THE WARRANTY OF HABITABILITY ACT – PART II

This month we continue our discussion about the new warranty of habitability law.  HB19-1170 entitled the “Residential Tenants Health and Safety Act” became effective August 2, 2019.  This bill amended what was commonly referred to at the Warranty of Habitability Act (WHA).  The original WHA was enacted in 2008.  The 2019 law rewrote 2008 WHA and created significant legal obligations for Colorado landlords.   Last month we answered a lot of questions about the new WHA.  This month we answer questions about mold, obligations to provide alternative housing, and tenant caused damage.

 

When do mold events become WHA claims triggering a landlord’s response?

The answer to this question is the most important thing to know about mold and the new WHA.  Mold is only a WHA issue if the mold would materially interfere with the life health and safety (LHS) of a tenant, if not remedied.  This means most mold events are not WHA claims.  However, given the level of mold hysteria on the internet, whether right or wrong, most tenants believe that all mold impacts their health.  Tenants think this despite the fact that mold is everywhere in the environment (mold comprises approximately 25% of the biomass of the earth).

All landlords should have standard operating procedures (SOPs) to respond to tenant mold issues.  SOPs should focus on investigating, determining, responding, and educating.  Landlords should promptly investigate and determine whether a mold issue materially interferes with a tenant’s LHS.  If this threshold is not met, Landlords should promptly respond to the tenant in writing and simultaneously educate the tenant that only mold that materially interferes with the tenant’s LHS can be a potential WHA breach, and mold issues that do not rise to this level are addressed as routine maintenance items.

Investigations and determinations will vary depending on the circumstances.  In routine cases, maintenance can respond and document (taking photos is advisable) small amounts of mold.  Subsequently, a standard form letter or template can be sent to the tenant stating that the mold event is not a WHA issue but will be addressed in accordance with standard maintenance policies.

However, SOPs will also need to address concerned or determined tenants.  Upon discovering any mold, these tenants obtain their own mold test.  These mold tests are inherently unreliable but always come back positive (meaning there is a mold problem).  You won’t be able to convince a tenant, armed with a mold test, that the mold doesn’t materially interfere with their LHS.  Further, if it goes to litigation, you will need to have your own mold expert, who based on his expertise and familiarity with the facts, to testify that the mold did not materially interfere with the tenant’s LHS.

In short, landlords will need their own mold guy to make the call that a mold issue does not materially interfere with a tenant’s LHS.  Finding the right person can be difficult.  Landlords need to get out in front of the issue and secure a qualified vendor before there is an issue.  If you manage a large number of units, you may be able to negotiate preferred rate.  The agreement is simple.  When you call, the vendor needs to promptly respond, investigate, and determine whether the mold interferes with the tenant’s LHS.  Hiring should focus on qualifications, experience, and methodology.  You should explain specifically why you want to retain their services and specifically ask how they will determine whether it is a LHS issue without testing.

Again, because air sampling and testing is inherently unreliable, we are not advocating “mold testing”.  If your mold vendor is qualified, they should be able to opine based on a physical examination whether the tenant’s LHS is impacted.  Upon receipt of an opinion that there is not an impact on the tenant’s LHS from your vendor, you should inform the tenant that it is not a LHS situation (a WHA claim) but that you will promptly take appropriate remediation measures.  If a mold issue does impact a tenant’s LHS, you won’t need a vendor to tell you since dangerous or serious mold issues are obvious.  Note, your mold guy who determines whether LHS is impacted should not be your remediation vendor.  This is an inherent and obvious conflict of interest.  Vendors who are hired to assess problems and do the work, if there is a problem, clearly have an incentive to find a problem.

If the tenant still argues with you and your vendor’s conclusions, you should direct them to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website.  According to the CDC, “[g]enerally, it is not necessary to identify the species of mold growing in a residence, and CDC does not recommend routine sampling for molds. Current evidence indicates that allergies are the type of diseases most often associated with molds. Since the susceptibility of individuals can vary greatly either because of the amount or type of mold, sampling and culturing are not reliable in determining your health risk. If you are susceptible to mold and mold is seen or smelled, there is a potential health risk; therefore, no matter what type of mold is present, you should arrange for its removal. Furthermore, reliable sampling for mold can be expensive, and standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable or tolerable quantity of mold have not been established.”

