Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 7, 2013

MA Supreme Court Draws Distinction Between Lodging and Apartment and Holds Lodging Act Enacting During WWI Limiting Housing to No More than Three Unrelated People Did Not Apply to Apartments

Defendants owned multi-family rental properties in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts (“City”).  Some of the apartments within the buildings – which included a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms – were rented out to groups of four unrelated college students.  Each occupant had full access to all rooms within the apartment. Upon inspection of the apartments, the City determined that, since they were occupied by more than three unrelated adults, the apartments were “lodgings” for the purposes of the relevant lodging house act.  According to the act, anyone operating a lodging house must be licensed to do so.

Thereafter, the City ordered the defendants to stop operating the lodgings without a license.  When Defendants refused to decrease the number of occupants in the apartments to less than four, the City sought preliminary injunctions in the Housing Court.  The Housing Court judge issued the injunctions after determining that the apartments were in fact “lodgings” under the act.  Defendants further refused to comply with the injunctions, so the City filed complaints for civil contempt.  The judge found Defendants in contempt, imposed monetary fines, and ultimately entered final judgments permanently enjoining Defendants from renting to more than three unrelated adults per apartment.

Defendants appealed this decision to the Appeals Court, who affirmed the judgments.  On further  review, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that Defendants’ apartments did not meet the definition of “lodgings” under the lodging house act.  The judgments enjoining Defendants from allowing four unrelated adults to lease the apartments, as well as the judgments of contempt, were both vacated.

According to the lodging act, which was enacted during World War I in order to prevent the spread of venereal disease and immoral conduct, a lodging house keeper must be licensed to operate a lodging house.  Failure to do so could result in fines and criminal penalties.  The idea was to impose penalties for licensees who allowed immoral conduct to occur in a lodging house, such as a woman occupying a room with multiple men in a thirty day period.  The statute defines a “lodging house” as one where lodgings are let to four or more adults who are unrelated to the owner, with some limited exceptions.  The statute does not, however, define the word “lodging.”

The City argued that the plain meanings of the words “house,” “lodging,” and “let” suggest that the statute applies to “any place to live in any house.”  Thus, the City contends, Defendants are in violation of the statute for allowing four unrelated adults to live together in the same apartment.  Defendants asserted that this interpretation ignores the distinction between a “lodging” and an “apartment,” as well as the legislative history of the relevant statutes.  Defendants argued that the City’s interpretation would lead to inconsistent results and selective enforcement.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts began its analysis of the issue with the plain dictionary definition of the word “lodging.”  Each dictionary the court cited defined a “lodging” as a room or accommodation within a house.  The court also discussed the historical distinction between a tenant of an apartment and a lodger of a lodging.  On the one hand, a tenant has full legal access to all the rooms in the apartment, as well as a direct interest in the property.  A lodger, on the other hand, only has a contractual right to occupy specific rooms in the apartment, and no property interest.

Furthermore, Massachusetts sanitary and fire safety codes acknowledge a distinction between a “rooming unit” and a “dwelling unit” and provide different standards for each.  The court concluded that this demonstrates a legislative recognition that a lodging is not the same as an apartment.

The court ultimately held that to accept the City’s interpretation of “lodging” would cause inconsistent results and selective enforcement of the statute.  The City argued that one building with multiple dwelling units could have one dwelling unit treated as a lodging and another treated as an apartment.  The court determined that such inconsistent results would be absurd and unreasonable.  The City further argued that under its interpretation of “lodging,” although the lodging house act would apply to a family of four or more renting from an unrelated landlord, the City would not enforce the act in such instances.  The court refused to adopt this interpretation as it would lead to selective enforcement of the statute.  The court determined that Defendants in this case were not operating “lodgings” as defined by the lodging act and vacated the judgments enjoining Defendants from renting apartments to four unrelated adults.

The court also held in favor of Defendants regarding the orders of contempt.  The orders could only be set aside if found to be civil as opposed to criminal.  While civil contempt is intended to coerce a party into acting a certain way, criminal contempt is intended to punish a party for acting a certain way.  Here, not only were the City’s complaints labeled as ones for “civil contempt,” but also the purpose of the fines imposed on Defendants was to coerce them into complying with the court’s orders.  Since the orders of contempt here were “clearly civil in nature,” the court concluded that these judgments should also be vacated.

City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, 2013 WL 1960646 (MA 5/15/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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