By DAVID A. RAHNIS
Many urban dwellers are waking up to the concerns surrounding secondhand smoke in their apartment cooperatives and condo buildings. To date, approximately half of all states (including D.C.) have passed comprehensive smoke-free laws. However, these laws typically exempt a person’s home. There is no effort on the horizon to ban smoking in all multiple family dwellings in D.C. This situation could create a dilemma for non-smokers trying to coexist with smokers in a residential environment. Nationwide, the number of residential buildings becoming voluntarily smoke-free appears to be growing.
The secondhand smoke issue is usually raised when a resident complains about the smell of smoke entering his or her apartment from other apartments or areas within the building. Attempting to address those complaints, building management will often undertake an investigation or some corrective action to address the smoke odors. Often, these initial efforts may fall short and residents will contend that only a full building-wide smoking ban can resolve the problem.
The first step for any coop or condo when facing this issue is to review the building’s governing documents for any provisions pertaining to smoking. If a board determines a smoking ban to be in the best interest of the building, the most effective way to do so is through an amendment to the governing documents. For example, in the cooperative setting, an amendment to the Proprietary Lease and/or By-Laws is the most effective means of enforcing a ban. Residents should examine the procedures and voting requirements necessary to amend the governing documents. In the cooperative setting, the most appropriate venue for obtaining shareholder consent would be a special meeting of the shareholders, held in accordance with the by-laws. A court is more likely to uphold a smoking restriction adopted by a supermajority of apartment owners rather than by simple board action.
At this point, there is only one local case involving smoking in the cooperative environment. In David Schuman v. Greenbelt Homes, Inc. (a 2011 Prince George’s County, Md. Circuit Court case now on appeal), a non-smoking cooperative townhouse owner sued building management and his neighbor on the grounds that secondhand smoke from his neighbor violated the nuisance clause of his mutual ownership contract. The non-smoking owner claimed that he suffered from coughing, sneezing, congestion and watery eyes for years due to the secondhand smoke. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, the management company caulked around baseboards, plumbing and electrical outlets in both homes. Such efforts did not satisfy the non-smoking owner.
However, the Circuit Court ruled in favor of the management company, noting that “not all nuisances are necessarily actionable” and that the matter was more appropriate for the state legislature. The court found that the level of smoke entering the non-smoker’s townhouse constituted merely an offensive odor and did not trigger an actionable nuisance. The court said that the plaintiff needed to demonstrate “real injury” such as an “unfavorable health condition”. In addition, the court found no bad faith in the management company’s handling of the non-smoker’s complaints.
While a significant body of legal analysis does not yet exist in the D.C. area, courts in other jurisdictions have already begun addressing and analyzing the issues surrounding community smoking bans. The underlying conclusion is that boards and managers need to be alert to secondhand smoke complaints because cooperatives and condos can be held legally accountable for failing to address smoking-related concerns.
A 2006 New York civil court case addressed the potential for landlord liability due to secondhand smoke. In Poyck v. Bryant, the court found that tenants who vacated a condominium apartment before the lease termination date due to secondhand smoke from an adjoining apartment could assert the “warranty of habitability” as a defense to their landlord’s nonpayment of rent proceeding, notwithstanding the fact that the landlord had no control over the adjoining apartment. The court held that a sufficiently egregious secondhand smoke condition presents health hazards so as to invoke the warranty of habitability, and that the landlord had the power to act against the smoking neighbor.
In Christiansen v. Heritage Hills 1 Condominium Owners Association, a Colorado district court in 2006 upheld an amendment to a condominium declaration that banned smoking inside apartments. The court noted that the board had already tried, unsuccessfully, to address secondhand smoke through various remediation measures.
The New York County Supreme Court in Reinhard v. Connaught Tower Corporation ruled in 2011 that coop boards are required to act reasonably when residents complain that secondhand smoke is infiltrating their apartments from other parts of the building. In this case, the plaintiff-owner of a coop apartment sued the corporation because she detected a strong smell of cigarette smoke in her apartment. She was told by the managing agent and the superintendent to re-caulk the floor, molding and faceplates in her bedroom, which did not eliminate the odor. The board, however, refused to take any action and disclaimed any responsibility for the problem. Plaintiff then sued the corporation for breach of the warranty of habitability, breach of fiduciary duty and constructive eviction among other causes of action. The court held that the secondhand smoke in plaintiff’s apartment breached the warranty of habitability and as a result constituted a constructive eviction. Furthermore, the court determined that the co-op breached plaintiff’s proprietary lease by failing and refusing to take any “reasonable steps” to alleviate the secondhand smoke problem.
If a cooperative apartment or condo community is experiencing an increasing number of secondhand smoke complaints and if remediation efforts have been unsuccessful, the Board should consider a building wide smoking ban. In addition to a “town hall” style meeting, the Board’s next step might be to conduct a formal survey of apartment owners in order to determine the most feasible course of action for the community. If the survey results reveal that a full and immediate smoking ban is not appropriate, the building can implement a modified form of smoking ban. For example, the ban could be delayed for a certain period of time (e.g., two or three years) in order to allow owners/residents time to comply with the new rules. Alternatively, current smokers could be “grandfathered” out of an immediate smoking ban. At the same time, the building could begin to reject any prospective purchasers who smoke. In this manner, through gradual attrition, the building would eventually become entirely smoke free. Owners and boards would be wise to consult management and legal advice when facing these issues to avoid expensive litigation or claims of discrimination down the road.
This is a part of a series of monthly articles by Jackson & Campbell, P.C. on legal issues of interest to the LGBT community. Jackson & Campbell, P.C. is a full service law firm based in Washington with offices in Maryland and Virginia. Those with questions regarding this article, please contact David Rahnis at 202-457-1673 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Those with questions regarding the firm should contact Don Uttrich, who chairs its Diversity Committee, at 202-457-4266 or email@example.com.