GROTON, NY – New York State Supreme Court Justice Phillip Rumsey ruled last week that the village of Groton’s “nuisance law” is constitutional, allowing the village to continue its legal action against a local landlord.
Last year, a legal conflict erupted between the Village of Groton and Norfe J. Pirro, a landlord who personally owns or manages four properties in Groton.
The Village of Groton’s Property Building Nuisance Law was enacted in April 2014. Under this law, properties can be assessed points when certain laws or ordinances are violated, such as those against loitering, disorderly conduct, and drug crime. The village can then take civil action against the owners of properties that have been assessed many points and deemed a public nuisance.
Many members of the Groton community felt that Pirro’s properties had become hives of criminal activity and that the landlord wasn’t doing enough to screen his tenants or remove problematic ones. The village filed a civil complaint against Pirro, asking them to temporarily shut down Pirro’s properties and assess fines against him.
Pirro filed a countersuit, arguing that the nuisance law was unconstitutional and that he and his company, Heritage Homestead Properties, were denied due process.
Pirro’s argument and Rumsey’s ruling
As presented in Rumsey’s judgement, Pirro’s counterclaim was based on the following points:
First, that the nuisance law, as written, only applies to businesses and not to buildings leased for residential purposes. They based their argument on language of nuisance law reading that defines the location of a nuisance as, “at a building, erection or place or immediately adjacent to the building, erection or place as a result of the operation of the business.”
Rumsey called this argument unconvincing, writing: “The argument misses its mark because it is contrary to the plain language of the definition and also because it ignores the remainder of the law, which, when construed as a whole, plainly applies to buildings irrespective of their occupancy.”
The second argument in the countersuit is that the original complaint by village fails to state a cause of action, because it fails to specifically spell out that the property exceeded the points threshholds in the nuisance law.
Rumsey dismissed that argument as well, citing another case that showed: “When considering a motion to dismiss… the question is whether the plaintiff’s have a cause of action, not whether they have stated one.”
Under the nuisance law, a property can be declared a public nuisance if it accrues more than 12 nuisance points in six months or eighteen nuisance points in a year. Three of Pirro’s property accrued 56 and 46 points in less than five months.
The third leg of Pirro’s argument was that the nuisance law violates due process.
The nuisance law is framed with two enforcement mechanisms, Rumsey explains. Article II of the law deals with enforcement through civil action, while Article III covers administrative enforcement by the mayor of the village.
Rumsey points out that the fact that Pirro filed a counterclaim shows that he had a chance to contest the claims against him, thus Article II does not violate due process.
However, Rumsey judged that while Article III provides for a hearing, it was “impermissably vague” becuase it does not specify who will conduct the hearing, how such a hearing should be requested, the procedure of the hearing or a deadline for requesting, conducting, or concluding the hearing.
Rumsey judged Article III of the law unconstitutional on those grounds. It will be severed from the nuisance law and the village will not be allowed to take any action against Pirro under that article.
The village’s lawsuit against Pirro can now proceed.
Pirro’s attorney Russell Maines previously told The Ithaca Voice that if Pirro is found in violation of the law, he could be fined up to $1,000 a day per day he’s been in violation. Since complaints date back to 214, the total amount of fines possible would well exceed $1 million.