One of the things I like about the law, and litigation in particular, is the "just when you think you've seen it all . . . " aspect of it. In a recent decision, Sevinc v. Fulton House, the Appellate Division resolved a dispute that reminds us that we have not seen it all, and probably never will. At its core, the case was about the alleged breach of a contract between plaintiff and defendant. What made it interesting was the subject matter of the alleged breach — plaintiff accused defendant, a residential co-op corporation, of improperly appropriating a portion of his parking space and using it to store a snow blower.
In Sevinc, plaintiff purchased both a unit in the co-op and a parking space in the co-op's parking lot. The lease for the parking space did not describe the space's size, shape, or dimensions, but the size and shape were depicted on the architectural plans that the co-op included in its Public Offering Statement. There was no standard sizes for the parking spaces in the co-op's lot, and some spaces, including plaintiff's space, were larger than others because of where they were situated in the irregularly shaped lot. The size of his space was important to plaintiff because he was a limousine driver and needed extra room to park his Lincoln Town Car.
For almost two years, plaintiff parked in his space without incident. One day in the spring of 2011, however, he pulled in and found that a "metal box" had been placed in the left front corner of his space. A few days later, he saw the building's superintendent installing metal strips to hold the box in place. The superintendent told plaintiff that the co-op was relocating a snow blower to the front of his space and that the metal box would be used to store gas cans for the snowblower. Shortly thereafter, the co-op had white and yellow lines painted on the left side of his space, "all the way from the rear of his space to the front, where the snow blower and gas can container were now located." The newly-configured space was ten-feet wide, the same size as other spaces in the lot but one-third smaller than plaintiff's original space. Plaintiff's car still fit in the space, but pulling in and out was more difficult.
The co-op claimed that it chose plaintiff's space as the new location for the snow blower and gas cans because it was well ventilated and out of the way. It also admitted that it did not review plaintiff's lease, review the architectural plans, review the co-op's bylaws, speak to an attorney, or seek plaintiff's consent before it decided to relocate the snow blower and gas cans.
The co-op attempted to justify its decision to reduce the size of plaintiff's space by arguing that residents received the same number of shares when they purchased their parking spaces, therefore, according to the co-op, all of the parking spaces should be the same size. The co-op admitted, however, that there was nothing in its governing documents that limited the width of each space to ten feet or required that all spaces be the same size.
Plaintiff sued the co-op, alleging, among other things, breach of his lease agreement for the parking space. At a bench trial, the trial court ruled that, because the lease between plaintiff and the co-op did not define the size of the space, the co-op had not breached the lease, but that the co-op was nonetheless not "free from wrongdoing." Specifically, the trial court noted that the co-op did not give plaintiff any notice prior to taking a portion of his spot, and that it breached its own governing documents regarding the storage of chemicals and equipment. Therefore, the trial court exercised it "ancillary equitable powers" to order the co-op to remove the lines it painted in plaintiff's space and return the entire space to him.
The Appellate Division affirmed this portion of the trial court's decision, but for different reasons. The Appellate Division acknowledged that the lease between plaintiff and the co-op did not define the size of the parking space, but held that the trial court's inquiry should not have ended there. Rather, the Appellate Division looked to the intent of the parties, as gleaned from the architectural plans that were included in the co-op's Public Offering Statement, which showed the full space, not the reduced version created by the co-op. The Appellate Division concluded:
Because the architectural plans clearly depicted the dimensions of the parking space, the fact that these dimensions were not also included in the leases is of no moment. [Defendant] knew what it was selling and plaintiff knew what he was buying.
In light of this breach, the Appellate Division held that the trial court did not need to resort to its "equitable powers" to order the return of plaintiff's space, but should have instead done so based on the co-op's breach of its lease with plaintiff.