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Housing Authority of Town of Greenwich v. Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

November 21, 2017

HOUSING AUTHORITY OF THE TOWN OF GREENWICH
v.
ROMANA SANCHEZ RODRIGUEZ ET AL.

          Argued Date: September 12, 2017

          Frederic S. Brody, for the appellant (named defendant).

          Louis P. Pittocco, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Keller, Prescott and Bear, Js.

          OPINION

          BEAR, J.

          The defendant[1] Romana Sanchez Rodriguez appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the plaintiff, the Housing Authority of the Town of Greenwich (housing authority), on its summary process complaint. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff's case because the plaintiff failed to serve her with a second pretermination notice pursuant to General Statutes § 47a-15, [2] and that a grievance hearing decision barred the plaintiff from evicting her on the basis of alleged lease violations described in a prior pretermination notice that the plaintiff served on her within six months of the notice to quit. We disagree. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the court.

         The following undisputed facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. The plaintiff owns and operates Wilbur Peck Court, a low income public housing complex in Greenwich. The lease agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant lists the defendant as the head-of-household tenant and her adult children, Elizabeth Lora Rodriguez and Charlee Javier Rodriguez, [3] as household members of an apartment at Wilbur Peck Court.

         On November 26, 2014, Charlee was arrested at Armstrong Court, a housing authority property, and charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with the intent to distribute, and possession of a controlled substance within 1500 feet of a school. Following the arrest, on December 11, 2014, the plaintiff sent the defendant a pretermination notice, commonly referred to as a Kapa[4] notice, pursuant to § 47a-15. The pretermination notice informed the defendant of the plaintiff's intent to terminate the lease for violation of § 15 (a) (7) of the lease[5] by service of a notice to quit possession of the premises on December 29, 2014. Upon receiving the pretermination notice, the defendant exercised the option given in the notice to request an informal meeting in accordance with the plaintiff's grievance procedure.

         On December 18, 2014, an informal meeting took place between the defendant, Elizabeth, Charlee, and Terry Mardula, the deputy director of the housing authority. Following the meeting, Mardula sent a letter dated December 19, 2014, memorializing the discussion that took place. Mardula stated that the plaintiff would not attempt to evict the defendant at that time, but with the following condition: ‘‘[A]ny future arrest of Charlee Javier Rodriguez will result in the [housing authority] taking immediate legal action commencing in eviction proceedings against the family. . . . Hopefully [Charlee] Rodriguez will comply with the provisions of the lease and not jeopardize the continue[d] occupancy of the family at Wilbur Peck Court.''

         Approximately four months later, on March 30, 2015, Charlee was arrested at the defendant's apartment in Wilbur Peck Court and charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to sell, possession of narcotics, operating a drug factory, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and sale or possession of narcotics within 1500 feet of a daycare facility. Upon learning of the arrest, the plaintiff began to take steps to evict the defendant. On April 7, 2015, the plaintiff served the defendant with a notice to quit possession of the premises, as required by General Statutes § 47a-23 (a), [6] by April 14, 2015. The notice to quit set forth, as reasons for the termination of the lease, violations of §§ 10 (k), 10 (r), 10 (s), [7] and 15 (a) (7) of the lease and number 21 of the housing authority's rules and regulations[8]-all of which related to the prohibition against illegal drug related criminal activity on housing authority property. Despite receipt of the notice to quit, the defendant remained in possession of the premises.

         Thereafter, on April 22, 2015, the plaintiff commenced the present summary process action. On May 6, 2015, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the plaintiff had failed to serve her with a second valid pretermination notice, pursuant to § 47a-15, prior to serving the notice to quit. The plaintiff filed an opposition to the defendant's motion on May 15, 2015, arguing that it had served the defendant with a pretermination notice on December 11, 2014, and the defendant was informed at an informal meeting held December 18, 2014, that the lease would be terminated if Charlee's drug related activity continued. On June 30, 2015, the court, Rodriguez, J., denied the defendant's motion to dismiss. Thereafter, a trial was held on December 1, 2015. Following the close of testimony, the court ordered the parties to file posttrial briefs.

         On May 5, 2016, the court, having found that the pretermination notice served on the defendant on December 11, 2014, was sufficient, rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff and granted immediate possession of the premises to the plaintiff. The court held that ‘‘there was no need for the plaintiff to provide the [defendant] with a second Kapa notice, and that the plaintiff's failure to do so [did] not have any impact on the court's decision . . .'' The court further stated: ‘‘[T]he plaintiff was required to provide the [defendant] with a pretermination notice prior to initiating this action. The plaintiff did provide the [defendant] with a pretermination notice in December [2014], and the plaintiff was not required to provide a second notice in March [2015]. Therefore, the [defendant's] special defense that the plaintiff's complaint was procedurally deficient is not persuasive . . . .'' This appeal followed.

