January 9, 1981. Id., 152. In June, 1985, the landlord sent the tenant a written notice of proposed eviction because the tenant had violated the lease by maintaining the property in an unsanitary condition and keeping pets on the property. Id., 152-53. In July, 1985, the landlord served the tenant with a notice to quit. Id., 153. A summary process action resulted in a judgment for the tenant on November 6, 1985. Id. The landlord then served the tenant with a second notice to quit on November 15, 1985, alleging nonpayment of rent for that month as the reason for eviction. Id. The tenant moved to dismiss the second summary process action for failure to comply with federal regulations, and the landlord withdrew the second notice to quit in January, 1986. Id. While the second summary process action was pending, the tenant sought to reinstate the lease, which the landlord refused because of nonpayment of rent. Id., 154. In January, 1986, the landlord served the tenant with a third notice to quit for nonpayment of rent for that month. Id. In the third summary process action, ‘‘[t]he trial court rendered judgment of possession for the [landlord], ruling that the [tenant] was then occupying her apartment under her lease as a tenant at will in January, 1986. Consequently, she had a duty to tender rent for that month's tenancy, which she breached.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. The trial court determined that ‘‘the [tenant] was occupying her apartment under her lease as a tenant at will on January 1, 1986, because the judgment rendered on November 6, 1985, in [the tenant's] favor did not terminate the lease, and, therefore, had ‘revived' the original lease arrangement, and because the eviction action following the November 15, 1985 notice to quit possession having been withdrawn, had no legal effect or consequence on the preexisting lease between the parties.'' Id., 155. On appeal, the Appellate Court agreed. It held that ‘‘[t]he withdrawal of the [second] summary process action on January 29, 1986, effectively erased the court slate clean as though the eviction predicated on the November 15, 1985 notice to quit possession had never been commenced. The plaintiff and the defendant were ‘back to square one, ' and the continuation of their lease of January 9, 1981, was restored.'' Id., 157.

         In the present appeal, the trial court's judgment in favor of the defendant in the first summary process action, which is the subject of this appeal, reinstated the lease between the two parties. The filing of this appeal from the trial court's decision in the first summary process action did not affect the reinstatement of the lease. The second notice to quit, which was deemed invalid, did not operate to terminate that lease, which continues in effect. See Waterbury Twin, LLC v. Renal Treatment Centers-Northeast, Inc., supra, 292 Conn. 473 n.18. Put differently, the status quo between the parties was restored when the second notice to quit was held invalid in the second summary process action; it became as if the plaintiff never filed a second notice to quit and the lease remained reinstated. Accordingly, we conclude that meaningful relief may be granted and that, therefore, this appeal is not moot.[11]

         II

         We turn now to the plaintiff's claim that the trial court improperly determined that the equities in this case favored the defendant, particularly given that she followed ‘‘the spirit of the [department's] regulations'' in establishing that allowing Mellow to remain in the apartment was a reasonable accommodation for M's disabilities. The plaintiff contends that the department's regulations are inapplicable because the defendant has not demonstrated that M has a handicap as defined by the relevant federal laws, namely, a disease or illness indicating the substantial alteration of a major life activity. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 3602 (h) (2016). Additionally, the plaintiff contends that the trial court abused its discretion by using the spirit of the law to, in effect, rewrite federal law in order to allow such an accommodation, when those laws clearly do not extend to this case. Finally, the plaintiff claims that the trial court never adequately weighed the equities in this case because the plaintiff lacked notice to offer evidence about the purpose of its pet restriction.

         In response, the defendant claims that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in rendering a judgment in this summary process case based on equity. Specifically, the defendant contends that she proved her entitlement to equitable relief under Fellows v.Martin, supra, 217 Conn. 66-67, by demonstrating: (1) that her breach was not wilful or grossly negligent; (2) that upon eviction, she will suffer a loss wholly disproportionate to the injury to the plaintiff; and (3) that the plaintiff's injury is reparable. Further, the defendant claims that she adequately pleaded equity as a special defense, which provided the plaintiff with notice of that issue. For the reasons which ...


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