By Christopher T. Vrountas, Esq. and Allison C. Ayer, Esq., Vrountas, Ayer & Chandler, P.C.
When does a hotel guest become a “tenant” subject to the protections of New Hampshire’s residential landlord/tenant laws and the associated summary process laws that govern eviction? Never, according to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, although a slight twist in facts might change that answer in a particular case.
This response may surprise many hotel operators who have assumed otherwise, depending on the circumstances of a hotel guest’s arrangement with the hotel. The Court’s decision in Anderson v. Robitaille, No. 2017-0195 (NH 2019) should disabuse hotel operators and their guests of any such assumption. It is an opinion that strict constructionists would absolutely adore.
How have so many operators come to the wrong conclusion in the past? It’s not hard to see how. Here are three assumptions the New Hampshire Supreme Court addressed and discounted in its opinion on the subject:
First, many have assumed that RSA ch. 353 (the hotel guest ejectment statute), which defines a “residential unit” as a room rented for less than 30 days and which expressly includes guests in such rooms as the type of residents subject to the ejectment rights hotels may have under ch. 353, implicitly provides that hotel guests who stay for longer than 30 days become tenants who are protected by the landlord/tenant and summary process statutes set forth under RSA ch. 540-A and RSA ch. 540. The Court expressly held that assumption is wrong.
In Anderson, the hotel guest argued that RSA ch. 353 (the guest ejectment statute) lists only those people who live in “residential units” as defined in the statute as those governed by its provisions and that, therefore, those who do not live in such “residential units” as defined in RSA ch. 353 must therefore be subject to the provisions of RSA ch. 540 and RSA ch. 540-A (the landlord/tenant and summary process statutes). The Court rejected that argument and held that the failure of RSA ch. 353 to specifically include long term guests under its provisions does not necessarily imply that such persons must be excluded from its provisions, or that such persons necessarily lose their status as hotel guests under that statute.
By contrast, explained the Court, the landlord/tenant laws expressly exclude “occupants” of “rooms in hotels, motels, inns, tourist homes and other dwellings rented for recreational or vacation use.” See RSA 540:1-a, VI(b). From the court’s perspective, this explicit exclusion from the protection of the landlord/tenant and summary process laws must govern the question as to when such laws actually apply. The mere failure to include long term guests in the provisions of RSA ch. 353 does not, according to the Court, modify or change the express exclusion language in RSA ch. 540 and RSA ch. 540-A – the landlord/tenant statutes.
In response, the hotel guest in Anderson offered a series of alternative arguments, which were all rejected by the Court. At the start, the hotel guest argued that the exclusion in RSA ch. 540 and RSA ch. 540-A only applies to “traditional hotels” and not to hotels that are a “hybrid” with other forms of lodging. The Court rejected that theory, noting that the statute does not use such terms and that they are, therefore, irrelevant. The hotel guest next argued that the “totality of the circumstances” should be considered when determining whether a hotel guest becomes a tenant, and again the Court rejected the theory by referring to the explicit language of the statute. The Court noted that the “plain meaning” of the statute “creates categorical exceptions” to the reach of the landlord/tenant and summary process laws that cannot be modified by “the totality of the circumstances”. The hotel guest then argued that the exclusion for hotel guests only applies to dwellings “rented for recreational purposes”; but again the Court rejected this theory as a tortured interpretation of the plain language of the statute. Indeed, the Court noted that such an interpretation would eliminate business hotel guests from the exclusion set out in RSA ch. 540-A and maintained that there is no basis for such a reading.
Second, many have assumed that the provisions of RSA ch. 78-A:3, VII (which exempts from room taxes those who are “permanent residents” - defined as those who have stayed in a dwelling for more than 185 days) can turn a “hotel guest” into a “tenant”. This assumption, according to the Court, is also misplaced as there is no basis for understanding that the term “permanent resident” under RSA ch. 78-A:3, VII should in any way modify the definition and scope of the term “tenant” under RSA ch. 540:1-a, IV. One statute concerns a taxing issue, the other outlines the scope of landlord/tenant duties under certain circumstances and with certain express exceptions. As these statutes are not related, they should not be read to modify each other’s terms.
Third, the Court’s earlier decision in Evans v. J. Four Realty (NH 2013), might arguably support the assumption that a hotel guest, under certain circumstances, might become a tenant under RSA ch. 540-A. But, when the hotel guest in Anderson made this argument, the Court rejected the proposition. In Evans, a customer rented a room from a “resort”, but that room was not in the hotel portion of the resort. Rather, it was separate from the hotel and adjacent to the resort’s office. In addition, the customer had lived there for 5 years. Thus, while that customer did indeed become a tenant, such tenancy resulted from occupancy of a room outside the confines of the hotel.
The Court explained that the facts in Anderson contrast sharply with those in Evans and demonstrate the logic imposed by the plain meaning of the statute. The Court noted that, in Anderson, the hotel guest stayed in a Homewood Suites by Hilton which had a front desk, check in service, furnished rooms, towel and linen service, daily room cleaning, on-site maintenance, and on-site security, and that the guest paid $84/night plus tax for the unit for nearly 2 years. The hotel sent an email to this guest giving two days to leave, although the hotel extended the notice for an extra 4 days. The hotel threatened to call the police if the guest did not vacate. The guest sued and the trial court held that they were not tenants. The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed.
In the end, th words in a statute mean what they say, but they must be read in the context of the relevant statutory scheme, and they only apply to the topic the statute was meant to address. Assumptions may arise due to common sense extrapolations from other statutes that address other matters, but in the end the New Hampshire Supreme Court stuck to the plain meaning of the landlord/tenant provisions in RSA ch. 540 and RSA ch. 540-A. A hotel guest is a hotel guest because he or she rents a hotel room, not because of the length of stay or the “totality of the circumstances”.
Of course, in any specific situation, you should consult your attorney before taking action with respect to a guest or a tenant. This article is informational only and not legal advice, which would need to account for the specific circumstances in any given case. Nevertheless, it is generally good to follow this basic common sense practice: Don’t make assumptions.
Vrountas, Ayer & Chandler, P.C.
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