An interview with Steven W. Smollens: law and history in NYC

Steven W. Smollens has practiced landlord and tenant law in New York City for 34 years.

I have (in my History of the Misery of Bed Bugs collection) a set of notes, passed along like contraband, of his New York County Lawyers’ Association Jack Newton Lerner Lecture on bed bugs, Bed Bugs, Constructive Eviction, Warranty of Habitability: Comments and Cases — an outline of the wonderful story of early bed bug litigation in the city.

When May Berenbaum’s recent NYT op-ed offered (as evidence for the changing fortunes of the persecuted bed bug?) a memorable phrase from an early 20th century New York decision — “[Bedbugs] can be dealt with by the tenant by processes known to all housewives” — I bethought myself my Smollens lecture notes

Mr. Smollens indulged my questions.

New York vs Bed Bugs: Why look at early 20th century case law in the first place? Are bed bugs and the law like bed bugs and science, where we’re missing quite a big chunk of development and thought?

Steven W. Smollens: That is a potent observation. Science left the bedbug alone for a long time. With the bedbug gone, and modern insecticides left to cope with less offensive insects, when the bedbug came back, there were initially few treatments considered legal and lethal. While our coping skills were not honed to the bedbug spread, our own modern life helped the bedbug move in to one home and business after another.

When the bedbug problem was novel, we did not pay much attention. We missed out on chances to change certain patterns, to make the risks less, and to stem the spread. We passed up early warning, education, and training for exterminators, public officials, tenants, landlords, shopkeepers, travelers, public transportation operators, used furniture and mattress sellers, flea market vendors, college dormitory authorities and the like. The public’s lack of alertness and government’s slow pace, along with housing maintenance codes ill-suited for the new pestilence, has made for a variety of claims for successful pest eradication; but often failure to control is easily passed on to the tenant, or a neighbor or the building manager or landlord and it is hard to support one method of bedbug elimination over any other.

It comes down to “now we know it.” For nearly eighty years, there was not a new bedbug case decided in New York courts involving landlord and tenant. Today’s New York court case will typically involve the application of our Warranty of Habitability statute. But by the first time a warranty of habitability and bedbug case came into the court’s domain for decision, we had missed the chance to an early end to the bedbug’s spread. Today, we can learn a lot from how bedbugs influenced our older landlord and tenant law. We should be able to see ourselves in the tenants who lived in our city one hundred years ago, and realize that by the time bedbugs made it to court at that time, bedbugs were all around.

Early on city life was treated similarly to living in the country. Judges were bound by the state of the law and judges applied the law as it existed to the new circumstances. At the start the law was applied without taking into account the difference in the setting. The loss of control a tenant had over the home in an apartment living in a city is not found when living in a house in the fields. The law gyrated in examining deprivations in habitability and gradually left behind the common law basis of our landlord and tenant law, that the tenant was the equal of a buyer in a market place and thus “let the buyer beware” slowly exited.

The difficulty faced by our earlier city dwellers when confronted by bedbugs was accepted at first as a problem that could be easily handled. That approach took time to change. The law itself developed to recognize that tenants could face problems in their homes, not anticipated by the tenant and the landlord, and not solvable, that would justify breaking of the lease by the tenant and the nonpayment of a portion of the agreed rent.

Today, we have bedbugs in an environment where our city dweller has little or no practical experience in fixing anything at all, let alone a mature insect infestation. Yet, as a community, we have as ancient an approach as we did long ago, when almost every tenant was assumed to have skills to cope with this problem.

Today while the notion is that the landlord must eradicate the bedbugs, in the absence of science, landlords and exterminators, and city agencies, all place an immense pressure upon the tenant to make the home ready for the techniques used by the pest control experts. Unlike any other condition in one’s home, other than perhaps a fire or a flash flood, bedbugs force the tenant into a virtual move-out while still maintaining the apartment as a home. No other home repair requires the tenant to pack all personal belongings, clothing, papers, books, and remove furniture or carpets, and take down pictures, and launder in hot water and then store all garments, or to dry-clean and store away from the home, and to encapsulate mattresses and box springs, just for a start, before extermination can begin. The old days of do-it-self with ant or roach spray do not apply against the bedbug. We are truly not prepared for the dislocation that a bedbug can present.

