Boston Housing Authority v. Hemingway

Citation293 N.E.2d 831,363 Mass. 184
PartiesBOSTON HOUSING AUTHORITY v. Ruth HEMINGWAY (and a companion case).
Decision Date05 March 1973
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Joseph S. Murphy, Jr., Newton, for defendants.

George F. Mahoney, Boston, for plaintiff.


TAURO, Chief Justice.

The Boston Housing Authority (landlord) brought two actions of summary process against the defendants (tenants) 1 for failure to pay rent. The tenants contend that they were entitled to withhold rent under G.L. c. 239, § 8A, because their apartments were in uninhabitable condition 2 in violation of the State Sanitary Code. The tenants argue in the alternative that the landlord's breach of an implied warrantly that the demised premises were suitable for human occupation extinguished the tenants' rental obligations. The cases were originally entered and tried in the Municipal Court of the Roxbury District where the judge found for the landlord against the tenants. The tenants appealed to the Superior Court under G.L. c. 239, § 5, as amended through St.1969, c. 366, where the cases were retried. The trial judge found as to each tenant that the landlord was entitled to possession and rent of $1,200 up to and including June 30, 1970. 3 The cases come before us on a consolidated bill of exceptions.

The evidence is summarized. After making repeated demands to the landlord that repairs be made to remedy the defects which rendered their apartments uninhabitable, the tenants began withholding rent on March 1, 1969. They took this action after the Boston housing inspection department had issued a report to the landlord which certified that serious housing code violations existed which 'may endanger or materially impair the health or safety, and the well-being of any tenant therein or persons occupying said property.' Although G.L. c. 239, § 8A, 4 permits a tenant to withhold rent in such situations, it required the tenant to give written notice to his landlord of his intention to do so. The record supports the Superior Court judge's finding that the tenants failed to comply with this provision of the statute and thus were foreclosed from asserting G.L. c. 239, § 8A, as a defence to the Boston Housing Authority's action. 5

However, at the close of the evidence, the tenants presented requests for findings of fact and rulings of law. Among the requests were the following: '8. That the obligation of the Housing Authority to supply and maintain premises in compliance with the Housing Regulations and the obligations of the tenant to pay rent under a rental agreement are dependent.' '15. That any money owed by the Defendants to the Plaintiff ought to be determined by this Court according to the degree of inhabitability of each apartment of Defendants.' '21. That even if the Defendants had not complied with Chapter 239(8)(A) of the Withholding Statute the defense of uninhabitability would still exist if the premises were as a matter of fact found to be in violation of the State Sanitary Code.' The Superior Court judge held that he need not reach these requests for rulings because of the tenants' failure to comply with the notice requirement of c. 239, § 8A. The denial of these requests presents the central issue in these cases, namely, whether the tenants' remedies are limited to the pertinent statutory provisions.

Implicit in the trial judge's decision was the assumption that the tenants had no common law defence. The trial judge correctly applied the common law as it has existed in the Commonwealth for many years in refusing to permit the tenants to raise the landlord's alleged breach of an implied warranty of habitability as a defence to the handlord's summary process action. 'There is no implied agreement, apart from fraud, that the demised premises are or will continue to be fit for occupancy or safe and in good repair. The tenant takes the premises as he finds them and there is no obligation on the landlord to make repairs.' Fiorntino v. Mason, 233 Mass. 451, 452, 124 N.E. 283. Although the Fiorntino case involved a tenancy at will, the language applies equally to a tenancy under a lease, absent any express provisions to the contrary. Since the leases between the landlord and the tenants in the present cases do not contain any express covenant to deliver or maintain the apartments in habitable condition, the tenants do not have any common law defence to the landlord's action of summary process unless we change the old common law independent covenants rule as the tenants urge us to do. The tenants' challenge to our common law rule of independent covenants has led us to reconsider whether the historical source and justifications for the rule are still valid in the modern context.

