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MacLaurin v. City of Holyoke

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden

August 18, 2016

ROBERT MacLAURIN [1] & another [2]
v.
CITY OF HOLYOKE & others. [3] ROBERT MacLAURIN
v.
CITY OF HOLYOKE & others.

          Heard Date: September 10, 2015.

         Civil actions commenced in the Hampden Division of the Superior Court Department on April 26, 2012, and May 14, 2012, respectively.

         After transfer to the Western Division of the Housing Court Department and consolidation, the case was heard by Robert Fields, J., on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

          Thomas D. Moore for the plaintiffs.

          Kara Lamb Cunha for the defendants.

          The following submitted briefs for amici curiae: Jason R. Ferenc for Greater Holyoke Rental Housing Association Joseph N. Schneiderman for Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts.

          Maura Healey, Attorney General, Benjamin K. Golden, Assistant Attorney General, Steven P. Rourke, Special Assistant Attorney General, & Peter Senopoulos for the State Fire Marshal.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ. [7]

          LENK, J.

         We are called upon in these consolidated cases to construe G. L. c. 148, § 261, the residential sprinkler provision, one of a number of provisions requiring the installation of automatic sprinkler systems contained in G. L. c. 148, the fire prevention act. The residential sprinkler provision mandates the installation of automatic sprinklers in new residential buildings of four or more units, and in such existing buildings when they are "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction." See G. L. c. 148, § 261.

         In 2006, the plaintiff, Robert MacLaurin, [8] purchased the second of two vacant apartment buildings in the city of Holyoke (city), which he intended to rehabilitate and return to occupancy. As existing residential buildings of four or more units, the buildings were subject to the residential sprinkler provision. MacLaurin contends that the renovations he undertook on the buildings do not meet the statutory standard triggering the requirement that sprinklers be installed. Concluding, to the contrary, that the two buildings had been substantially rehabilitated within the meaning of the residential sprinkler provision, the city's fire chief ordered, without a hearing, that automatic sprinkler systems be installed in each building.

         The residential sprinkler provision differs from all of the other automatic sprinkler provisions in the fire prevention act[9]in that it contains no statutory right of appeal. After several agencies had declined jurisdiction, MacLaurin filed complaints seeking relief in the nature of certiorari and declaratory judgment, challenging the orders as arbitrary and capricious. Following a remand of the consolidated matters for reconsideration in light of additional facts, which the fire chief concluded had no effect on his decision, a judge of the Housing Court affirmed the chief's orders, and this appeal followed.

         The statutory standard that installation of automatic sprinklers is necessary only where an existing multi-unit residential building has been "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction" is not defined in the residential sprinkler provision or anywhere else in the fire prevention act, and the language does not appear in any other section of the fire prevention act. Moreover, there is no controlling appellate jurisprudence and no applicable Statewide guidance akin to that which has been developed by entities such as the automatic sprinkler appeals board, in considering appeals from the requirement to install sprinklers under other statutory provisions, all of which do include a statutory right of appeal.

         In construing the meaning of the statutory standard that installation of automatic sprinklers in existing residential buildings is required only when a building has been "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction, " we therefore turn to fundamental principles of statutory interpretation. See, e.g., Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n v. Boston, 435 Mass. 718, 719-720 (2002). In doing so, we consider the ordinary meaning of the words the Legislature used, in conjunction with their specialized meaning in certain contexts, the course of the enactment of the automatic sprinkler provisions within the fire prevention act, as well as the goals the Legislature intended to achieve. We conclude that, in order to require the installation of sprinklers in an existing multi-unit residential building, the rehabilitation must be so substantial that the physical structure is rendered "the equivalent of new construction, " i.e., in essence as good as new.[10] Where the rehabilitation is suitably substantial in this regard, a corollary is that the cost of installation of automatic sprinklers ordinarily will approximate the cost of installing sprinklers in a comparable newly constructed building.