 

Assuming you have a legitimate mold issue, what are a landlord’s legal duties in response to a mold under the new WHA?

Invariably, all water intrusion events, and dampness issues will be called mold claims under the new law.  But landlords should know that it is theoretically possible to have WHA claim involving “dampness” without the presence of mold based on the statutory language.  The statutory language is “mold that is associated with dampness, or any other condition causing the residential premises to be damp”.

This language is one of many examples of how the new law is poorly conceptualized and drafted.  Somebody (either the drafters or advocates of the new law) had the bad idea to make mold its own violation.  Mold even has its own statutory section 2.2 (all other warranty of habitability breaches are set forth in section 2(a).  The drafters then either intentionally or inadvertently left out some of the requirements that apply to section 2(a) WHA claims.  For example, a landlord has no obligation to respond within twenty-four hours to mold-based WHA claims.  This further complicates landlords’ WHA response strategies and is highly likely to confuse tenants.

The decision to make mold its own section is particularly baffling in light of the legal requirements for a WHA mold claim.  As discussed, under the WHA, a mold claim under Section 2.2 cannot be a warranty of habitability issue unless the mold would materially interfere with the life, health, or safety (LHS) of a tenant.  However, Section 2(a)(II) provides that a warranty of habitability claim can be based upon any issue that materially interferes with the life, health, or safety of a tenant.  Mold can (but usually does not) interfere with LHS.  When it does materially interfere with LHS, mold would have fit squarely within the LHS language in 2(a)(II).

The only plausible rationale for making mold an independent violation is derived from the onerous and unreasonable remediation requirements set forth in the mold section.  Apparently, the supporters of the new law believe all of the sensational information on the internet, primarily authored by mold remediation companies, to create public fear over even small amounts of mold.  Logically, there can be no other explanation of the laws ridiculous mold requirements.

Upon receiving Reasonably Complete Written Notice involving a mold claim, the law requires landlords, within ninety-six hours, to mitigate immediate risk from mold by taking specific actions.  Landlords must install a containment (not defined in the statute), stop active sources of water (anybody who knows anything about mold would have said “terminate the mold’s moisture source”), and install a high-efficiency particulate air filtration (HEPA) device to reduce tenants’ exposure to mold.  Landlords should be prepared to respond to tenant demands for HEPA filters.

Landlords should note the inconsistent time frames between the mold section and the general LHS Section(2)(a)(II).  Specifically, landlords get ninety-six hours to commence remedial action for mold claims, but only twenty-four hours on all other LHS issues.  The ninety-six-hour requirement does not make sense given the statute defines mold as a LHS issue and landlords only get twenty-four hours to address Life Health Safety issues in Section 2(a)(II).  Given that mold is almost always caused by a water intrusion event, most landlords will usually leap into action (immediately take action to stop the water source) in most mold scenarios.

Under the law, landlords must maintain containment until certain actions mandated by the statute are executed and landlords must completely address mold claims within a reasonable time.  Assuming a valid mold issue, landlords are required to establish appropriate protections for workers and occupants, eliminate or limit moisture sources and dry all materials, decontaminate or remove damaged materials as appropriate, evaluate whether the premises has been successfully remediated, and reassemble the premises to control sources of moisture and nutrients and thereby prevent or limit the recurrence of mold.

Based on the statutory language and other reasons, the proponents pushing these mold requirements have no knowledge of current EPA requirements.  Under EPA standards, limited containment is generally used for areas involving between 10 and 100 square feet of mold contamination.  Full containment is used when areas larger than 100 square feet are to be remediated or in cases where it is likely that mold could be spread throughout the building during remediation.  Almost all mold found in rental housing is less than 10 square feet, and in the majority of cases is less than one square foot.  This statute makes mold a huge burden for the rental industry because landlords are now saddled with the tremendous burden of determining whether a mold issue impacts a tenant’s LHS.  But this is also the saving grace for landlords.  Because once it is determined that a mold issue is not a LHS issue, landlords cannot breach the WHA based on a mold claim.