The harshest reality for our tenants and landlords today is that there is no guarantee that extermination will do the job. Tenants must put their home on hold while waiting out a bedbug life cycle to learn if the insect and its progeny are gone from the home. And because the bedbug is very good at lying dormant, each tenant pins the hope for insect-free living on the skill of the exterminator, the willingness of the landlord to see the eradication through and the cooperation of neighbors. As we are now all too aware, that will not prevent a hitchhiking bedbug to come back again to your home or to a neighbor’s. Living in an apartment in a near-permanent state of packed-up is disheartening.

Constructive Eviction

I looked upon the case law developed in the NY Courts late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, as a means to discover how judges grappled with the responsibility of a landlord to the tenant, for habitable housing, in an age where the common law rule was best expressed as “The tenant hires at his peril and a rule similar to caveat emptor applies and throws on the lessee the responsibility of examining as to the existence of defects in the premises and of providing against their ill effects…” (Benjamin Franklin v. Mary Brown, 118 N.Y. 110, 23 N.E. 124, Court of Appeals, 1889).

The early cases evolved from the creation of a new legal doctrine, called “constructive eviction.” The law that an “eviction,” whether total or partial, created a full defense against the landlord suing for remaining unpaid rent expanded to making the “constructive eviction” of the tenant a total defense against a landlord’s post-tenancy rent claim.

Previous, but for a breach of lease by the landlord or an actual or partial eviction from the property, tenants had few merit defenses, such as the rent sued for was in fact paid, and so-called “technical defenses.” Those technical defenses, dealing with the rent demand and the service of process, and notice of commencement of the case were similar to the defenses currently utilized by tenants in modern courts. Eerily, the ancient technical cases, read as though written in the modern era, because the so-called “technical defenses” are as real today as when first applied to the modern standard lawsuit for an eviction, the “summary proceeding.”

The early-era version of the summary proceeding (very similar to the modern form) for litigating an eviction cause for a landlord was invented in the early part of the 19th century as a “swift and expeditious remedy” to recover real property to provide a landlord a new method to evict a tenant, instead of the common law ejectment action.

New York State’s land owners convinced the New York legislature to create this new cause of action, in derogation of common law, to replace the common law ejectment action, because in common law the tenant was entitled to a jury trial and the “peers” often had more in common with the tenant-farmer than the wealthy land baron.

By itself, as a doctrine, “constructive eviction” grew from the body of early cases that recognized that an eviction of the tenant, by the landlord without court process, ended the tenant’s obligation to pay the rent that the tenant agreed to pay when the lease was made.

Courts then grappled with parsing the nature of the “eviction” itself, moving from the obvious outright physical ouster from the property [an “actual eviction”], to evictions that were “partial”, that means from a part of the rented or leased property [an “actual partial eviction” or a “partial eviction”] to actions more sublime, such as the landlord perpetrating a nuisance condition, by either directly causing the condition, or by not correcting the condition when informed.

A key element to the proof of a “constructive eviction” was that the condition that forced the tenant to abandon was not known or discoverable when the lease was made, could not when discovered be corrected by the tenant or by the landlord and, that also rendered the leased property unfit for the use actually contemplated by the lease. [Vermin or noxious smells in or about the house did not constitute eviction so as to justify abandonment of the premises by the tenant (Truesdell v. Booth, 4 Hun 100.) A bad smell in the pantry, and the kitchen being too hot with the stove in it, and bad smells from the front window, along with a stagnant pond of water near the place, bad smell from fish, and vermin in the bedrooms, were all matters that might have given some trouble to eradicate, yet none of them could be held sufficient to relieve the tenant from his liability, or to come within the rule that defines an eviction (Vanderbilt v. Persse, 3 E.D. Smith 428.)]

Courts looking to limit the doctrine of “constructive eviction” pointed to the written agreement made by the tenant and the landlord (the lease). “…The apartment in suit was not under the control of the plaintiff, and no evidence was given of any express covenant in the lease to keep the apartment free from vermin; and, in the absence of such a covenant, the lessee, under the circumstances detailed above and in the absence of fraud, deceit or wrong-doing on the part of the plaintiff, ran the risk of the condition of the property in that regard…” Franklin v. Brown, 118 N.Y. 110; Sherman v. Ludin, 79 A.D. 37.

In the newly discovered potential that an eviction could exist without a full or part physical ouster, the New York legislature sought to identify conditions that could exist and present a defense to a tenant, who quit the leased property, although owing a remainder portion of rent as agreed to in the lease.

