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Board of Trustees of Village of Groton v. Pirro

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

June 15, 2017

BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE VILLAGE OF GROTON, Respondent,
v.
NORFE J. PIRRO et al., Appellants. In the Matter of NORFE J. PIRRO et al., Appellants,
v.
TIM WILLIAMS, as Chief of Police of the Village of Groton, et al., Respondents, and BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE VILLAGE OF GROTON, Respondent.

          Calendar Date: May 2, 2017

          Maines Firm, PLLC, Ithaca (Russell E. Maines of counsel), for appellants.

          Barney, Grossman, Dubow and Troy, LLP, Ithaca (William J. Troy III of counsel), for Board of Trustees of the Village of Groton, respondent.

          Sandra S. Park, Women's Rights Project American, New York City, for American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and others, amici curiae.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Garry, Lynch, Clark and Aarons, JJ.

          Garry, J.

         Appeal from an order and judgment of the Supreme Court (Rumsey, J.), entered July 8, 2016 in Tompkins County, which, among other things, (1) denied defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint in the action, and (2) partially dismissed petitioners' application, in a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78, to enjoin respondents from enforcing the Village of Groton Property and Building Nuisance Law.

         In April 2014, the Board of Trustees of the Village of Groton (hereinafter Board) passed Local Law No. 4 (2014) of the Village of Groton, entitled the "Property and Building Nuisance Law" (hereinafter Nuisance Law). This law establishes multiple methods by which a property may be identified as a public nuisance, and includes a system by which points are assigned for various forms of proscribed conduct, ranging from two points for minor offenses to 12 points for a broad variety of Penal Law violations. A property accumulating 12 or more points within six months or 18 or more points within one year, or upon which specified offenses occur, is deemed to be a public nuisance. Article II of the Nuisance Law provides that upon such a determination, the owner must be given written notice and an opportunity to abate the nuisance within specified time limits (see Local Law No. 4 [2014] of Village of Groton § 152-6 [C] [6]). Thereafter, the Board may authorize a civil action for relief including a permanent injunction, a temporary closing order or a penalty of up to $1, 000 per day. Article III establishes administrative remedies to be pursued by Village officials, such as ordering the property's closure or suspending its certificate of use.

         Norfe J. Pirro owns several residential rental properties, and is the managing member of Heritage Homestead Properties, LLC, which also owns residential rental properties in the Village. Several of these properties were formerly three- and four-unit apartment buildings, but have now been converted to "single room occupancy, " such that as many as a dozen individual tenants may lease rooms within a single structure. In September 2014, the Village notified Pirro that two of his properties had accumulated enough points to constitute public nuisances pursuant to the Nuisance Law. In November 2014, Pirro was further notified that a property owned by Heritage had accumulated points and thus become a public nuisance. In September 2015, the Board commenced an action under the Nuisance Law against Pirro, Heritage, the three previously-mentioned properties and a fourth property owned by Heritage (hereinafter collectively referred to as defendants), naming the properties in rem. The complaint alleged that the four properties constituted unabated public nuisances and sought relief in the form of penalties, injunctive relief and either temporary closure or temporary receivership. In their answer, defendants set forth affirmative defenses alleging, as pertinent here, that the Nuisance Law conflicted with state law and violated the tenants' rights to seek redress of grievances from law enforcement, and further asserted a counterclaim. In November 2015, Pirro and Heritage commenced a proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 against the Board and others (hereinafter collectively referred to as respondents) seeking a permanent injunction enjoining enforcement of the Nuisance Law; respondents answered and asserted that this petition failed to state a cause of action. In the action, defendants thereafter moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, and for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and in their favor upon their counterclaim.

         In a combined ruling in the civil action and the CPLR article 78 proceeding, Supreme Court held that the portion of the Nuisance Law establishing administrative remedies was unconstitutional. The court thus partially granted the motion for summary judgment by severing article III from the Nuisance Law, and partially granted the petition by permanently enjoining respondents from enforcing that article. The court otherwise denied the motion and dismissed the petition. Defendants appealed from the order in the action [1]. This Court granted amicus curiae status to several interested groups.

         Defendants and the amici curiae challenge the substantive validity of the Nuisance Law on multiple grounds, alleging, among other things, that it is preempted, unconstitutionally overbroad and otherwise unconstitutional. They further assert that the Nuisance Law is representative of similar municipal ordinances that have disproportionately negative impacts on crime victims, including victims of domestic violence, and that have not previously been tested in the appellate courts of this state (see generally Theresa Langley, Comment, Living Without Protection: Nuisance Property Laws Unduly Burden Innocent Tenants and Entrench Divisions Between Impoverished Communities and Law Enforcement, 52 Hous. L Rev 1255 [2015]).

         Initially, Supreme Court properly rejected defendants' argument that the Nuisance Law does not apply to them, based upon principles of statutory interpretation. We must construe the statutory language in such a manner as "to discern and give effect to the [drafter's] intention" (Matter of Albany Law School v New York State Off. of Mental Retardation & Dev. Disabilities, 19 N.Y.3d 106, 120 [2012]; see Matter of Level 3 Communications, LLC v Clinton County, 144 A.D.3d 115, 117 [2016]). In doing so, we are to give effect to the plain meaning of clear and unambiguous language (see Pultz v Economakis, 10 N.Y.3d 542, 547 [2008]), construe the provisions of the challenged law "together unless a contrary legislative intent is expressed, and... harmonize the related provisions in a way that renders them compatible" (Matter of Liberius v New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 129 A.D.3d 1170, 1171-1172 [2015] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]).

         The Nuisance Law provides that a public nuisance can exist "at a building, erection or place, or immediately adjacent to the building, erection or place as a result of the operation of the business" (Local Law No. 4 [2014] of Village of Groton § 152-3 [K]). As Supreme Court found, the phrase "as a result of the operation of the business" does not modify everything that precedes it, including the initial phrase "at a building, erection or place." [2] The Nuisance Law defines a "building" broadly, in a manner that suggests no intention to limit the law's application to a particular manner of use. The law further defines a "business office" as either a building or a portion thereof used for business activities; this definition would be rendered meaningless if the only type of "building" covered by the law were those used in the operation of a business (see Matter of Rubeor v Town of Wright, 134 A.D.3d 1211, 1212-1213 [2015], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 902');">27 N.Y.3d 902 [2016]). Nothing else in the Nuisance Law suggests any intent to limit the law's coverage; on the contrary, the provision entitled "Findings" sets out a broad intent to regulate public nuisances due to interference with the public interest in a wide variety of manners relative to "public health, safety and welfare" (Local Law No. 4 [2014] of Village of Groton § 152-1). Applying the rule of the last antecedent to give effect to the law as a whole and to harmonize all of its provisions (see Friedman v Connecticut Gen. Life Ins. Co., 9 N.Y.3d 105, 115 [2007]; McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 254), we agree with Supreme Court that the phrase "as a result of the operation of the business" was intended to modify only the phrase that immediately precedes it, and thus it neither limits the law's general application to businesses nor excludes residential properties from its reach. Accordingly, defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim was properly denied.

         Next, defendants contend that the Nuisance Law improperly imposes vicarious liability upon property owners for tenant misconduct that the owners cannot control or foresee. This assertion is premature, as "a thing does not become a nuisance simply because it is declared to be such by... [a] municipality" (Gunning Sys. v City of Buffalo, 62 A.D. 497, 499 [1901]). There has been no judicial determination as to whether defendants have violated the Nuisance Law; these issues remain to be adjudicated (compare City of Newburgh v Park Filling Sta., Inc., 273 A.D. 24, 26 [1947], affd ...


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