 

Under the WHA, when does a landlord have to provide a tenant alternative accommodations?  And what are a landlord’s responsibilities in providing those accommodations?

A landlord must provide tenant alternative accommodations when the tenant’s notice describes a condition that materially interferes with the tenant’s life, health, or safety (LHS).  Since the statute specifically refers to Section 2(a)(II) and mold is its own section, logically landlords would not have to relocate tenants over mold issues. However, tenants will argue that since mold is a LHS issue that landlords are required to provide alternative accommodations.

As set forth in our discussion about mold, the battle will be fought over whether the maintenance issue set forth in the notice is an issue that materially interferes with the tenant’s life, health, and safety.  Some scenarios will be obvious.  However, the majority will not be clear cut.  When we first saw this law, we were concerned that the language “materially interferes with life, health, or safety” had the potential to promote routine maintenance requests into emergencies.  We were particularly concerned with lowering the standard from “materially hazardous” to “materially interfering” when a tenant’s life is concerned.

Taken literally, many non-life-threatening maintenance issues could be viewed as materially interfering with a tenant’s life.  For example, a tenant lives in a four-story building and the elevator goes out.  While extremely inconvenient, this should not be a WHA issue.  However, based on the statutory language, a tenant could argue that the issue is materially interfering with their life.  This is a good illustration of how the potential impact of the WHA at this point remains largely in the hands of the courts.  If the courts interpret life as being a tenant’s daily activities, the WHA will have an enormous impact.  If the court’s interpret life as potentially causing death, then the WHA sweep will be much more reasonable.  Regardless, landlords should be prepared for tenants to argue that routine maintenance issues are materially interfering with their lives.

Assuming a legitimate LHS issue, landlords are required to provide the tenant with a comparable dwelling unit, as selected by the landlord, at no expense or cost to the tenant.  Alternatively, a landlord can provide the tenant with a hotel room, as selected by the landlord, at no expense or cost to the tenant.  Tenants may argue but for the WHA issue they would not have incurred incidental expenses.  For example, tenants might demand reimbursement for meal costs based on having to eat out because they are living in a hotel.  However, the plain language of the statute does not support this.  The law only requires landlords to “provide” a comparable unit or a hotel room.

While the landlord is required to provide alternative accommodations, the tenant remains responsible at all times for payment of the rent during any temporary relocation and the remainder of the term after the WHA issue is resolved.  Accordingly, even while a WHA issue is being addressed, landlords can elect to terminate a tenant’s right of possession of the impacted unit for non-payment.  If you encounter this scenario, you should serve the notice both at the premises and by personally handing a copy of the rent demand to the tenant at the hotel or comparable unit.  You should also advise us so that we can personally serve the Summons and Complaint.  Failure to personally serve the notice and the court papers makes the landlord vulnerable to due process arguments.  Specifically, the tenant will argue that you knew they weren’t residing at the unit and you failed to give them notice by only posting at the premises.  Finally, the law provides that the landlord is not responsible for any other expenses after the tenant moves back into the impacted unit.

 

Can damage caused by the tenant be a breach of the WHA?

No.  The WHA is clear on this.  Maintenance issues or damage caused by the misconduct of the tenant, a member of the tenant’s household, a guest or invitee of the tenant, or a person under the tenant’s direction or control, cannot constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability.  Accordingly, a tenant who causes the problem cannot demand alternative accommodations.

Because a landlord cannot breach the WHA if the tenant causes the problem, the first question a landlord should always ask when evaluating potential warranty of habitability claims is whether the tenant is responsible.  Second, if a mold claim, landlords should determine if the mold interferes with the tenant’s life health or safety.  Third, landlords should determine whether the issue is on the 505 list (INSERT 505 Link).  Fourth, if not on the 505 list, landlords should determine whether the condition otherwise makes the unit unfit for human habitation (this should be the only standard in our opinion).  Fifth, landlords should determine if the issue is a condition that materially interferes with the tenant’s life, health, or safety.

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