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January 19. 2013 11:22PM

Supreme Court vacates judge's award to tenant

CONCORD - A District Court judge erred when he ordered a Rochester landlord to pay her tenant $18,000 in damages for ignoring her complaint of no heat in her master bedroom, according to a Supreme Court ruling.

The court ruled the damages should have been computed from the day a temporary court order was issued ordering the landlord to make the repair and the day the problem was fixed.

The court vacated $17,000 of the award and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, based on its ruling.

The court upheld Rochester District Court Judge Daniel M. Cappiello's finding that landlord Nahla Abounaja acted willfully when she did not correct the situation after a housing inspector sent her a letter ordering her to do so within 14 days. Under state law, it is unlawful for a landlord to willfully cause, directly or indirectly, the interruption or termination of any utility service being supplied to a tenant.

The court said there was ample evidence supporting Cappiello's ruling. Tenant Myla Randall's brother, who lived with her, testified the heating units worked only intermittently, that his sister called the landlord many times about the problem and finally contacted the city when it wasn't fixed. Abounaja did not call an electrician until 11 days after she received a letter from a city inspector and then the electrician did nothing for an additional 10 days, according to the Supreme Court decision.

Violating the law entitles a tenant to actual damages or $1,000 for each day the condition continues, whichever is greater.

Attorney Joshua Gordon of Concord, who represented Abounaja, said the heating problem in the three-bedroom duplex on Chestnut Street happened because the basement circuit breaker was tripped, shutting off power in the master bedroom. The unit, he said, was never cold because it was on the second floor and because heat worked in the other rooms.

An electrician who checked the system found nothing wrong with it, Gordon said. The problem was the tripped circuit breaker and Randall not having access to the basement, where it was located. Abounaja, Gordon said, did not know Randall did not have a key to the basement.

He maintained had Abounaja known that, she would have given Randall a key, there would have been no heating problem and the case would never have gone to court.



pgrossmith@unionleader.com


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