KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- The Vermont Supreme Court has upheld a local decision siding with tenants at Willowbrook Apartments who took a dispute over rent and fines to civil court.
‘Strikingly similar’ cases
The decision, released Friday, consolidated two dockets, one Bennington Housing Authority v. Krista A. Saunders and Adam Rousseau, the other the Bennington Housing Authority v. Danielle Lake. The decision said the facts of the two cases are "strikingly similar."
The Bennington Housing Authority (BHA) is a Public Housing Authority operating under federal regulations.
According to the decision, the BHA appealed decisions made in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division that dismissed ejectment claims made against Saunders, Rousseau, and Lake and upheld counter-claims made by the tenants.
According to the decision, Saunders and Rousseau occupied one unit of Willowbrook Apartments while Lake lived in another. The lower court ruled that the BHA " failed to properly advise tenants of their right to request a grievance hearing when it billed them for repairs and fines," and "that BHA’s policy of fining tenants for open windows in the winter is prohibited under federal regulations."
According to the Vermont Supreme Court, on June 14, 2010, the BHA sent notices to the tenants saying they would be evicted on July 16 of that year because of failures to pay rent and fines. The letter informed they could request a hearing and a meeting had been scheduled between them and BHA Executive Director Deborah Reed, "at which time [tenants] will be given an opportunity to make such reply or explanation as [they] may wish."
According to the Vermont Supreme Court, Lake and Saunders attended a meeting with Reed, and they expressed concerns over their rent. According to the decision a payment schedule was established by Reed for Saunders which Saunders was not able to meet.
"Both tenants stated that neither the letter nor their individual meetings with Reed made clear that they could request a grievance hearing or a hearing to challenge the charges to their accounts. Both tenants felt that they had no option but to pay BHA or be evicted," wrote the Supreme Court.
The matter went to civil court in October 2010, when the tenants brought counterclaims against the BHA alleging it failed to go by federal regulations regarding billing and argued against its fine for open windows. The trial court sided with the tenants, saying the lease termination notice nor the bills sent informed the tenants of the grievance procedure. It also ordered the BHA to remove the charges for the window fines and maintenance and repair fees.
"BHA maintains that simply having a grievance procedure in place, referenced in a tenant’s lease, and providing a copy with the lease is enough to fulfill its obligations..." wrote the Supreme Court in the decision. It wrote that while the BHA complied with federal regulations by having a grievance procedure and notifying tenants of it in the lease, it failed to provide that information in the termination notice which the higher court said the law requires.
"To this end, the wording of BHA’s termination notice does not rise to the level of ‘inform[ing] the tenant of the right to request such hearing.’"
The court said the same held for the other bills and fines.
According to the decision, the BHA fines tenants for having windows open when the outside temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. First and second violations are at $50 while third and subsequent violations are $75. According to the court this was done to control heating costs and the BHA defended it because federal law does allow for fines and fees on tenants "for consumption of excess utilities."
The court said surcharges can be used for major utilities and Public Housing Authority furnished equipment. The Supreme Court indicated the BHA had suggested the windows qualified as equipment.
"Notwithstanding BHA’s creative argument, windows are not PHA-furnished equipment," The court wrote in the decision. "Furthermore, the arbitrary cost assessed by BHA for open windows is enough to make BHA’s policy impermissible under federal regulations."