“…Pomeroy v. Tyler, 9 N.Y. St. Rep. 514, was also a case very similar in its facts to the present one; and it was held, McAdam, Ch. J., writing the opinion, that the fact that the rooms occupied by the tenant were overrun with vermin, namely, bedbugs, cockroaches, croton-bugs and red ants, making it inconvenient to inhabit the premises and rendering them untenantable, did not constitute a constructive eviction of the tenant…

“…The following remarks of Chief Justice McAdam, in the course of such opinion, are especially applicable to the present case: ‘The legislature has passed a statute relieving tenants from their common law obligations, where the demised premises have been destroyed by fire, tempest or other sudden and unexpected event (Laws 1860, chap. 345; Suydam v. Jackson, 54 N.Y. 450), but the legislative sense of relief to tenants has not as yet reached the case of rats, mice, bugs, roaches or other vermin, and all questions as to them must be decided according to the wisdom of the common law. The inconvenience is one to which all more or less are subject at times; but which, with ordinary skill and attention, may be abated by the tenant.’“ Excerpt from Jacobs v. Morand, 59 Misc. 200, 59 Misc. 200, 110 N.Y.S. 208, 1908, (Supreme Court Of New York, Appellate Term.)

Even then, “constructive eviction” was a defense only if the courts recognized the condition that drove the tenant out of the home, as one so noxious and unsolvable, that the tenant’s swift departure evidenced the severity of the condition and the reasonableness of the departure.

“…Leases would not be worth the paper upon which they are written, if the engagements of parties could be set at naught upon such slight and trivial pretexts. To constitute a constructive eviction, there must be an intentional and injurious interference by the landlord, which deprives a tenant of the beneficial enjoyment of the demised premises, or materially impairs such beneficial enjoyment. An eviction depends upon the materiality of the deprivation. If trifling, and producing no substantial discomfort or serious inconvenience, it will be disregarded, and will not afford cause for the termination of the relation of landlord and tenant…” Excerpt from Seaboard Realty Co. v. Fuller, 33 Misc. 109, 67 N.Y.S. 146; (1900, Supreme Court Of New York, Appellate Term)

When judges first expanded the notion of constructive eviction to rental premises abandoned by the tenant due to uninhabitable conditions, the cases set the way for the eventual notion of a warranty that residential premises would be fit for human use. Many other jurisdictions adopted the warranty of habitability before New York. However, the judicial seeds for the New York warranty were set in the early 20th century bedbug cases.

New York vs Bed Bugs: Tell us about these cases. The 1908 decision is the case that would later be characterized as the “processes known to all housewives” case but it actually does not contain the phrase. That coinage belongs to another judge in 1913 who wasn’t actually deciding a bed bug case at all, if I understand correctly, but in trying to make an important distinction (one that I think prefigures the challenges of modern building-wide bed bug infestations where a single tenant acting alone does not really stand a chance) would open the door for yet another bed bug case…

Steven W. Smollens: The 1908 case is Jacobs v. Morand, and the court there relied upon another court’s decision, made in the case of Pomeroy v. Tyler, 9 N.Y. St. Rep. 514, where the quote goes as follows: “…the case of rats, mice, bugs, roaches or other vermin, and all questions as to them must be decided according to the wisdom of the common law. The inconvenience is one to which all more or less are subject at times; but which, with ordinary skill and attention, may be abated by the tenant…”

In 1913, in Barnard Realty Co. v. Bonwit, that became: “…The rule in Jacobs v. Morand (supra) in regard to bugs and ants within the apartment, which can be dealt with by the tenant by processes known to all housewives, should not be extended to cover offensive and unbearable nuisances outside of the apartment…”

Sometimes, the concept that the courts held to, that is, if a condition were bad but fixable, so that any ordinary person could find a way to deal with it, governed the language in place of the actual text. The “processes known to all housewives” was the sound bite that drove home the notion that courts were not going to protect rent-evading tenants, who after departing the home, were sued for the remainder of the rent, and then backwards, try to construct the “constructive eviction.” Judges knew, that if there were a tried and proven remedy, the abandonment by the tenant could not be defended.

The context for the “housewives” comes from Barnard v. Bonwit, the 1913 case:

“…This is an action to recover rent of an apartment. The defense was constructive eviction. The jury found for the defendant. The verdict having been set aside solely as contrary to law, the facts found are established. Defendant and his wife moved into an apartment on the top floor of a new apartment house on the 15th of September, 1910, and moved out on the 8th of November, 1910. The reason therefor was the disturbance caused by the nightly meetings and performances of rats in the walls and ceilings, coupled with a most offensive odor which increased until the place became untenantable.

