Last week a student asked me a question about Massachusetts landlord/tenant law. She lives in an apartment building in which the landlord is performing what she described as “heavy construction” in neighboring apartments, starting at 7:00 AM. She asked whether such disturbance gives her a right to reduced rent or any other remedy.
Under Massachusetts law residential tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their apartments, which is the right to live in and enjoy the premises free from disturbance and interference by the landlord or other residents. The right to quiet enjoyment is protected by Massachusetts General Laws c. 186 s. 14, which allows a tenant to sue the landlord for up to three months’ rent or actual damages, if higher, plus reasonable attorney’s in the event of the landlord’s breach of its covenant (promise) of quiet enjoyment.
Here are the the relevant provisions of Chapter 186 Section 14:
Any lessor or landlord of any building or part thereof occupied for dwelling purposes . . . who is required by law or by the express or implied terms of any contract or lease or tenancy at will to furnish water, hot water, heat, light, power, gas, elevator service, telephone service, janitor service or refrigeration service to any occupant of such building or part thereof, who willfully or intentionally fails to furnish such water, hot water, heat, light, power, gas, elevator service, telephone service, janitor service or refrigeration service at any time when the same is necessary to the proper or customary use of such building or part thereof, or any lessor or landlord who directly or indirectly interferes with the furnishing by another of such utilities or services, or who transfers the responsibility for payment for any utility services to the occupant without his knowledge or consent, or any lessor or landlord who directly or indirectly interferes with the quiet enjoyment of any residential premises by the occupant, or who attempts to regain possession of such premises by force without benefit of judicial process, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars nor more than three hundred dollars, or by imprisonment for not more than six months. Any person who commits any act in violation of this section shall also be liable for actual and consequential damages or three month’s rent, whichever is greater, and the costs of the action, including a reasonable attorney’s fee, all of which may be applied in setoff to or in recoupment against any claim for rent owed or owing. The superior and district courts shall have jurisdiction in equity to restrain violations of this section. . . . Any waiver of this provision in any lease or other rental agreement . . . shall be void and unenforceable. (Emphasis supplied)
The question is whether the construction this student experienced breached her covenant of quiet enjoyment. The landlord obviously has the right to maintain and improve its property, and a 7:00 AM construction start is standard. Massachusetts city and town ordinances typically prohibit construction or yard work from beginning before 7:00 AM, at which time they may proceed at full throttle. Those who live typical student hours may find 7:00 AM to be inexcusably early, but I don’t believe the law, the typical residential lease, or the typical judge would be sympathetic.
If the construction is performed in an unreasonable manner or lasts for an unreasonably long time then a tenant may have a valid claim for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. A court would need to balance the landlord’s rights and duties to keep up the property against the tenant’s reasonable expectations.