Carlie v. Morgan

Decision Date25 June 1996
Docket NumberNo. 940475,940475
Citation922 P.2d 1
PartiesMoroni and Susan CARLIE and Deena Poulsen, on her own behalf and as guardian for Lora Poulsen, a minor, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. John MORGAN, in his official capacity as acting director of the Salt Lake City/County Health Department, Daryl McDonald, Joe Destafino, and Jon Hansen, in his official capacity as a building official for the city of South Salt Lake, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Bruce M. Plenk, Silvia Pena-Chacon, Eric Mittelstadt, Salt Lake City, for plaintiffs.

Thomas L. Christensen, Salt Lake City, for Morgan.

Dean H. Becker, Salt Lake City, for McDonald and Destafino.

Dale J. Lambert, Stacy L. Hayden, Salt Lake City, for Hansen.

ZIMMERMAN, Chief Justice:

Moroni and Susan Carlie and Deena Poulsen, who were displaced from their apartment when the building was closed to occupancy due to health code violations, appeal from the district court's dismissal of their claims against (i) John Morgan, acting director of the Salt Lake City/County Health Department, for failing to provide relocation assistance under the Utah Relocation Assistance Act ("URAA"), Utah Code Ann. §§ 57-12-1 to -13; (ii) Daryl McDonald, the owner of the apartment building, for violating the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act ("UCSPA"), Utah Code Ann. §§ 13-11-1 to -23; and (iii) Joe Destafino, the manager of the apartment building, for violating the UCSPA and breaching the implied warranty of habitability. 1 We affirm.

The material facts in this appeal are not disputed. In December of 1992, Deena Poulsen rented an apartment from Joe Destafino, who managed the apartment building for its owner, Daryl McDonald. Three months later, the Carlies rented an apartment in the same building. Shortly thereafter, James Bennett of the Salt Lake City/County Health Department ("Health Department") inspected the building and found numerous health code violations, including plumbing leaks, cockroach and rodent infestation, unsafe stairs, missing window glass, and missing smoke detectors. Consequently, on April 15, 1993, Bennett posted a "Closed to Occupancy" notice on the building and ordered plaintiffs to vacate the premises.

Two weeks later, having been unable to find affordable alternate housing, the Carlies filed a complaint in district court seeking (i) relocation assistance under the URAA from the acting director of the Health Department, John Morgan, and (ii) damages from McDonald and Destafino for violation of the UCSPA and breach of the implied warranty of habitability. Poulsen was later added as a plaintiff.

Thereafter, Morgan moved for summary judgment, arguing that the URAA does not require a governmental agency to provide relocation assistance to a displaced person unless the displacement occurs as a result of the agency's acquisition of the property from which the person was displaced. The district court agreed and dismissed plaintiffs' claim against Morgan for failing to provide relocation assistance.

Plaintiffs subsequently moved for summary judgment against McDonald and Destafino for violating the UCSPA and breaching the implied warranty of habitability. After a hearing on plaintiffs' motion, the district court ruled that (i) McDonald was liable for breach of the implied warranty of habitability; (ii) Destafino, as McDonald's agent, was not personally liable for breach of the implied warranty of habitability; and (iii) the UCSPA does not apply to landlord/tenant transactions. Accordingly, the district court entered summary judgment against McDonald on plaintiffs' claim for breach of the implied warranty of habitability and dismissed plaintiffs' other claims against McDonald and Destafino. Plaintiffs appeal.

We first state the applicable standard of review. Plaintiffs challenge only the district court's interpretation of the URAA and the UCSPA and the district court's legal conclusion that an apartment owner's agent cannot be held personally liable for breach of the implied warranty of habitability. These are legal determinations, i.e., "those which are not of fact but are essentially of rules or principles uniformly applied to persons of similar qualities and status in similar circumstances." State v. Pena, 869 P.2d 932, 935 (Utah 1994). "Accordingly, we grant no particular deference to the district court's rulings but review them for correctness." World Peace Movement of Am. v. Newspaper Agency Corp., 879 P.2d 253, 259 (Utah 1994) (citing Ward v. Richfield City, 798 P.2d 757, 759 (Utah 1990)); accord Pena, 869 P.2d at 936.

