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Sobelsohn v. American Rental Management Co.

May 31, 2007


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (No. SC5154-03) (Hon. Cheryl M. Long, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Senior Judge

Argued January 10, 2006

Before FISHER, Associate Judge, and STEADMAN and SCHWELB,*fn1 Senior Judges.

Before us is a small claims appeal by an aggrieved tenant.

At the time in question, appellant David Sobelsohn had been for some ten years the lessee of an eighth-floor penthouse apartment, including a large private outdoor patio or "roof deck," in a 328-unit apartment building at 201 Eye Street, Southwest, managed by appellee American Rental Management Company (ARMC). For several months, ARMC was engaged in major repair and improvement work on other parts of the apartment building, notably lower-floor balconies. During the course of that work, the noise levels in his apartment during weekday daytime hours became "intense." Furthermore, ARMC made use of Sobelsohn's roof deck in various ways to secure scaffolding with cables and to store equipment.

Sobelsohn brought a small claims action against ARMC seeking damages for the interference with his full use of the leased apartment and roof deck.*fn2 After a bench trial,*fn3 the court ruled that while the noise level may have been intense, as Sobelsohn claimed, and ARMC may indeed have intruded to some extent on the patio, Sobelsohn was entitled to no relief of any kind under controlling legal principles. He filed an application for allowance of appeal with this court, which we granted. We conclude that the trial court too narrowly construed the legal doctrines upon which Sobelsohn might have established ARMC's liability and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. General Legal Principles

Traditionally, at common law, the essence of the landlord-tenant relationship was the delivery by the landlord to the tenant of the possessory rights to the leased property for the term of the lease. The only implied obligation of the landlord was under the implied "covenant of quiet enjoyment," essentially a covenant of title, which assured the tenant that his possessory interest would not be invaded by the landlord or by anyone with rights superior to those of the landlord. Thus, the lease was viewed as essentially a property transaction, a conveyance of an interest in land.

In the seminal case of Javins v. First Nat'l Realty Corp., 138 U.S. App. D.C. 369, 428 F.2d 1071, cert. denied, 400 U.S. 925 (1970), a case binding on us,*fn4 this traditional approach was swept aside. The court recognized the reality that "[w]hen American city dwellers, both rich and poor, seek 'shelter' today, they seek a well known package of goods and services -- a package which includes not merely walls and ceilings, but also adequate heat, light and ventilation, serviceable plumbing facilities, secure windows and doors, proper sanitation, and proper maintenance." Id. at 372, 428 F.2d at 1074 (footnote omitted). Hence, the court held, "leases of urban dwelling units should be interpreted and construed like any other contract." Id. at 373, 428 F.2d at 1075. Fundamental to contract interpretation is the task of protecting the legitimate expectations of the parties as reflected in the contract terms, the circumstances under which the contract is made, and the relevant statutes and regulations pertaining to such contracts. "Contract principles established in other areas of the law provide a more rational framework for the apportionment of landlord-tenant responsibilities . . . ." Id. at 378, 428 F.2d at 1080.

In Javins, the court held that an implied warranty of habitability would be read into every residential lease. Id. Dealing in that case with an implied obligation to repair, the court ruled that the warranty would be measured by the requirements of the Housing Code imposing repair obligations upon the landlord in such circumstances. Id. at 379-80, 428 F.2d at 1081-82. The same court shortly thereafter was willing to find other implied covenants by the landlord arising from the circumstances of a leasehold. See Kline v. 1500 Massachusetts Ave. Apartment Corp., 141 U.S. App. D.C. 370, 378, 439 F.2d 477, 485 (1970) ("there is implied in the contract between landlord and tenant an obligation on the landlord to provide those protective measures which are within his reasonable capacity").

Even if the warranty of habitability is limited to issues involving the physical condition of the premises, the obligation has been recognized that a landlord will not act in other ways that interfere unreasonably with permissible uses of the leased premises. RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF PROPERTY: LANDLORD AND TENANT § 6.1 (1977), expounds the principle in this manner:

Except to the extent the parties to a lease validly agree otherwise, there is a breach of the landlord's obligations if, during the period the tenant is entitled to possession of the leased property, the landlord, or someone whose conduct is attributable to him, interferes with a permissible use of the leased property by the tenant.

Included as examples of such breaches are unauthorized possession of part of the premises and excessive noise in common areas. Id. at § 6.1 cmt. b.

With this general background, we examine first the claim for damages relating to the noise and then the claim ...

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