City of Worcester v. Coll. Hill Props., LLC

Decision Date15 May 2013
Docket NumberSJC–11166.
Citation987 N.E.2d 1236,465 Mass. 134
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
PartiesCITY OF WORCESTER v. COLLEGE HILL PROPERTIES, LLC, & another (and four companion cases ).


Gary S. Brackett for the defendants.

Ann S. Refolo, Assistant City Solicitor, for the plaintiff.

Philip S. Lapatin & Nathaniel F. Hulme, for Greater Boston Real Estate Board, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.



The defendants own two-family and three-family rental properties in Worcester. They leased dwelling units in these properties to groups of four unrelated adult college students. Each such dwellingunit contained a living room and dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms. The inspectional services department of the city of Worcester (city) determined that, where such a dwelling unit is occupied by four or more unrelated adults, “not within the second degree of kindred” to each other, the dwelling unit is a “lodging” for purposes of G.L. c. 140, §§ 22–32 (lodging house act or act), and that each of the defendants was accordingly operating a lodging house without a license. See G.L. c. 140, § 24. This case presents the question whether such dwelling units as occupied constitute lodgings so as to render the subject properties lodging houses under the lodging house act. We conclude that the dwelling units are not lodgings and the properties are not lodging houses under the act.

1. Background. The essential facts are undisputed. The defendants own two-family and three-family rental properties in the city.3 The properties contain dwelling units commonly referred to as apartments, consisting of a living room and dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and an unspecified number of bedrooms. Each apartment at issue here was leased to four local college students for a twelve-month period. The students, all adults, were not related to each other or to the defendant lessors.4 The students sharing an apartment each had access to the entire apartment and the use of all common areas, such as the kitchen and living room.

Following an investigation, the city issued citations to the defendants on November 18 and 24, 2009, ordering them to cease and desist from operating unlicensed lodging houses. In January, 2010, when the defendants had not complied with the city's orders to reduce the number of occupants to no more than three unrelated adults in any one apartment, the city filed complaints in the Housing Court, seeking preliminary injunctions enjoining the defendants from failing to comply with the city's administrative orders, and from operating unlicensed lodging houses. Although there were no asserted violations of the sanitary or building codes, or of the zoning ordinance, the city's stated basis for bringing the enforcement actions was its concern for fire safety and overcrowding.5 Evidentiary hearings followed on the five individual complaints. Concluding that the apartments as occupied constituted “lodgings” under the act, the judge issued the requested preliminary injunctions and denied the defendants' motions to stay.

When the defendants did not comply with the temporary injunctions by reducing the number of occupants in each apartment, the city filed complaints for civil contempt. At that point, the students, some of whom were seniors, were preparing for final examinations and graduation. Their leases were due to expire on May 31, 2010, and they would not leave voluntarily in response to notices to quit dated March 31, 2010. Show cause hearings were conducted concerning each of the five properties on April 14, 2010.6 The judge found the defendants in contempt and imposed monetary fines.7 The defendants' motions to stay were denied. Judgments of contempt issued on April 26, 2010. Final judgments entered thereafter, permanently enjoining the defendants from “allowing more than three unrelated adults to reside in each legal dwelling unit.” The defendants filed notices of appeal.8

At the defendants' request, the cases were consolidated for purposes of appeal. The Appeals Court affirmed the judgments, Worcester v. College Hill Props., LLC, 80 Mass.App.Ct. 757, 956 N.E.2d 1222 (2011), and denied the defendant's petition for rehearing. We granted the defendants' application for further appellate review. Because we conclude that the dwelling units at issue do not meet the definition of “lodgings” under the lodging house act, the injunctions ordering the defendants to “reduce the number of unrelated adult occupants at the premises to no more than three in each legal dwelling unit” must be vacated.

