Summary of Garner v. Gerrish, Court of Appeals of NY (1984)
Parties: Appellant is executor of estate of decedent Donovan; Appellee is tenant
Cause of action/remedy sought: The following is a legal action for ejectment.
Procedural History: County court granted SJ to petitioner on grounds that the lease was uncertain, as there was no dates of continuance or termination. Trial and appellate courts held that the lease created a tenancy at will (month-to-month), permitting the current landlord to evict the tenant. This court grants tenant’s motion for leave to appeal and reverses.
Facts: 1977 Donovan owned the house
April 14, 1977 Donovan executes a lease with DF, on a preprinted form (no counsel present). Donovan filled in the blanks on the form, listing the term of the lease as “for quiet enjoyment” from May 1977 to end ” Gerrish has the privilege of termination this agreement at a date of his own choice”. DF took possession.
November 1981 – Donovan dies. PL, executor of Donovan’s estate, orders DF to quit the premises. DF refuses, PL files this suit.
Issue(s): Under NY property law, does a lease which grants the tenant the right to terminate the agreement at a date of his choice create a determinable life tenancy on behalf of the tenant or does it merely establish a tenancy at will?
Holding: The lease expressly and unambiguously grants to the tenant the right to terminate, and does not reserve to the landlord a similar right.
Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: At common law, the right for the landlord to terminate the lease would clearly have been implied. Livery of seisin was still required for a life tenancy, because it created a fee interest. If there was no livery, then a tenancy at will was created, hence the landlord could terminate at will also.
Rejected this common law rule, preferring to literally interpret the terms written in the lease, which made mention only of the tenants rights to terminate the lease. Hence, a life tenancy terminable at the will of the tenant was created. This is what is expressly and unambiguously written in the lease.
Rule: When a person leases property to the other with the terminology “…as long as” is indicative of a determinable life tenancy, and can only be terminated at the will of the grantee or at the grantee’s death.
Did court avoid issues?: No.
Dicta: The court is leaving the old common law rule that when parties create an “at will” lease, the intent to do so should run to both parties, as it frustrates the intent of the parties.