CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The State Supreme Court of Appeals issued a ruling Thursday that deals a significant blow to a case taken up by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey against a Morgantown rental property.
The Court ruled in the negative on a certified question from the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, claiming that the protections in the Consumer Credit and Protection Act (CCPA) do not apply to the relationship of a landlord and tenant.
In 2015, Morrisey’s office filed an official complaint against Copper Beech Townhome Communities Twenty-Six, LLC, which operates rental properties in Morgantown. The suit claimed non-refundable redecoration fees, separate from a security deposit, violated West Virginia law. The Attorney General further argued that landlords were responsible for maintenance repairs, not caused by tenants, prior to re-leasing an apartment.
Morrisey’s office further cited concern with debt collection fees, attorney’s fees, dishonored check fees, multiple check fees when co-tenants pay rent with more than one check, a fee for written receipts, and a fee for late payment of monthly rent. The AG believed these violated the Unfair Deceptive Acts and Practices Provision under the consumer protection act.
At least ten complaints were filed with the West Virginia Attorney General’s office between June 2012 and September 2015. The complaint alleged Copper Beech collected more than $600,000 in non-refundable redecorating fees from nearly 1,200 West Virginia tenants up to that point.
The Court ruled that the the consumer protection act, originally passed in 1974, was a “comprehensive attempt on the part of the West Virginia legislature to extend protection to consumers and persons who obtain credit” in West Virginia. The ruling further cited WVU law professor Vincent Cardi as an expert on the consumer protection act. Cardi claims the law was written with the following intent:
- To increase availability of consumer credit
- To regulate rate of finance charges or interest rates to allow for consumer credit transactions
- To regulate businesses which make small consumer loans
- To protect consumers who purchase goods or services on credit or through consumer loans
- To protect consumers who purchase goods or services for cash or credit from, and to give them remedies for defective or shoddy goods and services and unfair and deceptive selling practices
“In researching the background and purpose underlying the CCPA, we have found no reported West Virginia cases, law review articles, or secondary sources stating that the purpose, or even a purpose, of the Act is to regulate fees that a landlord may charge to a tenant pursuant to a residential lease,” Justice Menis Ketchum wrote.
The Court concluded that the “Legislature did not intend to further regulate landlord-tenant relationship in an ambiguous provision of our CCPA.”
“This court may not read into the CCPA that which it does not say,” Ketchum added.
The court also ruled that the act’s deceptive practices provisions do not apply to and regulate residential leases of real property, and that it would be up to the state Legislature to amend state code to include explicit direction on these practices in a landlord-tenant relationship.
Morrisey released the following statement Thursday:
“We are disappointed by the court’s ruling in this matter. We believe the state’s consumer protection law prohibits double dipping by landlords. As such we are proud of the efforts we have taken to protect tenants in Morgantown and across West Virginia.
“I appreciate the hard work of our office. We are reviewing the opinion to consider the appropriate course of action.”