There are two Appellate Term decisions, one (Jacobs v. Morand, 59 Misc. Rep. 200), in which the presence of bedbugs, croton bugs, red ants, etc., was held not to be sufficient to establish a constructive eviction; and the other (Madden v. Bullock, 115 N. Y. Supp. 723), which held that the loathsome stench of dead and decayed rats was sufficient.

Very large numbers of people live in tenement houses, apartment houses and apartment hotels in this city. Such tenants have, and can have, control only of the inside of their own limited demised premises. Conditions unknown to the ancient common law are thus created. This requires elasticity in the application of the principles thereof. An intolerable condition which the tenant neither causes nor can remedy seems to me warrants the application of the doctrine of constructive eviction. The rule in Jacobs v. Morand (supra) in regard to bugs and ants within the apartment, which can be dealt with by the tenant by processes known to all housewives, should not be extended to cover offensive and unbearable nuisances outside of the apartment. This tenant could not pull down the walls or the ceilings. He and his family ought not to be compelled to pay rent for an apartment in which they could not live.

This court has held that when the landlord had the entire control of the heating plant a failure to provide sufficient steam heat was enough to constitute constructive eviction. (Berlinger v. Macdonald, 149 App. Div. 5.) Of course that case is different from the one at bar because there it was within the power of the landlord to furnish the heat, and if he did not it was an act of omission upon his part. But here the jury have found the existence of an intolerable condition. The tenant did not cause it and could not remedy it. If any one could it was the landlord. He attempted to and failed. We think the flat dweller was justified in his abandonment of the premises. [Excerpt is from Barnard Realty Co. v. Bonwit, 155 A.D. 182, 184 (N.Y. App. Div. 1913)]

The first modern bed bug case, Streep v Simpson

1913 also brought the first modern bedbug case where the court’s analysis made the bedbug infestation the proper basis for finding a constructive eviction. It is worth noting, how present-day sounding the plight of the tenant was nearly one-hundred years ago:

Defendant, a tenant from year to year, was sued for the last month’s rent of a two-years’ occupancy of a flat in plaintiff’s apartment house which he abandoned just prior to the commencement of the last month in question. He sought to justify this abandonment upon the ground that he was constructively evicted owing to the presence of bedbugs in the house. The size of the apartment house does not appear save that there were two flats on a floor, the one occupied by the defendant being on the fourth floor. The defendant, with his family, had occupied this flat for eighteen months without observing the presence of the bugs. From that time on bedbugs were found in his flat, in the private hall thereof, in the parlor, dining-room, and bath-room, on the walls, in the closets, upon the clothing and in the beds to such an increasing and persistent extent as to cause the greatest discomfort and distress to the dwellers therein…

Shortly after having first observed them the defendant notified the landlord, and it appeared upon investigation that the bugs came from the flat underneath defendant’s. That flat was then occupied, but soon after became vacant, and the landlord employed an “exterminator,” who endeavored to drive the bugs both from the defendant’s flat and the one underneath, but without success; and despite the persistent efforts of this trained “exterminator,” coupled with those of the landlord, as well as the defendant and his wife and painters and decorators, the bedbugs continued to increase, befouling the walls, emitting odors and biting the occupants, and exhibiting in their migrations a tendency to abide in the defendant’s flat, probably because there were persons dwelling there. Such, in brief, is the proof, and so it may be said that the defendant’s flat was infested with bedbugs without his fault; and, as the court below has found a constructive eviction, can it be assumed on appeal that the premises were rendered untenantable and that the landlord must bear the loss of the rent?…

Observing the limitations placed by the Appellate Division upon the case of Jacobs v. Morand, as to bugs within the apartment which can be dealt with by the tenant himself, and applying the language of Mr. Justice Clarke, who wrote for the court in Barnard Realty Co. v. Bonwit, we have reached the conclusion that, under the circumstances shown, it could be found, as a fact, that the defendant was constructively evicted and that his abandonment of his tenancy was justifiable.

