From the desk of Kyle Riley: Absent some clear direction from the legislature, emotional distress damages are recoverable for a statutory violation only if the violation sounds in intentional tort.
Claims Pointer: When a residential property is deemed uninhabitable, a landlord owes a statutory duty to the tenant to provide monetary relocation assistance. However, a failure to provide this assistance, while possibly intentional, does not allow a tenant to recover emotional distress damages.
Segura v. Cabrera, 31118-0-III, 2014 WL 768450 (Wash. Ct. App. Feb. 27, 2014)
Defendants (the “Landlords”) purchased a house to use as a residential rental. The city licensed them to rent the house only as a single dwelling but they later converted the basement into a second unit. The Landlord’s leased the basement unit to plaintiffs Mr. Segura and Ms. Gonzalez (the “Tenants”). Five days later, the city’s code enforcers inspected the house and found the basement unit uninhabitable and unpermitted. The code enforcers ordered the Tenants to vacate the basement unit in 20 days and limited the use of the property to a single family dwelling. The Tenant’s then delivered a written demand for monetary relocation assistance to the Landlords per statutory requirement.
The Tenants sued the Landlords claiming statutory relocation assistance after the Landlords notified the Tenants to vacate the premises and refused to provide monetary relocation assistance. The Tenants moved for summary judgment on their relocation assistance claim requesting damages totaling $4,750, including $2,000 in relocation assistance, $600 in prepaid rent, $600 in rent deposit, $150 in electricity deposit, $200 in fuel, and $1,200 “for the anxiety, worry, inconvenience, and upheaval inflicted upon the plaintiffs and their children,” or emotional distress damages.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the Tenants for all their requested damages except emotional distress damages, deciding that they were not recoverable as actual damages under the statute. On reconsideration, the court clarified, “the relationship of the parties arises from a contract to lease real property. The misconduct on the part of the landlord was intentional[,] but it is not an intentional tort. The damages are limited to those identified in the statute.” The Tenant’s appealed the trial court’s refusal to award them emotional distress damages.
On appeal, the Tenants argued that they may recover emotional distress damages because the statute’s “actual damages” language includes emotional distress damages and the statute’s “knew or should have known” language sounds in intentional tort, for which emotional distress damages are recoverable. In its analysis, the Court noted that the Residential Landlord–Tenant Act, where the statute derives from, does not define the words “actual damages.” Therefore, these words are ambiguous because they could reasonably include or exclude emotional distress damages.
The Court noted that absent some clear direction from the legislature, emotional distress damages are recoverable for a statutory violation only if the violation sounds in intentional tort. The Court observed that the damages in the subject statute arise primarily from contract rather than in intentional tort. The Court further stated that if “actual damages” included emotional distress damages, this would be inconsistent with the statute’s purpose. The statute exists primarily to provide monetary relocation assistance. These funds are not compensatory but an approximation of what a typical displaced tenant likely needs from a landlord to rent another residence. Because a landlord may violate the statute by conduct not amounting to an intentional tort, a displaced tenant may not recover emotional distress damages under the statute. The court noted that the statutes “actual damages” are limited to reasonable moving expenses. While relocation can be notoriously frustrating, moving expenses do not include emotional distress damages. Therefore, the Court held a displaced tenant may not recover emotional distress damages for a landlord’s violation of statute. Accordingly, the trial court did not err.
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