Owner Didn't Retaliate Against Resident for Complaints About Water Quality
Facts: A resident of a low-income housing site in the Virgin Islands complained to the owner that the water at the site was burning his face and eyes and smelled of Clorox. According to the resident, the owner responded that the resident was always complaining that the water was always either too green or too chlorinated, and he should choose which way he wanted it. The owner also stated, according to the resident, that the Clorox would dissipate and that it “would not kill him.” The resident claimed that he told the owner he would prefer clear, clean drinking water, and that she should exercise caution with regard to the use of Clorox. The owner eventually switched the water source to another cistern, and being satisfied that the water situation had been resolved at least temporarily, the resident paid his rent.
A short time later, the resident received a notice to quit and vacate the premises. After refusing to do so, he was served with a summons and complaint for a forcible entry and detainer action by the owner. During the eviction case, the owner testified that the lease was terminated “mainly because of persistent complaints about every little thing,” including a written demand by the resident that the owner purchase pull chains for lamps in one of the rooms. The owner also indicated that the resident had engaged in rude behavior with respect to his complaints. The resident claimed that by trying to evict him, the owner was illegally retaliating against him for his complaint about the water quality, in violation of fair housing law.
The trial court ruled in favor of the owner, and the resident appealed.
Ruling: The federal district court upheld the lower court's ruling for the owner.
Reasoning: Where the owner is motivated equally by several reasons, only one of which is the resident's complaint about a violation of a protective housing law, it is insufficient to establish retaliatory action, the court reasoned.
The record contains sufficient evidence to support a finding that the resident failed to establish that the primary motivation for eviction was his water quality complaint, the court concluded. The evidence introduced at trial did not indicate that the owner was primarily motivated to terminate the tenancy because he complained about the water quality. Rather, the court ruled, the evidence supports a conclusion that the termination of the tenancy was motivated, at least in equal part, by the resident's other complaints, which the owner regarded as petty and annoying, including a written demand that the owner replace a pull chain on a lamp.
Furthermore, the court ruled, in this case, where the owner already has resolved the condition the resident complained of before seeking eviction, the owner is less likely to have acted with retaliatory intent.
- James v. Victoria House, January 2011