Two Tenants, One Apartment.
I recently competed a semi-famous one-act play entitled “Box and Cox.” The play is a 19th century farce about two men. Cox works all day as a hatter, and Box works all night as a printer. An enterprising landlord, Mr. Bouncer, decides to rent them the same room without telling them. This works remarkable well, until Cox gets a rare day off and finds Box in “his” room. How would this play out under modern North Carolina landlord/tenant law?
In North Carolina, in every residential lease, there is a promise that the tenant will have undisturbed use and enjoyment of real property. Known as a covenant for quiet enjoyment, this promise is implied in a lease, even if it is not expressly written into the lease. Mrs. Bouncer would have breached this covenant of quiet enjoyment as to both Box and Cox. Both parties would have a cause of action against Bouncer. Assume that Box signed his lease before Cox. Box would therefore have the legal right to the room. He could also recover any monetary damages against Bouncer he may have suffered, including increased utility fees, personal items (coal, sugar, candles and Lucifer matches, according to the script) that were consumed unknowingly by Cox. He could also sue for a return of some of his rent. A “rent abatement” action allows the wronged tenant the difference between the rent actually paid, and the market value of what was actually received. If Bouncer had leased to two tenants who knew they would be sharing, how much less would those hypothetical renters have paid? The one thing that Box could not do (unless Bouncer agreed to it) would be to break the lease and move out. Only where the landlord actually physically removes or blocks access to the premises (eviction) or where the circumstances make it impossible to remain on the premises (constructive eviction) could he legally break the lease.
Cox would have a claim for monetary damages against Bouncer, but couldn’t get the actual room (what the law calls “specific performance”). In addition to a recover for the same types of monetary damages that Box would enjoy, Cox’s monetary damages could also include the difference between the cost of a comparable room and Bouncer’s room, moving and relocation expenses.
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC with Hodges & Coxe PC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Homeowner’s Associations, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.