Monday, June 19, 2006

Evictions from a "Manufactured Home Community"

Under Michigan law, as is quite reasonable, landlords are granted immunity for damage which results to a tenant's property incidental to their executing a lawful order of eviction. Or, at least, that's the way I always read the statute:
(2) Any tenant in possession of premises whose possessory interest has been unlawfully interfered with by the owner, lessor, licensor, or their agents shall be entitled to recover the amount of his actual damages or $200.00, whichever is greater, for each occurrence and, where possession has been lost, to recover possession. Unlawful interference with a possessory interest shall include:

* * *

(b) The removal, retention, or destruction of personal property of the possessor.

* * *

(3) The provisions of subsection (2) shall not apply where the owner, lessor, licensor, or their agents can establish that he:

(a) Acted pursuant to court order ...
Many years ago I worked with a highly ethical manufactured home community, such that I was never asked to interpret the boundaries of this statute. But if asked, I would have indicated that to me the immunity extended only to damage incidental to the execution of a court's order. That is, nobody in his right mind would confuse an order of eviction with a court's grant of permission to trash a tenant's property, but if something were accidentally dropped, dinged, dented or damaged during the eviction process the landlord would be safe from a lawsuit. With a manufactured home, that would include damage incidental to the removal of the home from its foundation and utilities hookups, and which might occur during transport due to the contents being unsecured.

Boy, would my advice have been excessively cautious. You see, as it turns out (albeit by the terms of an unpublished and therefore non-precedentially binding decision) the landlord and his agents would enjoy absolute immunity for any damage they caused to the tenant's property, even if resulting in the total loss or destruction of the property.
Plaintiffs contend that nothing in the law provides immunity against the willful, wanton, or negligent destruction of the tenant's property. However, under the plain language of MCL 600.2918(2)(b) and (3)(a), a lessor and its agents are protected from claims alleging the unlawful "removal, retention, or destruction" of the possessor's personal property if the lessor and its agents acted pursuant to a court order. Although the alleged conduct in this case is disturbing and the disposition harsh, we emphasize that even under the process pursued in this case (as opposed to the arguably more proper mobile home proceedings), plaintiffs had notice and opportunity to avoid the misfortune that ensued.
(emphasis in original). First, as I read the facts outlined by the court, the Plaintiffs were not alleging negligent destruction - they were alleging intentional destruction (and conversion) of their property:
According to plaintiffs, defendants began using electrical saws to demolish a sun porch attached to the mobile home and were throwing shrubs, trees, and large pieces of wood from the porch through closed windows of the home, breaking the glass, while Annette Sickles was still inside the home. Plaintiffs asserted that they asked Stern Construction to stop damaging their home and its contents, but Stern Construction refused. Plaintiffs alleged that Hometown America was peeling off aluminum skirting and throwing it on a trailer with the intent of later selling it at a recycling center.

Plaintiffs claimed they again asked defendants to stop so they could retrieve some of their personal belongings, but defendants again refused to stop. According to plaintiffs, they stopped removing items from the home because those items were for all practical purposes destroyed; Annette Sickles then began removing personal belongings from a shed located on the lot. At that point defendants allegedly stopped destroying the home and immediately proceeded to "cut up" the shed, which resulted in its walls collapsing and destroying plaintiffs' personal property in the shed. Plaintiffs asserted that several of defendants' employees were laughing while they worked.

According to plaintiffs, on July 28, 2004, Stern Construction transferred the home and its contents to a dump. In alleged accordance with specific instructions from Hometown America, Stern Construction destroyed the home by bulldozing it into a hole and then covering it with garbage. Plaintiffs stated that everything they owned was destroyed except for a few items they were able to remove.
(emphasis added).

You see, to me the requirement that the landlord and its agents "Acted pursuant to court order" in order to gain immunity suggests that there is no immunity when the landlord and its agents engage in acts which cannot reasonably be construed as being a part of the execution of an order of lawful eviction. Intentionally destroying a tenant's property, stripping aluminum siding for resale, or having the remaining structure bulldozed into a landfill a day after the eviction is complete would fall outside of the scope of the eviction order, and would thus not be protected.

I'm not entirely sure that the Court of Appeals really intends to excuse this type of intentional misconduct - at least in future cases. If they did, presumably, they would not have characterized the alleged acts as "negligence". The acts described don't seem particularly different from a landlord's completing an eviction from a house or apartment by hauling the tenant's possessions down to the street, then selling them in a yard sale, selecting desired items to take and keep, or running over them with a truck. Negligence? (The Court of Appeals decision recited that the Plaintiffs' claimed conversion. Negligent conversion?)

As for the notion that the tenants brought it on themselves by not acting sooner? Of course they could have taken steps to avoid or minimize their damages - but it's the case any time a tenant is subjected to forcible eviction, so I'm not seeing how it is relevant to the court's analysis.

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