One Man’s Shed is Another Man’s…Dwelling?

Washington’s Eviction “Just Cause” Requirement

The “just cause” requirement in Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (the “RLTA”) has created unpredictable results that should lead landlords and property owners (collectively, “Landlords”) to tread carefully in considering their basis to pursue an unlawful detainer action. What was once a relatively straightforward process has evolved into a complicated and ever-changing endeavor. In fact, given the relative infancy of the just cause requirement, Washington courts’ interpretation of “cause” under the statute may lead to somewhat irrational results.

Howard v. Pinkerton, No. 56797-1-II (2023)

A recent published decision from the Court of Appeals, Division II, highlights this concern. In Howard v. Pinkerton, the Tenant argued the superior court erred in ordering the issuance of a writ of restitution (the document which directs the Sheriff to restore possession of real property to a Landlord) based on an incorrect interpretation of one of the just cause bases to evict a tenant.  Specifically, the Tenant argued that the superior court incorrectly interpreted RCW 59.18.650(2)(d), which provides in relevant part:

The tenant continues in possession after the landlord of a dwelling unit in good faith seeks possession so that the owner or his or her immediate family may occupy the unit as that person’s principal residence and no substantially equivalent unit is vacant and available to house the owner or his or her immediate family in the same building, and the owner has provided at least 90 days’ advance written notice of the date the tenant’s possession is to end . . ..

In 2017, the Tenant leased a shed from the respondent-owners (“Owners”), which did not have running water or bathroom facilities. On the same property, the Owners had a single-family home.  In 2021, the Owners demolished the single-family home to construct a new single-family home in its place. The Owners provided the Tenant with a 90-day notice to terminate the Tenant’s tenancy because the Owners “sought ‘possession of the portion of the premises [Tenant] occup[ied] so that they may occupy the unit as part of their principal residence.’”

Although other notices were issued, the Owners filed an unlawful detainer action against the Tenant solely based upon the 90-day notice. The complaint stated that the Owners “‘intend[ed] to utilize this outbuilding as part of their principal residence.’” The Tenant answered the complaint and provided that the Owners did not have cause to terminate the Tenant’s tenancy because the Owners “did not intend to occupy the shed as their primary residence.” In response, the Owners filed a declaration in which they stated that the city would not issue an occupancy permit for the newly built single-family residence unless the Tenant stopped using the shed as a bedroom.

At a show cause hearing, the superior court found that the Owners did not want to live in the shed but granted the writ of restitution regardless. The superior court acknowledged that denial of the issuance of the writ would “be an absurd result because [the Tenant] could ‘basically, hold up [the Owners] from using their new home’ and [the Owners] ‘can’t get into their residence either because of this.’”

On appeal, the parties offered differing interpretations of RCW 59.18.650(2)(d). The Tenant argued that the statute requires the landlord to intend to live within the dwelling unit that the tenant occupies, while the Owners argued that the statute only requires the Owners to intend to live on the property where the dwelling unit is located. Shockingly, the court of appeals agreed with the Tenant. The court found that the Owners did not intend to use the shed as their permanent dwelling place, and instead intended to use the shed as a storage unit. Therefore, the court found that the Owners could not rely on RCW 59.18.650(2)(d) to end the Tenant’s tenancy even though the dwelling unit was simply a shed on a property that the Owners intended to occupy as a whole. Notably, there appears to be no dispute by any party that the shed is not fit for habitation. Nevertheless, the court dismissed the Owners’ eviction.

Careful Considerations are Necessary in Pursuing an Eviction

What can we learn from the Howard v. Pinkerton decision? Even where dismissal of the eviction would appear to lead to absurd results, Landlords must carefully consider under what basis they are proceeding with an unlawful detainer (eviction) action. Montgomery Purdue’s litigation and eviction attorneys are available to assist landlords and/or property owners with all aspects of the complicated eviction process.

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