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Shires Housing, Inc. v. Brown

Supreme Court of Vermont

July 21, 2017

Shires Housing, Inc.
v.
Carolyn S. Brown and William A. Shepard, II

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Civil Division John W.Valente, J.

          Michael S. Munson of Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Silver & Munson, PC, Bennington, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Maureen A. O'Reilly, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Rutland, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1.This interlocutory appeal arises out of a mobile home park eviction in which landlord, Shires Housing, Inc., failed to provide tenant, Carolyn Brown, with written notice of tenancy termination before filing for eviction under the Mobile Home Parks Act. The trial court denied defendant's Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, ruling that 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a)(3) contains an exception to the notice requirement. Because we conclude that the relevant provision of the Mobile Home Parks Act is ambiguous and because the available tools of statutory interpretation all indicate that the Act requires preeviction notice, we reverse.

         ¶ 2. Tenant and her cotenant leased lot 19 in landlord's Willows Mobile Home Park in Bennington, Vermont. Tenant's lease prohibited "any criminal activity including illegal drug- related activity on or near the premises" and stated that "such criminal activity shall be cause for termination of the tenancy." The lease also required the park owner or manager to "provide the [r]esident with written notice of the reason for an intended eviction." On February 29, 2016, landlord filed a complaint for eviction against tenant and her cotenant, alleging cotenant and a guest engaged in illegal drug-related activity on the premises. It is undisputed that landlord did not provide written notice prior to initiating the eviction proceedings.

         ¶ 3. Landlord served tenant with a complaint for ejectment on March 24, 2016. On April 14, 2016, tenant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that: (1) the complaint failed to allege prior notice, which she argued was required under 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a)(2); (2) Rule 12.2.1 promulgated by the Department of Housing and Community Development (the Department) required prior notice unless the tenant had committed another violation within the last six months; and (3) landlord failed to attach a copy of the lease to the complaint, as required by 12 V.S.A. § 4852 and 10 V.S.A. § 6204(c) (applying 12 V.S.A. § 4852 to rental of mobile homes). Landlord filed a response on April 28, 2016, arguing: (1) under 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a)(3), no prior written notice is required when the cause for termination is a substantial lease violation; (2) the agency rule conflicts with § 6237 and should be overturned; and (3) a copy of the lease was attached to the complaint.

         ¶ 4. The trial court denied tenant's motion to dismiss, ruling that § 6237(a) unambiguously contains an exception to the notice requirement when a tenant causes a substantial violation of the lease terms. In reaching that conclusion, the court noted that two other trial courts had considered the same question and had ruled in favor of the tenants, although the courts did so on different grounds. Compare Garden Homes Mgmt. Corp. v. Marchand, No. 251-7-12 Bncv, slip op. (Vt. Super. Ct. Sept. 18, 2012) (finding statute ambiguous and deferring to agency interpretation), with Bean v. Bickford, No. 164-05-08 Cacv, 2009 WL 8019257 (Vt. Super. Ct. May 22, 2009) (finding that statute unambiguously does requires "extra requirement of notice" of intent to intiitate eviction proceeding). The court also acknowledged that its conclusion was "the opposite of the one reached by the Department." The court nevertheless found that the plain meaning of § 6237(a) created "an exception to the notice requirement in the event that there is a substantial violation of a lease term."

         ¶ 5. On July 22, 2016, tenant requested permission to file an interlocutory appeal, arguing the issue of written notice of tenancy termination is a controlling question of law about which there exists a substantial ground for difference of opinion. See V.R.A.P. 5(b) (providing that "superior court must permit an appeal from an interlocutory order or ruling" if order or ruling "involves a controlling question of law about which there exists substantial ground for difference of opinion" and immediate appeal "may materially advance the termination of the litigation"). The court granted permission, citing the two previous contradictory trial court decisions and the lack of caselaw from this Court to guide the trial courts.

         ¶ 6. On appeal, tenant argues the trial court's order should be reversed for three reasons. First, an ejectment action cannot proceed in the absence of a written notice of tenancy termination. Second, the trial court incorrectly found § 6237(a) to be clear on its face. Third, the trial court should have deferred to the Department's rule. We agree with tenant that 10 V.S.A. § 6237(a) is ambiguous, and that the maxims of statutory construction support tenant's construction of the statute. We therefore reverse.[1]

         ¶ 7. We review a trial court's decision on a motion to dismiss de novo, applying the same standard as the lower court and taking to be true all facts as pleaded in the complaint, without considering "contravening assertions" in the defendant's pleadings. Birchwood Land Co. v. Krizan, 2015 VT 37, ¶ 6, 198 Vt. 420, 115 A.3d 1009. Accordingly, our review "is limited to determining 'whether the bare allegations of the complaint are sufficient to state a claim.' " Id. (quoting Kaplan v. Morgan Stanley & Co., 2009 VT 78, ¶ 7, 186 Vt. 605, 987 A.2d 258 (mem.)).

         ¶ 8. Our review begins with the language of the statute. Section 6237(a) provides:

A leaseholder may be evicted only for nonpayment of rent or for a substantial violation of the lease terms of the mobile home park . . . and only in accordance with the following procedure:
. . . .
(2)Prior to the commencement of any eviction proceeding, the park owner shall notify the leaseholder by certified or registered mail, except as provided in subdivision (3) of this subsection:
(A) of the grounds for an eviction ...

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