The proof here shows such a condition as amounted to an insufferable nuisance, and where its existence in an apartment house is in nowise attributable to the fault of the tenant, but arises and is due to conditions in another part of the same building into which the landlord may go and apply a remedy, if remediable, the tenant must be deemed to have been precluded from a beneficial enjoyment of the premises and his abandonment thereof bars the lessor’s action for the recovery of rent. Considering the landlord’s control over the vacant flat underneath for a period of about two months, and the defendant’s eagerness to afford him every opportunity and aid to rid the latter’s flat of the bugs, their presence cannot be said, as a matter of law, not to be due in some measure to the landlord’s fault, or, at least, to his inability to continue the habitableness of the defendant’s dwelling place. An eviction depends upon the materiality of the deprivation. If trifling, and producing no substantial discomfort or serious inconvenience, it will be disregarded and will not afford cause for the termination of the relation of landlord and tenant.” Seaboard Realty Co. v. Fuller, 33 Misc. Rep. 110.

Here the deprivation was most material. It was by no means trifling, and not only did it produce substantial discomfort and severe inconvenience but it amounted to an intolerable state. Whether or not the deprivation is material is a question of fact, and that having been found below in favor of the defendant the judgment should be affirmed, with costs. [The excerpt is from Streep v. Simpson, 80 Misc. 666, 666-669 (N.Y. Misc. 1913)]

The warranty of habitability

New York vs Bed Bugs: So, from an inconvenience to which all more or less are subject at times and processes known to all housewives, to an intolerable condition that the tenant did not cause and cannot remedy on his own. From caveat emptor to an incipient implied warranty of habitability — would that be an accurate way to put it? (But I thought the warranty of habitability was common law, so why did it take so long for it to be re-claimed?)

Steven W. Smollens: Well in fact, the warranty of habitability did not derive from our common law. Our law before we made statutes to define our law, was made in courts, by judges and lawyers and plain folks, taking their disputes to trial and then on to appeal.

Sometimes, those disputes involving claims for monetary damages were for less than $200 and were not finally determined until the battling opponents had made their way from a trial court to the Appellate Division. Along the way the law of Constructive Eviction was helped along by bedbugs and the dueling over which party, landlord or former tenant, was entitled to the rent.

Codified in Real Property Law § 235-b, as amended, the warranty of habitability had its genesis in the trial courts, where judges faced routinely the problems of urban tenants, whose landlords demanded payment of their rent, while not providing to their tenants the benefits they had “bargained” for in their rental agreement. New York law, slowly evolving from its agrarian roots, had not recognized the relationship between the tenant’s obligation to pay rent, and the landlord’s obligation to provide rental premises fit for human habitation.

Absent a fraud, there was “no law against letting a tumble-down house.” As long as there existed an abundance of rental housing, tenants were able to move away from their problems and take the risks inherent in establishing a constructive eviction.

Common sense concepts, involved in routine everyday life, such as grocery shopping (you would not expect to be required to pay for a full loaf of bread if the grocer were to sell only half a loaf) had no place in the relationship of landlord and tenant. As a lease had been found to be a conveyance of real property, the duty imposed by law upon the landlord was satisfied by the delivery of possession to the tenant.

Only the covenant of continued quiet enjoyment of the premises was impliedly warranted by the “conveyance” to the tenant by the landlord. As long as the tenant had the quiet (undisturbed) right to possession of the premises, the tenant remained duty bound to pay the rent, regardless of the conditions in the premises.

These concepts, existing at common law, of no duty to provide services by the landlord, led to landlords not providing maintenance or essential services, especially in areas tenanted by persons of low-income.

The law did not provide the tenant with the tools necessary to compel the landlord to provide essential services or make necessary repairs. Courts outside New York were the first to determine that a lease for residential property impliedly contained a warranty that the premises were habitable.

A lease was slowly seen as more a purchase of shelter than a transfer of real property, and so an implied fitness for the use intended (U.C.C. Sales) was seen as a more realistic approach to determine the obligations of landlords and tenants.

Our state moved into the modern era in 1975, well past the rest of the United States. At that time, an appeals court, the Appellate Division, Second Department declared: “…we relegate to the limbo of history the orthodox view of caveat lessee and hold that, unless expressly excepted, there is an implied warranty of habitability when a landlord leases premises for residential use…” [Excerpt from Tonetti v. Penati, 48 A.D.2d 25, 367 N.Y.S.2d 804 (A.D. Second Dept., 1975)]. That court cited with approval the similar warranty of habitability decisions made in jurisdictions outside New York, e.g., Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, California and New Hampshire.

