Efficiency Lodge advertises as an
extended stay motel; its website invites guests to “Stay a nite [sic] or stay
Armetrius Neason, Lynetrice Preston,
and Altonese Weaver each occupied their rooms for months or years. Neason
remains there still, but Preston and Weaver have left.
When the three Plaintiffs first
moved in, they each signed a rental agreement. The agreements stated that “The
relationship of Innkeeper and Guest shall apply and not the relationship of
Landlord and Tenant.” Each referred multiple times to the occupant and
Lodge as Guest and Innkeeper.
The agreements provided that payment
was due weekly, while management reserved the right to enter for housekeeping and
maintenance. The agreements also addressed the term of occupancy, but the
blanks were never completed.
One of the agreements allowed the
occupant to remain on a week-to-week basis, while another agreement specified
that the occupant could remain “for 180 days straight,” after which she would have
to vacate for two days before she could return.
All three Plaintiffs contend that
they used the Lodge as their home; the Lodge does not contest this assertion.
In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic,
all three Plaintiffs were unable to pay Lodge. Weaver was locked out of her
room, although the other two Plaintiffs were not.
Neason, Preston and Weaver sued the
Lodge. They asked for an injunction prohibiting the Lodge from removing them
without formal eviction proceedings, and for damages to compensate Weaver for the
lockout. The trial court granted the injunction, determining that Plaintiffs
used the Lodge as their long-term home.
The Lodge appealed.
court of appeals affirmed, finding that the contracts signed between Plaintiffs
and the Lodge were ambiguous about the nature of the legal relationship. The
appellate court noted that Plaintiffs had lived at the Lodge for a long time,
that each brought many personal items with them, and that they used the Lodge
as their home address for official purposes. As a result, the court of appeals
determined that the Lodge is required to process formal eviction proceedings to
remove the Plaintiffs.
the Lodge appealed to the Supreme Court. The high Court reviewed the facts and
Under the law, tenants must
be evicted through a court procedure while guests can simply be precluded
from entering their rooms. Innkeepers are required to receive a written
statement establishing the period during which a guest may occupy a room. At
expiration, an innkeeper can change door locks or otherwise prohibit the guest
from entering, without court involvement.
The Supreme Court first analyzed the
structure of a landlord-tenant relationship, which grants a right of possession,
enjoyment, and use. Although not stated, the implication is that an estate in land
is contemplated in each LL-T scenario. And similarly, a motel or hotel guest
has less, more like a license or limited contractual right.
Possession of the premises is a
factor and use of the property as a “home” and “dwelling place” is evidence of
a LL-T relationship. The ability to accept and preclude visitors and third
parties can also be an important factor in finding or negating the existence of
a LL-T structure.
However, a LL-T relationship is not
determined by a person’s subjective belief that a property is used as a home. And
of course commercial tenants do not use their premises as a residence, but yet the
LL-T foundation is undeniable.
So the Supreme Court lands exactly
where it should, by asking about the intent of the parties. If the agreement is
clear then there is no reason to ask further questions. If unclear, extrinsic
evidence is needed to explain and resolve the ambiguities.
evidence might also include the parties’ course of conduct, as shown by their
In that vein, the Supreme Court asks
if the Plaintiffs decorated and furnished the premises, cleaned and maintained
the room, entertained guests, altered the locks, and changed or added security
devices. Or, maybe the Plaintiffs had those rights but ignored them, and
instead the innkeeper tightly controlled access, maintained and cleaned,
allowed and prohibited guests and set hours, and prohibited anyone from changing
door locks and adding security equipment.
The high Court concludes that the
LL-T relationship is created by the transfer of possession, while the
innkeeper-guest structure is “marked by the payment of a fee ‘for the
purpose of entertainment’ at an inn.” Both court of appeals and trial court
decisions are vacated; the case is returned to the trial court to start over
and more closely examine the precise relationship of the parties with specific
emphasis on the contracts and other related evidence.
Efficiency Lodge v. Neason; Case No. S22G0838; Supreme Court of Georgia;
June 21, 2023: https://casetext.com/case/efficiency-lodge-inc-v-neason-2.
Questions / Issues:
- The legal difference between a tenant and guest
is a common issue. The former is entitled to all the protections of law; the
latter has virtually none. Hotel and motel contracts are often
non-existent, or if there is one it is poorly written on an index card,
and not signed by both parties. This well-reasoned decision merits review
to understand how at least one Supreme Court makes the distinction between
tenant and guest.
- If you are a landlord, there is likely nothing
you can do to recharacterize your tenant as a guest. If however you own a
hotel or motel, or perhaps your mother-in-law is overstaying her welcome
at your humble abode, it may be pivotal to examine the relationship
closely before you conclude that your occupant is merely a guest, subject
to virtually no protection under law, and you prevent entry. Because if
you guess wrong, the damages could be steep.
- Is this yet another situation where the State
legislature could help? Perhaps paying guests could be automatically
converted to tenants after six months of continued occupancy without
default, while all others remain guests. Wouldn’t most paying guests be
surprised to learn they have no legal protection after six months of room
Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*
* Board Certified, Commercial (1989) and Residential (1988) Real Estate Law, Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Licensed in the States of Texas and New York
Reprinted with the permission of North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.