Tracy Gregoire et al.
Baird Properties, LLC et al.
Kent County Superior Court Associate Justice Allen P. Rubine, KD 13-1085
For Plaintiffs: James Moretti, Esq.
For Defendants: Thomas M. Dickinson, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Paul A. Suttell, Chief Justice.
The defendants, Baird Properties, LLC (Baird Properties) and Michael Baird (Baird), appeal from a Superior Court judgment in favor of Tracy Gregoire and Mark Traynor (collectively, plaintiffs) in an action brought under the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 18 of title 34. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.
I Facts and Procedural History
On November 4, 2011, plaintiffs entered into a residential lease with Due North Investments, LLC (Due North) to reside in the second-floor unit of 29 Spring Street, West Warwick (the property), commencing on November 15, 2011. The plaintiffs resided on the property with Gregoire's two minor children and Carl Truax, who was a father-figure to Traynor. Robert and Linda Carey (the Careys) were the principals of Due North and resided on the first floor of the property. Due North had purchased the property from Baird Properties in 2011; however, Baird Properties reacquired title in 2012 when it foreclosed upon a mortgage it held on the property. A foreclosure deed was recorded on December 5, 2012. Shortly thereafter, on December 10, 2012, the property was condemned by the Town of West Warwick due to a lack of electricity, heating, and water, and plaintiffs were required to vacate the premises and remove their belongings.
On December 27, 2012, plaintiffs filed a complaint in Kent County District Court alleging that defendants purposely sabotaged utility services to the property in order to deliberately set events in motion that would force plaintiffs to vacate the premises. Specifically, the complaint alleged that Baird Properties violated § 34-18-44 (count 1), that Baird individually violated § 34-18-44 (count 2), malicious destruction of property by both defendants (count 3), and negligence by both defendants (count 4). The plaintiffs removed the matter to the Superior Court on October 8, 2013, by appealing from a judgment by stipulation in the District Court. On January 15, 2014, the case proceeded to trial de novo in the Kent County Superior Court.
A Trial Testimony
The evidence adduced at trial may be summarized as follows. Traynor testified that he and Gregoire entered into a lease agreement with Due North to reside in the second-floor unit of the property. He testified that, in a September 7, 2012 letter, Baird Properties informed plaintiffs that it had been appointed to act on behalf of Southbridge Savings Bank (Southbridge) to collect rental payments to the property and that as of that date all payments should be made payable to Southbridge and delivered to Baird Properties. The letter informed plaintiffs that rental payments should no longer be paid to Due North. Traynor testified that plaintiffs also received a letter from Due North, dated September 8, 2012, claiming that Baird was forbidden to enter properties owned by Due North and that all rents owed should be paid to Due North. Traynor testified that he had continued to make rent payments to Due North for the months of September and October; however, after obtaining legal advice, he had not paid the November rent to either Due North or Baird Properties.
Traynor further testified that, on December 9, 2012, as plaintiffs were leaving their apartment with their children, they ran into Baird on the sidewalk near Traynor's vehicle. According to Traynor, Baird communicated to them that he had "gained control of six properties" and that plaintiffs "needed to be at his office the next day to pay a security deposit and any back rent and to sign a new lease * * * [o]r he [would] hav[e] the water and electrical turned off." Traynor further stated that despite not wanting to leave the property or intending to abandon it, he was required to leave because the property had been condemned. He also explained that he entered the basement on the property on a weekly basis, including a last visit on December 8, and that he had never observed any problems with the boiler while he was there. He testified that while he resided at the property he never had any problems with the electrical panel.
Gregoire also testified that on December 9, 2012, plaintiffs were approached by Baird as they were getting into their vehicle. She testified that Baird "told [plaintiffs] [they] had to be at his office on Monday morning * * * [t]o sign a new lease, pay any back rent and a new security deposit * * * before noontime or he was coming back to shut the electric and water off." She recalled that on the next day, December 10, 2012, Baird came to the property in the early morning and she notified Truax that he was there. She testified that she heard banging downstairs and yelling directed at the first-floor tenants. She explained that she was not sure what the banging noise was but that she heard Baird say "that the first[-]floor tenants were 'F-ing squatters'" and "needed to get the hell out of the apartment." She also testified that later that day the building inspector and the fire department came to the property and she was informed by the building official that she would not be allowed to remain on the property as it was "unlivable." She testified that she did not want or intend to leave the property, but did so "[b]ecause the building was deemed unsafe and [she] ha[d] two children." Gregoire testified that she was in the property's basement "[w]eekly, if not a couple of times a week, " and had never observed any problems with the boiler or electrical panel. During cross-examination, Gregoire acknowledged that, although she testified to having no electrical issues on the property prior to December 10, she would "pop a breaker if the washing machine and microwave went off at the same time * * *."
Truax, who also resided in the second-floor unit, testified that on December 10 Gregoire informed him that Baird was on the property but that he did not think much of it because Baird was always there. Truax testified that, when he went to make coffee, there was no running water. He testified that he proceeded to call Baird and inquire about the water and Baird informed him that he would return to the property in fifteen minutes to turn the water on. Truax explained that when Baird arrived at the property he turned the water back on, but then it went off again. Truax testified that "[o]nce the water went off [he] heard a lot of banging downstairs." He also testified that he heard a lot of yelling and profanity from Baird, including Baird calling out to the first-floor tenants: "f-ing squatters. Get off my property. You're scum." Truax testified that, when he went downstairs to the basement, he observed Baird "taking the heater unit off of the first[-]floor boiler." He also testified to observing that the covers had been taken off of the electrical panels, and that the first-floor panel was smashed and the wires were pulled out of the second-floor panel. Truax testified that at that moment Baird told him "that he turned the water and electric off, " that the "[s]cumbags on the first floor need[ed] to get the 'F' off [his] property[, ]" and that Truax needed to get to ...