The New York State legislature, quickly grabbed the warranty of habitability from the judges, and went further to provide that the warranty is implied in every lease for residential property and could not be excluded from a lease by a contrary express lease provision.

“Too many people remain unaware how many bedbugs can hide out in an ordinary picture frame”

New York vs Bed Bugs: Care to consider what might come next? What refinements do you think are necessary in order to comprehend the magnitude of the current situation? We see landlords and tenants struggling to get relief from each other and just chaos all around. Is the law adequate to the challenges faced by landlords and tenants with this pest? What do you see in your own practice? Or, put another way, what holes do you see legislators might try to fill?

Steven W. Smollens: Right now, as summer draws to a close, we are seeing more media attention, television and radio advertising, and other expressions to make the bedbug infestation more obvious and open. There are billboards along the road, and bedbug sniffing dogs appearing on morning news programs and newspaper articles to work on getting the message out. I have not seen a public service advertisement, or heard one on radio, and if I have missed any, then there are not enough. In a city where in any campaign season we are inundated with political literature, that form of attention grabbing saturation may help spread information and recognition of the growing potential of the bedbugs invasion.

Pest Control persons are candid that there is no one sure-fire method for success in any given bedbug problem, and many residents are not able to face-down the direction to empty all closets, clean and bag all clothing, pack and seal up everything else, and are likely to fail the test for preparation. When tenants are informed that the bugs can hide inside radios, computers and other electronic devices, can scurry off to hide in cracks and crevices in walls and floors, and hide out in electric outlets, the expectation of failure is very high, that the tenant will not be able to get the apartment ready for the exterminator.

There will be need for new technology. The insects life cycle has to be interrupted. Used furniture and mattresses have to be located to a place without people. The habits of urban scavengers in rescuing other persons’ discarded sofas and chairs has to stop. Too many people remain unaware how many bedbugs can hide out in an ordinary picture frame.

There is a positive role for government at least in so far as sponsoring and producing Public Service Ads and other hand out literature. This does not mean that the law is not in need for some updating, but the law here should add to the potential of success and not look to punish for failure. There is a public interest in making sure that places where people congregate, shop, ride, teach and learn, are encouraged to be on constant vigilance mode. There is no simple problem as “just one bedbug.”

Property managers and tenants should know it is as dangerous to drag an unenclosed mattress through a building’s public areas, as it would be if the mattress were smoldering. An insect will easily drop off an infested mattress in the building hallway and could easily escape to another apartment. Furniture discards should be arranged in advance. Furniture as well as mattresses should be well-wrapped before disposal.

All that requires more widespread and consistent information. Government should be able to handle that. Community groups and tenant associations should be able to distribute literature and post flyers to spread awareness.

New York City has a statute relating to the mandatory eradication of pests insects and rodents. It would seem from a straightforward reading of the statute that there is a shared primary burden on the tenant and the landlord to assure the mandatory eradication of these pests. In some way we may still be of the mindset that every one of us knows the proper way to rid their home of those unwanted annoyances. However the literature associated with pest control suggests that amateurs should not deal with the problem. On the flip side, it should be clear that the landlord has the primary burden for eradication of pests where the problem is beyond any one “dwelling.”

Occupant in control

New York vs Bed Bugs: Finally, what is this business of “occupant in control”!? Please help us out with this. The New York City Housing Maintenance Code, is it a relic from just this era we’ve been discussing? What does this confounding phrase mean?

Steven W. Smollens: I have to agree that there is no sound reason for continuation of arcane language, especially when we need certainty as to who is in charge of pest control and maintenance of the structure. In a positive light, the “occupant in control” should be the same as “owner” and that may bring the attention of the Office of Code Enforcement upon the owner’s registered managing agent, the building’s superintendent, a net lessee of the building owner, a subtenant of a net lessee in control of the entire property. Perhaps it is a way to make more persons and entities associated with “owner” as responsible as the “owner” for keeping “…the premises free from rodents, and from infestations of insects and other pests, and from any condition conducive to rodent or insect and other pest life…”

That expansion to other responsible persons or entities is a means to gain a useful court or agency mandate against a real person or the person or entity actually in charge. I do not see that the term encompasses “tenant.” The Housing Maintenance Code is able to use the word or term “tenant” when it means tenant. So the absence of the word “tenant” from this section implies persons or entities as like the “owner” in control.

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