         Although the fire chief's decision states that, after the modifications were complete, the buildings had been "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction, " the decision neither contains any explicit findings of fact nor sets forth the test used to evaluate the nature of the work done. Given this, coupled with the absence of controlling authority, the Housing Court judge was not in a position to ascertain whether the fire chief's interpretation of G. L. c. 148, § 261, reasonably reflects the intent and purpose of the residential sprinkler provision, nor could the judge have ascertained whether the application of that interpretation is supported by the facts of record. Accordingly, no determination properly could be reached as to whether the decision was legally erroneous or so devoid of factual support as to be arbitrary and capricious. See State Bd. of Retirement v. Woodward, 446 Mass. 698, 703-704 (2006). Thus, the judgment affirming the fire chief's decision must be vacated and, with the guidance we now provide as to the meaning of "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction, " the matter remanded to the chief of the city fire department for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[11]

         Background and prior proceedings.[12]

         The two vacant apartment buildings at issue here were built in the late 1800s, of wood frame construction with brick facade. One, a three-story building on the corner of Essex and Chestnut Streets, has a total of twenty apartments on three floors and two commercial spaces on the ground floor; the other, a four-story building on the corner of Main and Spring Streets, has a total of thirteen apartments on four floors and two commercial spaces on the ground floor.[13] Each has sustained fire damage in the past, including while empty. MacLaurin purchased both buildings, which had been boarded and abandoned, with the intent to rehabilitate them and return them to occupancy. He obtained building permits, hired contractors, and undertook the proposed work;[14] each portion of the work, such as electrical and plumbing modifications, was approved by the relevant city inspectors as it was completed.

         The city adopted G. L. c. 148, § 261, a "local option" statute, in February, 1996.[15] On its face, the city's general application form for a building permit requires that a plan for an automatic sprinkler system be submitted with the application, and it is undisputed that sprinkler plans, [16] and modifications to one set of plans, were attached to MacLaurin's permit applications.[17] During the course of the several-year period in which the work was being done, MacLaurin submitted to the building inspector several reports from licensed structural engineers stating that the work was not structural, that the buildings were not being "substantially rehabilitated" within the meaning of G. L. c. 148, § 261, and thus that the requirement for installation of automatic sprinklers had not been triggered. When the work was essentially complete, MacLaurin sought inspection by the city in order to determine what else remained to be done so that certificates of occupancy could issue. In February, 2012, the city's building commissioner, the assistant building commissioner, and a fire department captain made onsite inspections of each building. The fire chief then issued orders requiring automatic sprinkler systems be installed in each building.

         MacLaurin sought review of the fire chief's orders before the State fire marshal, the State building code appeals board, and the automatic sprinkler appeals board; each declined to hear his appeals, citing a lack of jurisdiction.[18] MacLaurin then filed complaints seeking relief in the nature of certiorari, G. L. c. 249, § 4, and declaratory judgment, in the Superior Court. The cases were transferred to the Housing Court on joint motions of the parties, and then were consolidated. MacLaurin claimed, among other things, that the fire chief's 2012 orders contained significant factual errors, particularly concerning the scope and nature of the work, such as whether substantial portions of walls and ceilings had been opened so as to have facilitated sprinkler installation. In light of documents attached to MacLaurin's complaint containing factual information that apparently had not been before the fire chief, a Housing Court judge remanded the matter to the city for further investigation and determination whether automatic sprinklers were required. Without conducting a hearing, the fire chief concluded that the additional documents had no bearing on his decision that automatic sprinklers were required, and, a few days after the orders of remand, issued essentially the same orders as he had previously (2013 orders).

         In March, 2014, the same Housing Court judge who had ordered the remand conducted a hearing on the fire chief's 2013 orders, and, in July, 2014, the judge issued a decision affirming the orders that automatic sprinklers must be installed. He stated that, "viewed through the lens" of the deferential standard of review applicable in a petition for certiorari, the fire chief's determination was not "so devoid of factual support as to be arbitrary and capricious." The judge noted that the fire chief's decisions were not constrained by any controlling authority, the fire department had inspected the properties, and the fire chief had reached a conclusion based on the "extent of the renovation, its costs, and its costs relative to the overall value of the property; all factors that upon facts which 'reasonable men might deem proper' to support it" (citation omitted). MacLaurin appealed from the Housing Court judge's affirmance of the fire chief's orders, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

         Discussion.

