Bay State Supremes Slam City Of Worcester Over Screwball Attempt To Invoke State Lodging House Act To Impose Fine$, Contempt Citations On Landlords Who Rented Apartments In 2- & 3-Family Homes To Groups Of Four Unrelated Adult College Students
- Defendants owned two-family and three-family rental properties in the City of Worcester. Defendants leased dwelling units in these properties to groups of four unrelated adult college students.
The 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 the Lodging House Act, and Defendants were therefore operating a lodging house without a license.
The trial court found Defendants in contempt and imposed monetary fines.(1)
The appeals court affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the dwelling units did not meet the definition of "lodgings" under the Act, and accordingly, the properties were not lodging houses under the Act.(2)
For the Massachusetts high court ruling, see City of Worcester v. College Hill Props., LLC, No. SJC-11166 (May 15, 2013).
(1) According to the court, at the time the
(2) In reversing the earlier ruling of the trial judge, which was subsequently affirmed by the state appeals court (see City of Worcester v. College Hill Props., LLC, 80 Mass.App.Ct. 757 (2011)), the state Supreme Judicial Court made the following analysis of the
- Construing "lodgings" as the city suggests would lead to absurd results and selective enforcement.
The city argued during a hearing before the Housing Court judge, as it did before us, that a building with three dwelling units could contain some units that are "lodgings" and others that are apartments.
Under the city's view, a three-unit building with four unrelated students in the first-floor apartment, five siblings of the lessor in the second-floor apartment, and seven children of the lessor in the third-floor apartment, would contain "lodgings" requiring a "lodging house" license only as to the first-floor dwelling unit, the unit housing the fewest occupants.
If the four students moved out, and a family of three moved in, the first-floor dwelling unit would transform from "lodgings" to a dwelling unit no longer subject to the lodging house act.
This is an absurd result.
"[B]y-laws must be construed reasonably. . . . [They] should not be so interpreted as to cause absurd or unreasonable results when the language is susceptible of a sensible meaning." (Citations omitted.) North Shore Realty Trust v. Commonwealth, 434 Mass. 109, 112 (2001), quoting Green v. Board of Appeal of Norwood, 358 Mass. 253, 258 (1970). See Lexington v. Bedford, 378 Mass. 562, 570 (1979).
Moreover, during argument before us, the city acknowledged that, under its interpretation of "lodgings," the lodging house act would apply to a family of seven renting an apartment from an unrelated landlord, and would apply if a new baby were added to a family of three, but asserted that the city would not enforce the statutory provisions in those circumstances.
We will not adopt an interpretation of a statute which relies upon selective enforcement of the statutory provisions. Cf. Commonwealth v. Lora, 451 Mass. 425, 439-440 & n. 27 (2008); Cote-Whitacre v. Department of Pub. Health, 446 Mass. 350, 376-377 (2006) (Spina, J. concurring).