Plaintiffs first contend that the district court erred in concluding that the URAA requires a governmental agency to provide relocation assistance only when the agency acquires the property in question. "When faced with a question of statutory construction, we look first to the plain language of the statute." CIG Exploration, Inc. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 897 P.2d 1214, 1216 (Utah 1995) (citing State v. Larsen, 865 P.2d 1355, 1357 (Utah 1993); Schurtz v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 814 P.2d 1108, 1112 (Utah 1991)), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 699, 133 L.Ed.2d 656 (1996). We assume that "each term in the statute was used advisedly; thus the statutory words are read literally, unless such a reading is unreasonably confused or inoperable." Savage Indus., Inc. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 811 P.2d 664, 670 (Utah 1991). "Only when we find ambiguity in the statute's plain language need we seek guidance from the legislative history and relevant policy considerations." World Peace Movement, 879 P.2d at 259. Applying these principles, the district court found that the plain language of the URAA requires governmental acquisition of property before relocation assistance can be provided. We agree.

The URAA provides specific remedies to persons displaced from their place of residence or business as a result of governmental activity. See Utah Code Ann. § 57-12-4 (direct financial assistance); id. § 57-12-5 (reimbursement of moving expenses); id. § 57-12-7 (offer of replacement dwelling); id. § 57-12-8 (creation of relocation assistance advisory program). By their express terms, however, these remedial provisions apply only when a governmental agency acquires property. For example, section 57-12-4 authorizes governmental agencies to provide direct financial assistance only to "persons displaced by acquisition of real property by [the] agency." Id. § 57-12-4 (emphasis added). Sections 57-12-5, -7, and -8 are likewise limited in their application to instances in which the displacing agency acquires the property in question: section 57-12-5 requires reimbursement of certain moving expenses by "[a]ny agency acquiring real property " (emphasis added); section 57-12-7 guarantees that no person will be displaced from "land used as his residence and acquired under any of the condemnation or eminent domain laws of this state " without first being offered a comparable replacement dwelling (emphasis added); and section 57-12-8 requires the creation of a relocation assistance advisory program only when "the acquisition of real property ... will result in the displacement of any person" (emphasis added). We find no ambiguity in this language and accordingly conclude that the URAA does not entitle displaced persons to relocation assistance unless the displacement resulted from governmental acquisition of real property.

In opposition, plaintiffs argue that such a reading of the URAA would render some of its provisions meaningless, contrary to "our fundamental duty to give effect, if possible, to every word of the statute." Madsen v. Borthick, 769 P.2d 245, 252 n. 11 (Utah 1988). Specifically, plaintiffs direct our attention to sections 57-12-2 and -3(3), both of which mention "code enforcement activities." Section 57-12-2 provides in relevant part:

[T]he purpose of this act is to establish a uniform policy for the fair and equitable treatment of persons displaced by the acquisition of real property by state and local land acquisition programs, by building code enforcement activities, or by a program of voluntary rehabilitation of buildings or other improvements conducted pursuant to governmental supervision.

(Emphasis added.) Section 57-12-3(3) defines "displaced person" as

any person who ... moves from real property ... as a result of the acquisition of the real property, in whole or in part, or as a result of a written order of the acquiring agency to vacate real property for a program of purchase undertaken by an agency or as a direct result of code enforcement activities.

(Emphasis added.) Plaintiffs assert that these provisions are meaningless unless we read the URAA to provide relief to persons displaced as a result of code enforcement. We disagree.

Because the legislature's intent in referring to "code enforcement activities" in sections 57-12-2 and -3(3) is not readily apparent, we read those sections in the context of the URAA as a whole. See CIG Exploration, 897 P.2d at 1216. As we explained above, in contrast to the intent and definition sections that contain references to "code enforcement activities," all of the URAA's remedial provisions expressly and unambiguously require governmental acquisition of property. In light of this express requirement, we accept the district court's explanation that the URAA's references to code enforcement were meant to "appl[y] to situations where code enforcement is coupled with an agency's acquisition of property such as through the exercise of an agency's powers of eminent domain to reclaim property out of compliance with health and safety standards." See Utah Code Ann. § 17A-2-1238 (authorizing redevelopment agencies to acquire property by eminent domain). Thus, while we acknowledge that the references to code enforcement in sections 57-12-2 and -3(3) are a source of justifiable confusion, 2 we do not think that our reading of the URAA necessarily renders those sections meaningless.

Plaintiffs...

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