Resident Claims for Breach of Quiet Enjoyment: Increased Potential Claims May Be Around the Corner

Landlord-tenant law has significantly changed in the last 40 years. The law continues to increase residents’ greater legal rights. The law continues to impose more legal obligations on landlords. The covenant of quiet enjoyment and the related constructive eviction doctrine and implied warranty of habitability significantly affect landlord-tenant relationships. These legal doctrines create resident rights, but more importantly impose legal obligations on landlords and property managers. These legal doctrines usually center around the condition of a unit. However, the doctrine of quiet enjoyment also encompasses how you manage the overall property. Specifically, quiet enjoyment related issues can and frequently do involve the conduct of other residents.

Habitability warranties are generally not recognized at common law.  Rather, habitability warranties are almost always created by politicians. An implied warranty of habitability means that rental units must be fit for ordinary living. Under the warranty, you have the responsibility to make and keep units fit for living. If a unit is unfit, residents can terminate their leases without obligation. Many jurisdictions recognize an implied warranty of habitability. Fortunately, at least for now, Colorado does not.

However, Colorado does recognize the covenant of quiet enjoyment and the related constructive eviction doctrine. Unlike habitability warranties, these legal doctrines were created by court decisions rather than by the Colorado General Assembly. Colorado judges concluded that residents needed and were legally entitled to some legal protections. In a series of court rulings in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the courts established the principle of “the covenant of quiet enjoyment.”

The covenant of quiet enjoyment covers more than you think. Residents are entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their leased premises. But the covenant also covers repairs, actions of other residents, and potentially more. The covenant is not defined by what it covers, but rather when it has been breached. A covenant of quiet enjoyment is breached when the premises become unfit for the purposes for which they were leased, or resident is deprived of the beneficial enjoyment of the premises. Anything you do or don’t do that renders the premises unfit for occupancy or deprives the resident of his beneficial enjoyment theoretically breaches the covenant of quiet enjoyment. If you breach the covenant, the resident has the right to break his lease (move out) without penalty. The resident can break because the resident has been “constructively evicted.”

Constructive eviction occurs when the covenant of quiet enjoyment is breached and the resident abandons the premises as a result. Construction eviction is usually brought up as a defense to a money claim based on breach of lease. The resident breaks his lease. You seek to collect sums owed. The resident can defend against your suit by alleging and proving that you breached the covenant of quiet enjoyment, and thus “constructively evicted” the resident. Constructive eviction cannot be claimed without a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment.

The reverse is not true. The resident does not need to claim constructive eviction to claim a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. In the past, the resident was required to abandon the premises within a reasonable time after you breached the covenant of quiet enjoyment. This made sense. If the premises are unfit for the purposes for which they were leased, why would the resident want to continue to reside there? In other words, if the resident remained, the resident was admitting that the unit was fit for the purposes for which the unit was leased.

However, under current law, the resident only needs to abandon in certain cases. Two examples illustrate when a resident is required to abandon and when a resident is not required to abandon. If the unit is overrun with mold growth, the premises are unfit for occupancy for the purposes for which they were leased. In this case, the resident is not required to abandon. If the resident’s neighbors play Metallica at 120 decibels all night every night, the neighbors are depriving the resident of the beneficial enjoyment of the premises. In this case, the resident would have to abandon within a reasonable time to claim constructive eviction.

Residents are entitled to damages if successful in covenant of quiet enjoyment cases. At a minimum, the successful resident is entitled to an abatement of rent. The abatement is calculated by comparing the value of the rental property before and after the breach occurs. As a general rule, the rental amount set forth in the lease will establish the market value of the property. The court then calculates a percentage figure, which determines the value of the premises taking into account the defects established by the evidence. In our experience this is nothing more than guess work and has led to unjust results. In one case, heat was unavailable in a single room in a 5,000 square foot house. The judge held that the entire rent abated until this single room had heat. In another commercial heating case, the evidence established that several offices in a large suite were cold for 10 days during a six month period. The judge held that the tenant was entitled to a 50% rent abatement for the entire period. The court may utilize several other remedies when circumstances dictate. These remedies include repair and deduct calculations, rescission of the lease, and consequential damages such as moving costs and loss of personal property.

The covenant of quiet enjoyment provides residents some guarantee of repair. Without it, the premises would always be deemed fit for occupancy for the purposes for which they were leased. However, the covenant does not go so far as create a warranty of habitability. For example, you rent an apartment without hot water. This apartment is clearly not habitable for most residents. However, if the resident knew at the time of leasing that the unit had no hot water and took possession of the apartment in “as is” condition, you would not have breached the covenant of quiet enjoyment. In this example, there is no act or omission on your part during the lease term, which creates the defect.

Residents frequently raise breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment in eviction cases handled by the Firm. Typically, the resident contests the eviction by claiming the resident is entitled to withhold rent because you have failed to make necessary repairs. This defense is rarely successful in an eviction because an eviction case involves only the issue of possession of the premises and not the recovery of money due. Most trial judges will award you possession, but will instruct the resident that they may raise the quiet enjoyment claim at the collection stage. The judges usually rule that the resident cannot continue to live rent-free while complaining about the condition of the premises.

A resident’s claim of constructive eviction carries more weight when the parties are before the court on monetary issues. At this point, the resident has long since vacated the unit and you are fighting over the security deposit, rent due, physical damage to the premises, and other money issues. After applying the security deposit to the resident’s account, you file a collection suit against the former resident for unpaid rent. At court, the resident files a counterclaim alleging that they were constructively evicted and requests a rental abatement based on breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. You may raise numerous defenses in an effort to refute the resident’s allegations, such as the fact that the problems existed at the initiation of the lease. You can argue that the resident’s own negligence or abuse contributed or caused the problems that the resident claims. If applicable, you may also argue that the resident failed to give you timely notice of the claimed defects, thus denying you an opportunity to correct the problems.

The covenant of quiet enjoyment is an implied covenant of every lease. An implied covenant means that the law creates the right regardless of whether or not it’s in the lease. The good news is that the covenant of quiet enjoyment can be specifically disclaimed in a lease. For example, subject to the information on the Move-In/Move-Out Checklist, Resident accepts the apartment in “as is” condition, without representation or warranty of any kind, whether express or implied, including any warranty of habitability or covenant of quiet enjoyment. Agent specifically disclaims any warranty or covenant of quiet enjoyment.

The bad news is that general assembly is likely to pass new laws in this area soon. In recent years, the Colorado Generally Assembly has introduced and passed various new laws on these subjects. Specifically, the General Assembly has attempted to adopt laws creating a warranty of habitability, and a statutory covenant of quiet enjoyment both of which may not be disclaimed in your leases. Governor Owens wisely vetoed all of these laws. Governor Owens is now term limited. There will be a new Colorado Governor come January. New laws very detrimental to the multifamily industry will likely be introduced and passed again. If the new governor does not veto these laws, these new laws will become a reality. Overly aggressive lawyers are already filing lawsuits based on bedbug infestations as a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. We can only imagine the lawsuits that will be brought if these lawyers are armed with a statutory warranty of habitability and covenant of quiet enjoyment. This means a significant increase of resident claims based on breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment are on the immediate horizon.

As always, we will keep you informed regarding any detrimental legislation and strategies for dealing with such legislation. Information will be regularly distributed and discussed through our newsletter, website, and at all client lunches.

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