Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, No. 16–323

Docket NºNo. 16–323
Citation172 A.3d 1215
Case DateJuly 21, 2017
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

172 A.3d 1215

SHIRES HOUSING, INC.
v.
Carolyn S. BROWN and William A. Shepard, II

No. 16–323

Supreme Court of Vermont.

March Term, 2017
July 21, 2017


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

172 A.3d 1218

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 require "extra requirement of notice" of intent to initiate 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)(1) (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 proceeding;

....
172 A.3d 1219
(3) A substantial violation of the lease terms, of the mobile home park, or an additional nonpayment of rent occurring within six months of the giving of the notice referred to in subdivision (2) of this subsection may result in immediate eviction proceedings.

The parties' disagreement in this case involves the interplay between subsections (2) and (3). Specifically, tenant argues that the statutory language is unclear on its face, as evidenced by the fact that "the parties, several trial courts and the Department have found subsection (3) to be uncertain of meaning." Landlord, on the other hand, argues that subsection (3) unambiguously does not require that a landlord provide notice to a tenant of the grounds for eviction prior to commencing eviction proceedings when the basis for the eviction proceeding is a substantial violation of the lease terms. Because this case reaches this Court on an appeal from a decision on a motion to dismiss, we take to be true the facts that landlord alleged in its complaint below, namely, that the basis for the eviction proceeding constituted a substantial lease violation. Accordingly, the only question we must answer is whether the statute is ambiguous and if so, what the Legislature intended when it enacted § 6237(a).

¶ 9. "Our primary objective in construing a statute is to effectuate the Legislature's intent." Wesco, Inc. v. Sorrell, 2004 VT 102, ¶ 14, 177 Vt. 287, 865 A.2d 350. In accomplishing this, our first step is to examine the statute's language because we presume that the Legislature intended the plain, ordinary meaning of the statutory language. Id. If a statute is clear on its face, we accept its plain meaning and will not rely on statutory construction, but where the language creates ambiguity or uncertainty, we resort to statutory construction to ascertain the legislative intent. In re Hinsdale Farm, 2004 VT 72, ¶ 5, 177 Vt. 115, 858 A.2d 249. In construing legislative intent, "we must consider the entire statute, including its subject matter, effects and consequences, as well as the reason for and spirit of the law." Id. Legislative history, circumstances surrounding a statute's enactment, and evidence of the legislative policy at which the statute was aimed are indications of the Legislature's intent. Id. Additionally, where a statute is silent or ambiguous and an agency charged with enforcing the statute has interpreted it, this Court will defer to the agency interpretation of the statute within its area of expertise. In re Smith, 169 Vt. 162, 169, 730 A.2d 605, 611 (1999) ; C & S Wholesale Grocers, Inc. v. Dep't of Taxes, 2016 VT 77A, ¶ 13, ––– Vt. ––––, 155 A.3d 169 ("We defer to agency interpretations of statutes the Legislature has entrusted to their administration ...."). " ‘Absent compelling indication of an error, interpretation of a statute by an administrative body responsible for its execution will be sustained on appeal,’ unless it is unjust or unreasonable." Laumann v. Dep't of Public Safety, 2004 VT 60, ¶ 7, 177 Vt. 52, 857 A.2d 309 (quoting Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 169, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (1996) ).

¶ 10. The first question we must answer is whether § 6237(a) is ambiguous about...

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41 practice notes
  • Vt. Nat'l Tel. Co. v. Dep't of Taxes, No. 19-280
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 9, 2020
    ...this case, however, the Commissioner reasonably interpreted § 3202(b)(3). See Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215 ("Absent compelling indication of an error, interpretation of a statute by an administrative body responsible for its execution will be sust......
  • In re Mountain Top Inn & Resort, No. 19-082
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • July 24, 2020
    ...Legislature intended the plain, ordinary meaning of the statutory language." Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215. "[W]here there is ambiguity [in a statute], we look to the general context of the statutory language ...." Shea v. Metcalf, 167 Vt. 494, 498......
  • In re Acorn Energy Solar 2, LLC, No. 19-398
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • January 15, 2021
    ...both an agency's "interpretation of [a] statute within its area of expertise," Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215, and "an agency's interpretation of its own regulations," Conservation Law Found. v. Burke, 162 Vt. 115, 121, 645 A.2d 495, 499 (1993). ¶ 2......
  • In re C.L.S., s. 20-256 & 20-293
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 9, 2021
    ...effectuate legislative intent as expressed in the words of the statute itself. Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215. ¶ 11. Under § 5103(a) of Title 33, the family court has "exclusive jurisdiction over all proceedings concerning a child who is or who is a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
42 cases
  • Vt. Nat'l Tel. Co. v. Dep't of Taxes, No. 19-280
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 9, 2020
    ...this case, however, the Commissioner reasonably interpreted § 3202(b)(3). See Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215 ("Absent compelling indication of an error, interpretation of a statute by an administrative body responsible for its execution will be......
  • In re Mountain Top Inn & Resort, No. 19-082
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • July 24, 2020
    ...intended the plain, ordinary meaning of the statutory language." Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215. "[W]here there is ambiguity [in a statute], we look to the general context of the statutory language ...." Shea v. Metcalf, 167 Vt. 494, ......
  • In re Acorn Energy Solar 2, LLC, No. 19-398
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • January 15, 2021
    ..."interpretation of [a] statute within its area of expertise," Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215, and "an agency's interpretation of its own regulations," Conservation Law Found. v. Burke, 162 Vt. 115, 121, 645 A.2d 495, 499 (1993). ......
  • In re C.L.S., s. 20-256 & 20-293
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 9, 2021
    ...effectuate legislative intent as expressed in the words of the statute itself. Shires Hous., Inc. v. Brown, 2017 VT 60, ¶ 9, 205 Vt. 186, 172 A.3d 1215. ¶ 11. Under § 5103(a) of Title 33, the family court has "exclusive jurisdiction over all proceedings concerning a child who is or who......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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