Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / NORTH RIDGE APARTMENTS v. RUFFIN (59835)





April 16, 1999
Record No. 981100




T. J. Markow, Judge
Present: All the Justices

The question presented in this unlawful
detainer action is whether the trial court erred in finding that
the lessee had been constructively evicted from the demised

Appellant C. G. II L.C., trading as North Ridge
Apartments, the lessor, filed this action against appellee Alice
Ruffin, the lessee, seeking judgment for possession of the leased
premises, for unpaid rent, and for damages arising from a written
lease between the parties. Following a bench trial, the court
entered judgment in favor of the lessee. The lessor appeals.

The facts are undisputed and are set forth in a
Rule 5:11 written statement. The lessee entered into an
"Apartment Lease" with the lessor for a term beginning
August 1, 1996 and ending July 31, 1997 for designated premises
in the City of Richmond. The lessee failed to pay rent for June
1997 and this action was filed.

At trial, the court heard testimony from the
lessee and a representative of the lessor. The lessee testified
"she desired to terminate her lease . . . due to
her fear of crime and because she did not feel safe in the
premises." She stated that, during the tenancy, "she
became aware of drug sales and criminal activity in and around
the apartment building." She said her "car was
vandalized and broken into while parked on plaintiff’s premises
provided for tenant parking."

In addition, she testified that "[o]ther
tenants were unruly and threatening, and left trash in hallways
which were common areas" of the three-floor, six-apartment
building. Also, she said "[d]og litter was . . .
found in the hallways." She complained that "[o]ther
tenants regularly propped open the [building’s] security door,
allowing unauthorized persons into the common hallways."

The lessee further testified that she had made
verbal complaints to the lessor about the conditions. She
admitted, however, that she had not put those complaints in
writing as required by the apartment rules and regulations that
were incorporated in her lease. She said "she was fearful
that written complaints would result in retaliation from the
offending tenants."

The lessor’s rental manager testified that each
time the tenant made verbal complaints, "she or her staff
acted to address and rectify the situations." Stating she
was aware of the security doors being propped open, the manager
said that apartment staff closed the doors when they found them
open. Also, she said that notices were sent to residents who left
the doors open, advising them of the necessity to leave the doors
closed and locked.

The manager also testified that the lessor
employed security patrols, which "came to the premises at
random times and walked and drove through the grounds. They
specifically looked for open front doors and would close those
doors when and if they were discovered open."

In ruling for the lessee Ruffin, the trial
court stated "it appeared that plaintiff had responded to
Ruffin’s complaints; however, due to the criminal activity on the
grounds and Ruffin’s fear of retaliation, Ruffin was
constructively evicted." This ruling was erroneous.

Ordinarily, to constitute constructive eviction
there must be intentional conduct by the lessor that permanently
deprives the lessee of the beneficial enjoyment of the demised
premises, and the lessee must completely abandon the premises
within a reasonable time after the lessor’s conduct. Cavalier
Square Ltd. Partnership
v. Virginia ABC Board, 246 Va.
227, 231, 435 S.E.2d 392, 395 (1993). The burden of proving the
affirmative defense of constructive eviction rests upon the
lessee. Id.

The evidence in the present case fails to
support a finding that the lessor was guilty of any intentional
conduct that permanently deprived the lessee of the beneficial
enjoyment of the leased premises. Generally, a lessor has no
common-law duty to protect the lessee from a criminal act by an
unknown third party. Klingbeil Management Group Co. v. Vito,
233 Va. 445, 448, 357 S.E.2d 200, 201 (1987); Gulf Reston,
v. Rogers, 215 Va. 155, 159, 207 S.E.2d 841, 845

And the record fails to show that the lessee
claimed, or that the trial court ruled, there was a statutory
duty upon the lessor regarding third-party acts under these
circumstances. Thus, we do not consider whether the provisions of
the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, Code
Sects. 55-248.2 to -248.40, require the lessor to protect
the lessee from foreseeable criminal acts.

Therefore, because there was no duty on the
lessor in this case to control third parties’ criminal conduct,
the failure of the lessor to protect the lessee from such conduct
cannot be deemed an intentional act of omission.

In addition, the lessee’s evidence regarding
the non-criminal acts suffers from the same deficiency on the
issue of intentional conduct as her other evidence. The record
shows that the lessee’s complaints about unruly tenants, trash in
the hallways, and open security doors all were promptly addressed
by the lessor. Indeed, the trial court said "it appeared
that plaintiff had responded to Ruffin’s complaints."

Consequently, because the trial court erred in
holding that the lessee had been constructively evicted, we will
reverse the judgment below and enter final judgment here in favor
of the lessor.

Reversed and final judgment.