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Sometimes a teacher, always a student.

As landlord attorneys, we are often asked to be the teacher, counselor, and expert regarding the world of CT landlord-tenant law. Our understanding and comprehension of how the laws interact with each other, along with how certain strategies and efforts can assist or harm the landlord, is much more comprehensive than most. It ought to be. It’s what we do – it’s ALL we do. It’s why our clients hire us.

In this role, the definition between teacher and student if very clearly defined and identifiable. However, this may not always be the case. Often, we find that if we, as teachers, simply step back and listen to others, we may find that the role of teacher and student is very easily reversed.

A recent interaction with my son helped remind me of this fact…

If you are like me at all, we spend much of our time with our children trying to teach them things. Whether it is proper manners, how to solve a math equation, or how to put their clothes in the laundry basket, almost every interaction we have with our children is a teaching moment that we eagerly seize and make the most of. But surprisingly, this past week I had a learning moment that I now realize, is more important than any teaching moment I’ve ever had with my son.

It all began when my daughter – a voracious reader – spent her entire Saturday, including the duration of two baseball games, reading a new book for her – The Hunger Games. Now, not only did she read it, she devoured it. What’s that you say? The Hunger Games is already out on video? Well, the rule in our house is that we don’t watch the movie until everyone who can, reads the book first. My son, her twin, prefers movies over books almost as much as he enjoys a challenge. So a challenge was set forth before him – read The Hunger Games in a day. He was dead set on completing the task and I, partially joking, even upped the ante that if he did read it in a day, there would be a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow along with the movie debut.

Now, the learning moment. As described above, the exchange with my son seemed clear enough. We all seemed to be on the same page. No confusion, just reading. Boy was I wrong. Turns out the concept of “reading the book” in a day (with a prize for the accomplishment) became quite the obsession for my son.

When I arrived home that evening, I was met with his gigantic smile as he announced that he was but a single chapter from completion. Excited for him, I eagerly started asking him a few simple questions about sections of the book that I particularly enjoyed. Oddly, my questions were met with a number of blank stares and even a few wild guesses. It didn’t take me long to realize that he hadn’t “read the book” – at least not by my definition. Seems he had looked at each and every word on those pages, but had very little recollection or familiarity with what the book was actually all about.
The fault was not his. He took the goal – read the book – and worked diligently toward its completion. It was only by listening to him tearfully explain his understanding of the task, that I learned where we went wrong – my expectations regarding the outcome were quite a bit different than his. I never took the time to ensure there was clarity and understanding regarding the challenge.

So, why do I share this story with you? Primarily because as mentioned earlier, as landlord attorneys, we are often asked to play the role of teacher, counselor, and expert. Many would assume that means that WE do all the talking, while our clients LISTEN and LEARN all the lessons. However, as I once again appreciated with my son, it is also critically important that we assume the role of student and listen to our clients. Not only must we listen to the words, we must listen to the message and the emotion that underlies that message. If I had asked the right questions of my son, and then listened to his responses, I would have quickly learned that we were out of synch regarding our expectations behind him completing the book.

Our clients come to us with facts and circumstances that must all be considered when developing a case. As their attorney, it is our responsibility to ask the right questions and then assume the role of student – LISTENING and LEARNING all there is to know about the situation. It is only with a complete understanding of the facts that we can then outline the shared expectations and deliver the advice they seek from us as their teacher and attorney.

Shuffling the housing court judges.

As many of you may know, every two years, the judges that preside over housing court cases change as part of the CT Judicial Branch’s effort to expose judges to different types of cases in the judicial system, as well as to bring a new perspective to the conflicts that occur between landlords and tenants. That rotation of judges has just occurred throughout the state.

Translation? The next time you are in court, you may not recognize the person in the black robe that everyone is calling “Your Honor.”