         On appeal, the defendant claims that the court did not have jurisdiction to consider the plaintiff's summary process complaint because the plaintiff failed to serve the defendant with a second pretermination notice, pursuant to § 47a-15, prior to the service of the notice to quit, and the December 11, 2014, pretermination notice was not a proper jurisdictional prerequisite to the service of the notice to quit because a ‘‘grievance hearing decision'' barred the plaintiff from evicting the defendant based on the lease violations described in the December 11, 2014, pretermination notice. ‘‘[B]ecause [a] determination regarding atrial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, our review is plenary.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Bristol v. Ocean State Job Lot Stores of Connecticut, Inc., 284 Conn. 1, 5, 931 A.2d 837 (2007); Firstlight Hydro Generating Co. v. First Black Ink, LLC, 143 Conn.App. 635, 639, 70 A.3d 174, cert. denied, 310 Conn. 913, 76 A.3d 629 (2013).

         ‘‘Summary process is a statutory remedy which enables the landlord to recover possession from the tenant upon the termination of a lease.'' Marrinan v. Hamer, 5 Conn.App. 101, 103, 497 A.2d 67 (1985). ‘‘Pursuant to § 47a-15, before a landlord may proceed with a summary process action, except in those situations specifically excluded, the landlord must first deliver a [pretermination] notice to the tenant specifying the alleged violations and offer the tenant a . . . period to remedy.'' St. Paul's Flax Hill Co-operative v. Johnson, 124 Conn.App. 728, 734, 6 A.3d 1168 (2010), cert. denied, 300 Conn. 906, 12 A.3d 1002 (2011). ‘‘The legislative purpose [of a pretermination or Kapa notice] is to discourage summary evictions against first offenders . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 734-35. Section 47a-15 is ‘‘separate from and preliminary to the maintenance of a summary process action pursuant to . . . § 47a-23.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 735. ‘‘The Superior Court has jurisdiction to hear a summary process action only if the landlord has previously served the tenant with a notice to quit'' pursuant to § 47a-23. Housing Authority v. Harris, 225 Conn. 600, 605, 625 A.2d 816 (1993).

         The text of § 47a-15 is clear and unambiguous: ‘‘Prior to the commencement of a summary process action . . . the landlord shall deliver a written notice to the tenant specifying the acts or omissions constituting the breach and that the rental agreement shall terminate upon a date not less than fifteen days after receipt of the notice. . . . [I]f substantially the same act or omission for which notice was given recurs within six months, the landlord may terminate the rental agreement in accordance with the provisions of [§§] 47a-23 to 47a-23b, inclusive.'' In the present case, substantially the same acts for which notice was given to the defendant on December 11, 2014, recurred within six months. As previously described, the plaintiff served the defendant with the pretermination notice on December 11, 2014, after Charlee was arrested for illegal drug related activity on housing authority property. Following an informal meeting that took place on December 18, 2014, the plaintiff elected not to pursue eviction for that lease violation, but instead warned the defendant that any future arrest of Charlee would result in the immediate initiation of summary process proceedings. Less than four months later, on March 30, 2015, Charlee was arrested a second time for illegal drug related activity on housing authority property. Upon learning of the arrest, the plaintiff elected, pursuant to § 47a-15, to terminate the lease by serving a notice to quit on the defendant pursuant to § 47a-23, as Mardula stated would occur in his letter to the defendant dated December 19, 2014. Pursuant to the clear language of § 47a-15, no new pretermination notice was required.

         Although the second lease violation occurred within six months of the December 11, 2014 pretermination notice, the defendant argues that the plaintiff's decision, after the informal meeting that took place on December 18, 2014, not to pursue eviction at that time negated the effect of the December 11, 2014 pretermination notice and ‘‘conclusively resolved the question of whether [the plaintiff] could proceed to evict her.''[9]Specifically, the defendant argues that ‘‘[t]he trial court misunderstood the nature of the federally mandated grievance process which [the defendant] availed herself of . . . [and] failed to fully comprehend the consequence of the hearing officer's decision. . . . The trial court failed to recognize that the informal meeting was an adjudicative proceeding . . . [and] that the hearing officer's decision was binding upon [the plaintiff].'' In response, the plaintiff argues that the defendant has ‘‘mistaken the informal meeting that took place on December 18, 2014, with a grievance ...


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