         1. Standard of review.

         MacLaurin filed complaints in the nature of certiorari, G. L. c. 249, § 4, in the absence of a statutory right of appeal. The purpose of an action in the nature of certiorari is "to relieve aggrieved parties from the injustice arising from errors of law committed in proceedings affecting their justiciable rights when no other means of relief are open." Figgs v. Boston Housing Auth., 469 Mass. 354, 361 (2014), quoting Swan v. Justices of the Superior Court, 222 Mass. 542, 544 (1916). The function of judicial "review in an action in the nature of certiorari is 'to correct substantial errors of law apparent on the record adversely affecting material rights.'" MacHenry v. Civil Service Comm'n, 40 Mass.App.Ct. 632, 634 (1996), quoting Commissioners of Civil Serv. v. Municipal Court of Boston, 369 Mass. 84, 90 (1975). "To obtain certiorari review of an administrative decision, . . . three elements must be present: (1) a judicial or quasi judicial proceeding, (2) from which there is no other reasonably adequate remedy, and (3) a substantial injury or injustice arising from the proceeding under review." Indeck v. Clients' Sec. Bd., 450 Mass. 379, 385 (2008). In the circumstances, MacLaurin's complaint meets these requirements.[19]

         Because the fire chief's determination was discretionary, a reviewing court in these circumstances is limited to determining whether the decision is legally erroneous or so devoid of factual support as to be arbitrary and capricious. State Bd. of Retirement v. Woodward, 446 Mass. 698, 703-704 (2006); Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth. v. Auditor of the Commonwealth, 430 Mass. 783, 790-791 (2000). See Figgs v. Boston Housing Auth., supra at 361, quoting Garrity v. Conservation Comm'n of Hingham, 462 Mass. 779, 792 (2012) (standard of certiorari review "may vary according to the nature of the action for which review is sought"). Unlike the ordinary situation in reviewing an action for relief in the nature of certiorari, however, where the controlling precedent against which a reviewing court measures whether a decision is legally erroneous or lacks relevant factual support is more or less evident, in this case there are no appellate decisions involving the statutory standard of "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction." Nor are there interpretations of that standard by any authoritative Statewide body, given the absence of a statutory avenue of administrative review. In such circumstances, deference is to be accorded the fire chief's decision only if the reviewing court can ascertain whether the decision comports with apparent statutory purposes.

         2. Statutory interpretation.

         "Our primary duty in interpreting a statute is 'to effectuate the intent of the Legislature in enacting it.'" Wheatley v. Massachusetts Insurers Insolvency Fund, 456 Mass. 594, 601 (2010), S.C., 465 Mass. 297 (2013), quoting International Org, of Masters v. Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket S.S. Auth., 392 Mass. 811, 813 (1984). In order to determine whether the fire chief's conclusion that automatic sprinklers must be installed in MacLaurin's buildings accurately reflects the legislative purpose and intent, we first must discern the meaning of "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction" within the residential sprinkler provision. To do so, we begin with the plain language of the provision. See Local 589, Amalgamated Transit Union v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 392 Mass. 407, 415 (1984), quoting Bronstein v. Prudential Ins. Co of Am., 390 Mass. 701, 704 (1984) ("[s]tatutory language is the principal source of insight into legislative purpose").

         "Words that are not defined in a statute[, as here, ] should be given their usual and accepted meanings, " derived "from sources presumably known to the statute's enactors, such as their use in other legal contexts and dictionary definitions." Seidman v. Newton, 452 Mass. 472, 477-478 (2008), quoting Commonwealth v. Zone Book, Inc., 372 Mass. 366, 369 (1977) . We interpret the statutory language "according to the intent of the Legislature ascertained from all its words construed by the ordinary and approved usage of the language, considered in connection with the cause of its enactment, the mischief or imperfection to be remedied and the main object to be accomplished, to the end that the purpose of its framers may be effectuated." Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n v. Boston, 435 Mass. 718, 719-720 (2002), quoting O'Brien v. Director of the Div. of Employment Sec, 393 Mass. 482, 487-488 (1984).

