CENTRIX MANAGEMENT CO., LLC v. DONALD FOSBERG, SC 20927

Judicial District of New Britain

 

      Summary Process; Attorney's Fees; Whether Cap on Attorney's Fees Recoverable by Landlord under Provision of Lease Agreement Also Applied to Tenant Seeking Prevailing Party Attorney's Fees Under General Statutes § 42-150bb in Summary Process Action.  The plaintiff, Centrix Management Co., LLC, owns an apartment complex on Spring Street in New Britain that is comprised of 150 rental units.  The plaintiff leases an apartment to the defendant, Donald Fosberg, who is an eighty-one year old veteran with mobility limitations, related health issues, and a limited income.  The plaintiff brought this summary process action seeking to regain possession of the apartment based on allegations that the defendant violated the parties' lease agreement by failing to properly remove waste and by creating a nuisance.  The trial court rendered a judgment of possession in favor of the defendant, concluding that the plaintiff failed to meet its burden of proof as to the alleged violations.  The defendant subsequently filed a motion for attorney's fees pursuant to General Statutes § 42-150bb in which he requested $6,622.15, consisting of approximately thirty hours of work by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center at a rate of $216.41 per hour.  The statute allows a consumer to recover attorney’s fees from a commercial party when the consumer successfully defends an action based on a lease that provides for attorney’s fees for the commercial party and provides that "the size of the attorney's fee awarded to the consumer shall be based as far as practicable upon the terms governing the size of the fee for the commercial party."  The parties' lease includes a provision that allows the plaintiff to recover "reasonable attorney's fees, but only up to a maximum amount of $750, and costs incurred."  The plaintiff acknowledged that the defendant is within his rights as the prevailing party to seek attorney's fees under § 42-150bb because of the attorney's fees provision contained in the lease but objected to the amount of the fees sought, arguing that the $750 limitation on the amount of attorney's fees that it may recover under the lease should also apply to the defendant.  The trial court disagreed, finding that applying the limitation to the defendant as well might provide for reciprocity but would violate the intent of, and public policy behind, the statute by failing to bring true parity to the consumer and commercial parties.  The trial court noted that the case involved a contested summary process matter that was tried to the court over two days and involved multiple witnesses and several special defenses.  The trial court found reasonable counsel fees under the circumstances to be $3,500 and awarded the defendant that amount payable to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.  The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court transferred the appeal to itself pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c).  On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court erred in (1) awarding the defendant an amount of attorney's fees under § 42-150bb that exceeded the $750 limit in the parties' lease, (2) considering extra-textual evidence and legislative history as to the meaning and the intent of § 42-150bb where the language of the statute is unambiguous, and (3) finding that an award of $750 was impracticable.