2. Discussion. This case turns entirely on the meaning of the word “lodgings” under the lodging house act. The lodging house act was enacted approximately one hundred years ago, during World War I, largely in response to concerns about immoral conduct and the spread of venereal disease. Newbury Jr. College v. Brookline, 19 Mass.App.Ct. 197, 203–204, 472 N.E.2d 1373 (1985); St. 1918, c. 259. See Maher v. Brookline, 339 Mass. 209, 215, 158 N.E.2d 320 (1959); G.L. c. 140, § 26. The act requires that a lodging house keeper obtain a license in order to operate a “lodging house.” G.L. c. 140, § 24. General Laws c. 140, § 22, defines a “lodging house” as

“a house where lodgings are let to four or more persons not within second degree of kindred to the person conducting it, and shall include fraternity houses and dormitories of educational institutions, but shall not include dormitories of charitable or philanthropic institutions or convalescent or nursing homes licensed under section seventy-one of chapter one hundred and eleven or rest homes so licensed, or group residences licensed or regulated by agencies of the commonwealth.” 9

Although the act provides a definition of a “lodging house,” the word “lodgings” is not itself defined, either in that section or anywhere else in the act. The city takes the view that the dwelling units in question are “lodgings” let to four or more unrelated adults, and that the two-family and three-family apartment buildings in which those dwelling units are located “have been adapted for use as lodging houses and fit into the plain meanings of the words ‘house,’ ‘lodging’ and ‘let.’ In arriving at this interpretation, which the city contends is clearly and unambiguously apparent in the statute, the city relies primarily on the dictionary definitions of the words “house,” “lodging,” and “let,” each considered separately.10 It construes “a house in which lodgings are let” to mean any place to live in any house.

The defendants contend that this view is in essence myopic. The meaning accorded by the city to the terms “lodgings” and “lodging house” flies in the face of common understanding of the words as well as of an “apartment” within an “apartment building.” The city, they maintain, ignores the historic distinction between lodging houses and apartments, the specific purposes for which the lodging house act was adopted, and the difference between lodgers and tenants long recognized in our statutory and case law. Adopting the city's interpretation would, the defendants argue, lead to absurd results and selective enforcement never envisioned or intended by the Legislature.

We review questions of statutory interpretation de novo. Massachusetts Insurers Insolvency Fund v. Smith, 458 Mass. 561, 564–565, 940 N.E.2d 385 (2010), quoting Atlanticare Med. Ctr. v. Commissioner of the Div. of Med. Assistance, 439 Mass. 1, 6, 785 N.E.2d 346 (2003). In interpreting the meaning of a statute, we look first to the plain statutory language. ‘Where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, it is conclusive as to legislative intent ...’ and ‘the courts enforce the statute according to its plain wording ... so long as its application would not lead to an absurd result.’ Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Comm'n v. Assessors of W. Tisbury, 62 Mass.App.Ct. 25, 27–28, 814 N.E.2d 1147 (2004), quoting Pyle v. School Comm. of S. Hadley, 423 Mass. 283, 285, 667 N.E.2d 869 (1996), and Weitzel v. Travelers Ins. Cos., 417 Mass. 149, 153, 627 N.E.2d 926 (1994). “All the words of a statute are to be given their ordinary and usual meaning, and each clause or phrase is to be construed with reference to every other clause or phrase without giving undue emphasis to any one group of words, so that, if reasonably possible, all parts shall be construed as consistent with each other so as to form a harmonious enactment effectual to accomplish its manifest purpose.” Selectmen of Topsfield v. State Racing Comm'n, 324 Mass. 309, 312–313, 86 N.E.2d 65 (1949), and cases cited. “The Legislature must be assumed to know the preexisting law and the decisions of this court.” Id.

“Where we are unable to ascertain the intent of the Legislature from the words of a statute, we look to external sources, including the legislative historyof the statute, its development, its progression through the Legislature, prior legislation on the same subject, and the history of the times.” 81 Spooner Rd. LLC v. Brookline, 452 Mass. 109, 115, 891 N.E.2d 219 (2008). [A] statute must be interpreted according to the intent of the Legislature ascertained from all its words construed by the ordinary and approved usage of the language, considered in connection with the cause of its enactment, the mischief or imperfection to be remedied and the main object to be accomplished, to the end that the purpose of its framers may be effectuated.’ ... Courts must ascertain the intent of a statute from all its parts and from the subject matter to which it relates, and must interpret the statute so as to render the legislation effective, consonant with sound reason and common sense.” Harvard Crimson, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, 445 Mass. 745, 749, 840 N.E.2d 518 (2006), quoting Hanlon v. Rollins, 286 Mass. 444, 447, 190 N.E. 606 (1...

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