         Because the fire chief appears to have considered the meaning of "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction" of a residential building of four or more units to be essentially the same as the meaning of "major alterations" in the context of renovation of an existing commercial building, G. L. c. 148, § 26G, we also examine the ordinary meaning of "major alteration."[20]

         To "rehabilitate" something generally means to return it from disuse or a poor condition to a useable condition.[21]"Alteration, " on the other hand, implies a less extensive change to something already in existence. See, e.g., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 55 (3d ed. 1996) ("[t]he condition resulting from altering; modification"; to alter is "[t]o change or make different; modify"); Webster's Third New International Dictionary 63 (2002) ("the act or action of altering"; "the quality or state of being altered"; to alter is "to become different in some respect: undergo change usu. without resulting difference in essential nature"); 1 Oxford English Dictionary 255 (1978) ("[t]he action of altering or making some change in a thing"; to alter is "[t]o make [a thing] otherwise or different in some respect; to make some change in character, shape, condition, position, quantity, value, etc. without changing the thing itself for another; to modify, to change the appearance of"). Cf. 28 C.F.R. § 36.402(b) (2010). "Major" is defined as "greater in . . . rank, importance, or interest: superior"; "notable or conspicuous in effect or scope"; "the greater. . . of two things, species, etc. that have a common designation"; "being greater than the rest." See Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1363 (2002); 6 Oxford English Dictionary 57 (1978) . See also The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1084 (3d ed. 1996) . "Substantial" is commonly understood as something "[t]hat is, constitutes, or involves an essential part, point, or feature; essential, material"; "of or relating to the main part of something"; "to a large degree or in the main." See 10 Oxford English Dictionary 54-55 (1978); Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2280 (2002) . See also The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1791 (3d ed. 1996) These differences in common meaning underscore that the

          Legislature did not intend "major alteration" and "substantially rehabilitated" to be functionally synonymous. See Commonwealth v. Williamson, 462 Mass. 676, 679 (2012), quoting Commonwealth v. Young, 453 Mass. 707, 713 (we "presume, as we must, that the Legislature intended what the words of the statute say" [citation omitted]); City Bank & Trust Co. v. Board of Bank Incorporation, 346 Mass. 29, 31 (1963) ("The distinction between 'may' and 'shall' is not lightly to be held to have been overlooked in legislation"). Where "different words with different meaning" are used in different sections of a statute, see Commonwealth v. Millican, 449 Mass. 298, 301 (2007), citing Champigny v. Commonwealth, 422 Mass. 249, 252-253 (1996), "they cannot be construed interchangeably, but must be construed in relation to one another." Commonwealth v. Millican, supra.

         Moreover, in electing to use the phrase "substantially rehabilitated, " which is a term of art in certain contexts, [22] the Legislature clearly incorporated a very specific degree of modification which is considerably more extensive than what is required to constitute a "major alteration." In the context of building construction, the phrase "substantial rehabilitation" has been used since at least the late 1960s to describe a building that has been modified so extensively that it has been rendered essentially "as good as new, " with a concomitant extension of its expected useful life.[23] Similar terms are used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in providing low-cost financing for creation of affordable housing;[24] by State agencies, builders, and housing advocates;[25] and in State[26] and Federal tax law, [27] rent control law, and certain historic preservation and environmental laws.[28] See Community For Creative Non-violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730, 739 (1989) quoting National Labor Relations Bd. v. Max Coal Co., 453 U.S. 322, 329 (1981) ("It is . . . well established that '[w]here Congress uses terms that have accumulated settled meaning under . . . the common law, a court must infer, unless the statute otherwise dictates, that Congress means to incorporate the established meaning of these terms'"); G. L. c. 4, § 6, Third ("Words and phrases shall be construed according to the common and approved usage of the language; but technical words and phrases and such others as may have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in law shall be construed and understood according to such meaning"). Furthermore, by the addition of the phrase "so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction, " to modify the term "substantially rehabilitated, " the Legislature emphasized, for those unfamiliar with the term of art, its intent that, to meet the statutory standard, an existing residential building must have been rendered "as good as new."

         That the Legislature intended "substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction" to mean something more than a "major alteration" is also apparent in the structure of the automatic sprinkler provisions within the fire prevention act, the process of their enactment, ...


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