On Appeal from Superior Court, Danielle Lake Civil Division John P. Wesley, J.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skoglund, J.
Bennington Housing Authority v. Danielle Lake; Bennington Housing Authority v. Sanders and Rousseau (2011-403; 2011-404)
PRESENT: Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ., and Crawford, Supr. J.,
¶ 1. These consolidated cases concern a public housing authority and three of its tenants. Bennington Housing Authority (BHA) appeals two trial court decisions dismissing ejectment claims against tenants, and granting summary judgment to tenants on two counterclaims: (1) that BHA failed to properly advise tenants of their right to request a grievance hearing when it billed them for repairs and fines; and (2) that BHA's policy of fining tenants for open windows in the winter is prohibited under federal regulations. We affirm.
¶ 2. The facts in these two cases are strikingly similar. BHA is a public housing authority (PHA) under 42 U.S.C. § 1437 that owns and operates the Willowbrook apartment complex in Bennington, Vermont. In 2010, tenants Saunders and Rousseau were living in one Willowbrook apartment unit, while tenant Lake occupied another Willowbrook unit.
¶ 3. On June 14, 2010, BHA sent notice letters to tenants, informing them that their respective tenancies would end on July 16, 2010 due to failure to pay rent and various outstanding fines and fees. Both lease termination letters contained the same language: "Section 11, C of your lease . . . states in part, 'The notice of termination to tenant shall state . . . the tenant's right to examine management documents directly relevant to the termination or eviction, and of his/her right to request a hearing in accordance with management's grievance procedure.' " Both letters also informed tenants that a private conference had been arranged with BHA's Executive Director, Deborah Reed, "at which time [tenants] will be given an opportunity to make such reply or explanation as [they] may wish."
¶ 4. Lake and Saunders each attended a meeting with Director Reed.*fn1 In the course of these meetings, both tenants expressed their concern over BHA's basis for eviction. Saunders told Reed she believed BHA had wrongly set her rent at too high a percentage of her combined family income. Reed then established a payment schedule for Saunders that Saunders said she could not satisfy. Lake told Reed her economic circumstances had changed in recent months, and that she was interested in working out a repayment plan for the money she owed. Both tenants stated that neither the letter nor their individual meetings with Reed made clear that they could request a grievance hearing or a hearing to challenge the charges to their accounts. Both tenants felt that they had no option but to pay BHA or be evicted.
¶ 5. Following these meetings, Director Reed sent a letter summarizing their discussion to Saunders, but evidently not to Lake. In this letter, Reed told Saunders: "If you stick to this agreement and make all the designated payments, we will stop the termination. If you do not make the agreed payments, we will continue with the termination of your lease and you will have to find another place to live." Reed did not make any mention of the grievance procedure or tenant's right to request a hearing.
¶ 6. Neither tenant was able to make the payments demanded by BHA. As a result, in October 2010, BHA brought separate ejectment claims against each tenant. Tenants both filed answers to BHA's claims and asserted counterclaims against BHA for failing to adhere to federal regulations with regard to the bills sent to tenants and for BHA's policy of fining for open windows. Tenants moved for summary judgment on all claims, which BHA opposed. The trial court granted summary judgment and found for the tenants on all claims. The trial court held that: (1) BHA's termination notice was insufficient under federal law because it did not adequately inform tenants of the grievance procedure; (2) the bills sent to tenant for fines and repairs were insufficient because they did not provide notice of the grievance procedure; and (3) BHA's window-fines policy was impermissible under federal regulations. The trial court also ordered BHA to remove charges from tenants' accounts for window fines and various maintenance and repair costs. BHA appeals.
¶ 7. This Court applies a de novo standard of review to motions for summary judgment. Madowitzv. Woods at Killington Owner's Ass'n, 2010 VT 37, ¶ 9, 188 Vt. 197, 6 A.3d 1117. Summary judgment is appropriate only where "there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id.; see also V.R.C.P. 56(c)(2).
¶ 8. In this case, BHA argues that there are two genuine issues of material fact: whether BHA informed tenants about their grievance rights in the termination letter, and similarly, whether BHA informed tenants of their grievance rights when billing for various fines and repair costs. BHA ...