1. The Boston Housing Authority relies on a series of Massachusetts cases which established and followed the doctrine of caveat emptor and independent covenants between the landlord and the tenant. Mr. Justice Gray stated the old common law rule in Royce v. Guggenheim, 106 Mass. 201, 202--203: 'It is now well settled, both here and in England, that in a lease of a building for a dwelling-house or store no covenant is implied that it should be fit for occupation. (Citations omitted.) And the English authorities, ancient and modern, are conclusive, that even where the landlord is bound by custom or express covenant to repair, and by his failure to do so the premises become uninhabitable, or unfit for the purposes for which they were leased, the tenant has no right to quit the premises, or to refuse to pay rent according to his covenant, but his only remedy is by action for damages.' See, e.g., Kramer v. Cook, 7 Gray 550; Leavitt v. Fletcher, 10 Allen 119; Ware v. Hobbs, 222 Mass. 327, 110 N.E. 963; Stone v. Sullivan, 300 Mass. 450, 15 N.E.2d 476.

These cases were predicated on the old common law assumption that a lease was in fact a conveyance of an estate in real property for a term. This characterization of the lease as a transfer of a property interest governed by property law reflected the parties' expectations in a rural agrarian society where the right to possession of the land constituted the chief element of the exchange. 'The common law focused on possession rather than service. The ideal landlord delivered possession, then did nothing more; the ideal tenant paid his rent and demanded nothing more than possession.' Notes, 56 Cornell L.Rev. 489, 490.

Thus, originally at common law, the tenant could not even escape his rental obligation when the demised premises were destroyed because of the law's view that the land and not the premises was the essential part of the transaction. See Paradine v. Jane, 82 Eng.Rep.R. 897; Am.Law of Property, § 3.103. Even if the landlord made express maintenance promises in the lease, courts often held that the landlord's breach of these 'secondary' obligations did not affect the tenant's obligation to pay rent. See Stone v. Sullivan, 300 Mass. 450, 15 N.E.2d 476. The tenant was released from his covenant to pay rent only when the landlord repossessed the property or interfered with the tenant's quiet enjoyment of his leasehold. See Royce v. Guggenheim, 106 Mass. 201 (1870).

Given the rural agrarian context in which these rules were judicially formulated, the independent covenants rule made sense. However, the rule's strict application often produced harsh results in those cases where the tenant was more interested in the demised building than the land on which it was situated. The chief judicial response to this problem was the development of the 'constructive eviction' doctrine 'which relieved the tenant of his rent obligation if he could show that he had vacated the leased premises due to a severe failure of maintenance services amounting to a breach of the landlord's duty to assure quiet possession.' Notes, 56 Cornell L.Rev. 489, 491. See Nesson v. Adams, 212 Mass. 429, 99 N.E. 93 (1912). This rule allowed the court to mitigate some of the injustices stemming from strict application of the independent covenants rule without repudiating the rule's basic premise that the lease was essentially a conveyance of a possessory interest in land for a term and not a contract for a dwelling suitable for human occupation. The constructive eviction doctrine created the legal fiction that the tenant had been 'evicted' to show that the tenant's possessory interest in the property itself was destroyed by the landlord's failure to provide adequate maintenance services. It was the loss of the tenant's possessory interest which excused him from paying rent.

The constructive eviction defence gave the tenant the option of abandoning the demised premises in order to extinguish his rental obligation if the court shared the tenant's view as to what acts or omissions on the landlord's part constituted a breach of his duty to assure quiet possession. However, this defence offered little solace to the tenant who was more interested in securing a livable dwelling than a plot of land. Once again, this court responded by creating another exception to the independent covenants rule in those cases where the circumstances made it clear that the tenant's purpose in signing the lease was to secure a dwelling fit for human occupation.

With rare foresight, this court in Ingalls v. Hobbs, 156 Mass. 348, 350, 31 N.E. 286, held that the independent covenants rule did not apply to a leasing of a furnished house or room for a short term. 'But there are good reasons why a different rule should apply to one who hires a furnished room or a furnished house for a few days, or a few weeks or months. Its fitness for immediate use of a particular kind, as indicated by its appointments, is a far more important element entering into the contract than when there is a mere lease of real estate. One who lets for a short term a house provided...

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