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Minjak Co. Randolph

    Brief Fact Summary. A couple’s residence became difficult to live in after the building went under construction, and they could not use a portion of it.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a suit is brought for nonpayment of rent, a tenant may assert as a defense the doctrine of construction eviction, even if he has abandoned only a portion of the premises due to the landlord’s acts, which made that portion unsuitable for use.

    Facts. Randolph and Kikuchi (Respondents) rented a loft space from Minjak Co. (Petitioner). Petitioner gave them a commercial lease, even though Respondents told Petitioner they would use the space as their residence and at the time of the signing, the building was used predominantly for residential purposes. Respondents used two-thirds of the space as a music studio. Another tenant began to use his unit as a health spa, with fully functioning jacuzzis, bathtubs, and saunas. At least 40 leaks appeared in Respondents’ apartment, and though they complained, Petitioner did not respond. Petitioner began construction work on the building, and the work was hazardous and caused health problems to Respondents. The dangerous construction prevented Respondents from using the music studio portion of the loft.

    Issue. May the doctrine of constructive eviction be used as a defense to the nonpayment of rent, if the tenant only abandons only a portion of the premises?

    Held. Yes.
    A tenant may assert as a defense to the nonpayment of rent the doctrine of constructive eviction, even if he or she abandons only a portion of the premises due to the landlord’s acts in making that portion unsuitable for use.
    Respondents were compelled to abandon the music studio portion of the loft due to the landlord’s wrongful acts, which substantially and materially deprived the tenants of the use and enjoyment of that part of the loft.
    Respondents only need to pay a portion of the rent for the months a part of the premises was uninhabitable.
    Punitive damages may be awarded in breach of warranty of habitability cases when the landlord’s actions or inactions were intentional and malicious. The determining factor is the moral culpability of the defendant. Here, the landlord permitted the construction work to be done in a dangerous and offensive manner with a disregard for the rights and safety of others.

    Discussion. Housing is difficult to acquire, so people should not be required to move out because only a portion is uninhabitable. Instead, the doctrine of partial constructive eviction can be used by tenants to defend against actions by landlords when the premises become partially uninhabitable.


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