More importantly, how will this change affect you and your cases in housing court? Mostly it’s just a transition period while everyone learns:

The manner in which the new judges want to hear evidence,
The timing expected for hearing motions that are scheduled for the day’s docket, and
The total number of cases the court will try to resolve this week.
Lastly, don’t be surprised if you are asked to attend court more frequently over the next few months as everyone becomes familiar with the new face and the new rituals that the new housing court judge brings to your courtroom.

Certificates of occupancy may be CRITICALLY necessary.

In many Connecticut towns and cities, a landlord must obtain a certificate of occupancy with the involvement of the building, housing, health, and/or fire code officials before renting a commercial unit or residential apartment to a tenant. Without one, a landlord may not be able to collect rent or evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent, may face civil penalties, and – as discussed in our July 2012 article “Illegal unit sends landlord to prison” – could face significant criminal penalties (including jail time) if something bad happens to the tenants.

The key point: make sure you know whether you MUST have a certificate of occupancy, and then confirm if you – in fact – have the necessary certificate in place or are actively addressing the subject.

A recent New York case starkly presented the risks involved with a ruling from its highest appellate court, called the Court of Appeals of New York (the equivalent of the Connecticut Supreme Court). A key note: we share this case not because New York and Connecticut law are the same (they are not), but because it shows the potentially severe negative impacts that can occur if landlords are not aware of – and either compliant with, or actively engaging with an attorney to address – local building, housing, health, and fire code requirements.

In the New York case, a landlord attempted to convert a commercial building into loft apartments, a subject covered by specific New York statutes that require the landlord to obtain a residential certificate of occupancy before renting one of the apartments. The New York tenant had not paid rent for nine (9) years, and the landlord had neither obtained a certificate of occupancy nor applied for an extension of time to meet the statutory requirements for one. After the landlord won at the trial court level, the tenant appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals noted that the statutes were clear – a landlord must have a certificate of occupancy for such apartments, unless the landlord was having difficulty meeting the required safety and fire protection standards, and had applied for an extension of time to obtain the certificate, a process defined in and allowed by the statutes. During any extension of time, the landlord could collect a regulated amount of rent. However, if there is no certificate of occupancy or governing extension of time, the statutes prohibit the landlord from collecting rent and from evicting the tenant for nonpayment of rent.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that the landlord could neither collect rent nor evict the tenant of nonpayment of rent. Not a good day for that New York landlord.

Returning to Connecticut, contact your landlord attorney if you have any questions about what your town and/or city code requirements are, how to address your needing (or not having) any required certificate of occupancy, or how to address a tenant who has not paid rent (or is otherwise violating the lease or governing statutes) in this situation.

The Landlord Law Firm adds a new attorney.

The Landlord Law Firm is thrilled to announce the addition of our newest team member, Attorney Joseph Abraham.

A native of Connecticut, we welcome Joe from his previous post as the courtroom clerk for the Hartford Housing Court Judge, Vernon Oliver where Joe was responsible for managing not only the docket as it flows before the judge, but also all motion hearings, trials, and evidentiary issues. In other words, Joe is one of the few people in the state who has seen more housing trials than the Landlord Law Firm, and he got to see them all – from the other side of the bench.

This awesome experience has not only prepared Joe to hit the ground running with our firm, but has also brought an incredible amount of insight and perspective that is sure to serve our clients well. Additionally, Joe arrives at the Landlord Law Firm knowing almost all of the names and faces throughout the state’s courthouse support system, another invaluable resource.

Joe grew up in West Hartford where he honed his skills as a golfer and cross-country runner. His passion for running kept him on the track or the trails throughout high school and college and he continues to enjoy a little five mile getaway every chance he gets. Joe is an avid sports fan whose five mile jaunts sometimes end with a quick scamper up the face of one of CT’s daunting cliffs.

Please help us welcome Joe Abraham to the firm. We are certain he will be taking advantage of his incredible courtroom experience and perspective for his new responsibilities at The Landlord Law Firm.