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Clark v. Leisure Woods Estates, Inc.

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Franklin

February 23, 2016

DOUG CLARK & others1
v.
LEISURE WOODS ESTATES, INC.

Heard: November 13, 2015.

Civil action commenced in the Western Division of the Housing Court Department on November 2, 2009. The case was heard by Robert G. Fields, J.

Timothy N. Schofield for the defendant.

Jan Stiefel for the plaintiffs.

Present: Milkey, Carhart, & Massing, JJ.

MASSING, J.

This appeal involves a series of landlord-tenant disputes in the manufactured housing context. The plaintiffs, residents of Leisure Woods Estates (Leisure Woods), a manufactured housing community in Orange, filed a complaint alleging that the defendant, Leisure Woods Estates, Inc., which owns, operates, and maintains Leisure Woods, failed to properly maintain and repair the common spaces, roads, and home sites. After a jury-waived trial, a judge of the Housing Court entered judgment in favor of plaintiffs representing seven households, [2]finding a breach of the implied warranty of habitability with respect to the condition of the roads, interference with the plaintiffs' quiet enjoyment of the common walking trails, and separate and distinct breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment with respect to the conditions of the seven individual home sites. The judge awarded injunctive relief and monetary damages for the violations, including two separate awards of three months' rent to each household under G. L. c. 186, § 14 (§ 14), for the breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, and a twenty percent rent abatement, trebled under G. L. c. 93A (c. 93A) and the Attorney General's regulations promulgated thereunder, for the breach of the warranty of habitability. The judge awarded each household $13, 010.40 (a total of $91, 072.80), plus attorney's fees and costs.

On appeal, the defendant argues that the judge erred in awarding multiple triple rent damage awards under § 14 for separate breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, in applying the warranty of habitability to potholes and accumulations of ice and snow on the roads, and in excluding the testimony of a "vital witness" for the defendant who did not arrive in court until after the close of the evidence. We vacate one of the triple rent damages awards as duplicative, but otherwise affirm the judgment.

Background.

The defendant purchased Leisure Woods in December, 1997. The complex contains approximately 152 manufactured home sites. The residents own their manufactured housing units and pay the defendant a monthly rental fee for the lots on which their homes are situated. The parties have long disputed their relative roles and responsibilities with respect to the maintenance of the manufactured home sites and common spaces.

After a three-day trial, the judge made detailed findings concerning three distinct violations by the defendant. One violation, a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, related to the residents' inability to use the walking trails. Both the previous owner and the defendant advertised access to the trails as a desirable amenity of tenancy at Leisure Woods, accessible to all residents. Beginning in 2007, however, the defendant posted "no trespassing" notices at the entrances of the walking trails and installed cables across some of their openings, closing off access. The judge awarded each household damages equal to three months' rent based on the defendant's interference with their quiet enjoyment of the trails.

The judge found additional breaches of the covenant of quiet enjoyment with respect to the plaintiffs' individual home sites. The judge found derelict conditions ranging from rotted and collapsing retaining walls, to unsafe driveways and walkways, to flooding. Noting that all of the residents were seniors, and that many of them suffered from disabling ailments, the judge found "that the defendant's failure to address the crumbling infrastructure of the lots has seriously interfered with the quiet enjoyment and uses of the premises and forms an independent violation of G. L. c. 186, § 14, separate and distinct from the . . . the defendant's curtailment of the . . . walking trails." He awarded each household another three months' rent as damages arising from these conditions.

Finally, the judge found that the defendant chronically failed to attend to the accumulation of ice and snow on the roads throughout Leisure Woods, that extensive potholes remained unfilled, and that the roads were often impassable. The judge found that the defendant's failure in this regard constituted a breach of the warranty of habitability. He awarded each household damages in the form of a rent abatement of ...


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