From Transient to Tenant Overnite: the Georgia Court of Appeals Leaves Room for Improvement in the Rights of Extended-stay Motel Residents

JurisdictionGeorgia,United States
Publication year2023
CitationVol. 74 No. 2

From Transient to Tenant OverNite: The Georgia Court of Appeals Leaves Room for Improvement in the Rights of Extended-Stay Motel Residents

Kayla Pfeifer

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From Transient to Tenant OverNite: The Georgia Court of Appeals Leaves Room for Improvement in the Rights of Extended-Stay Motel Residents

Kayla Pfeifer*

I. Introduction

In asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to unmask the true nature of the relationship between extended-stay motels and their guests, Efficiency Lodge sought to raise seemingly simple questions of classification in the context of a business transaction. For the plaintiffs, however, these questions hit closer to home as they sought to affirm their rights as tenants under Efficiency Lodge's roof. A comparative analysis of innkeeper laws and landlord-tenant laws strongly supports the court's holding that the plaintiffs were indeed tenants. However, the court's language in reaching that conclusion provides weak support for extended-stay motel tenants in an increasingly vulnerable housing market. By "constrain[ing]" itself to the outdated constructs of contract and property law, the court delivered a gaping opinion through which the plaintiffs and those similarly situated will inevitably fall through the cracks.1 Though the Georgia Court of Appeals reasoned that a tenancy had indeed arisen, it failed to explicitly determine the point between "a nite" and "forever" at which other tenancies would arise (or had already arisen) under Efficiency Lodge's roof.

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II. Factual Background

On September 25, 2020, extended-stay motel residents Armetrius Neason, Lynetrice Preston, and Altonese Weaver filed suit against the Efficiency Lodge branch they once considered home.2 Efficiency Lodge Inc. is a hotel chain that operates under an extended-stay model and primarily caters to low-income residents.3 Before litigation arose, Efficiency Lodge's website displayed the slogan, "Stay a Nite or Stay Forever."4 Each plaintiff continuously resided at the extended-stay motel for periods ranging anywhere from almost one to five years.5 They each signed uniform rental agreements, paid weekly rent, and housed their personal belongings in their rooms. Toward the end of their respective residencies, the plaintiffs experienced financial hardship due to the coVID-19 pandemic. consequently, each plaintiff fell behind on their rent payments. In response, Efficiency Lodge communicated to each plaintiff that the hotel would remove the plaintiffs from the property if they did not catch up on their rent.6 Plaintiff Preston received a notice on her door from Efficiency Lodge in April 2020, addressing her as a potential "tenan[t] at will" who could be evicted through the court process.7

Simultaneously, Efficiency Lodge repeated threats to lock the plaintiffs out of their rooms if they did not pay their back rent.8 Efficiency Lodge finally followed through on their threats and locked plaintiff Weaver out of her room in July 2020.9 Fearing imminent lockouts for plaintiffs Preston and Neason, the plaintiffs filed a complaint, a Motion for Temporary Restraining order, and an Interlocutory Injunction in Dekalb County Superior Court.10 In response, Efficiency Lodge filed an Answer and a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The superior court granted the plaintiffs' Interlocutory Injunction and denied Efficiency Lodge's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Efficiency Lodge appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. In reviewing the relational

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peculiarities between the parties, including the conflicting contractual provisions within the parties' agreements and whether the behaviors of the respective parties fell in accordance with the customs of innkeeper-guest relationships, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment.11 The Georgia Court of Appeals determined that Efficiency Lodge had unintentionally entered a landlord-tenant relationship with the plaintiffs, who were thereby entitled to formal dispossessory proceedings before they were removed from their homes.12

III. Legal Background

A. Overview of Georgia Innkeeper Laws

Georgia has long recognized the legal relationship between innkeepers and their guests. As early as 1863, Georgia codified the rights, duties, and liabilities of innkeepers.13 Since then, innkeeping has drastically evolved, requiring Georgia courts and legislators to address the modern complexities of the innkeeping market.

1. Georgia Statutory Definitions of Innkeeper

Although the term "innkeeper" is outdated in everyday conversation, the law continues to use this term as a legal status for tax and liability purposes. The official Code of Georgia Annotated section 43-21-114 defines inns as "all taverns, hotels, and houses of public general entertainment for guests."15 This code section also defines a guest as "a person who pays a fee to the keeper of an inn for the purpose of entertainment at that inn."16 Innkeeper status is therefore dependent upon the reciprocal relationship between the inn and its guests, or in other words, the exchange of money for "entertainment."17 When innkeepers offer rooms to the public, they are under statutory obligation to accept "all persons of good character who desire accommodation and who are willing to comply with his rules."18 Inns are places of public accommodation engaging in retail transactions with members of the public and are also subject to federal regulations prohibiting

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discrimination.19 While state and federal law prohibits Georgia innkeepers from withholding rooms to the public for discriminatory purposes, innkeepers are entitled to terminate occupancy of guests upon notice or cause.20

Since Georgia characterizes the monetary exchange between innkeeper and guest as a retail sale, state law requires an innkeeper to pay retail taxes when it charges transient guests for a room.21 However, the statute notably states that the "tax shall not apply to rooms, lodgings, or accommodations supplied for a period of 90 continuous days or more."22 This exception carries the same legislative rationale as Georgia's hotel-motel tax23 , which imposed a tax of $5.00 per night on all hotel and motel stays in efforts to generate the bulk of tax revenue for the state's transportation network from the out-of-state travelers who engaged in 85% of the state's hotel and motel transactions.24 The additional nightly tax levied on hotels and motels does not extend to "extended-stay rentals"25 that rent rooms for "longer than 30 consecutive days to the same customer."26 Considering the statutory implications of innkeeper laws, the Georgia legislature clearly views innkeepers as public entities that offer a taxable commodity to transient consumer bases comprised of in-and out-of-state travelers.

2. Georgia's History of Hybrid Hotels

Georgia has a murky view of innkeepers whose guests have outstayed their transiency. Whether the nomenclature has morphed from inn to boarding house to extended-stay motel, Georgia common law has previously debunked the mysterious nature of these "hybrids" on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they are truly hotels or homes.

In 1849, the Supreme Court of Georgia contemplated whether a spa owner who accommodated long-term guests was an innkeeper in Bonner

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v. Wellborn.27 In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia concluded that a spa owner did not conduct his business as an innkeeper open to the "wayfaring world," but rather, as a boarding house to which his lodgers stayed for "a season."28 Thus, the court held the accommodations between the spa and the seasonal boarders were more accurately characterized as a landlord-tenant relationship.29

In 1953, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed a similar issue in Garner v. LaMarr.30 The court in Garner held that the residents had established an oral tenancy with the innkeeper as they paid for a furnished room on a weekly basis.31 After the innkeeper failed to make repairs to the cracked ceiling over a period of two months, the residents were injured by heavy plaster that fell on top of them in their sleep.32 The Georgia Court of Appeals quickly affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of the plaintiffs' personal injury claim against the innkeeper, characterizing the relationship between the plaintiffs and the defendant as landlord and tenant. The court held that neither the inn's furnished rooms nor the week-to-week rates were persuasive in characterizing the defendant as an innkeeper.33 Rather, the court upheld the trial court's ruling of a landlord-tenant relationship and asserted that "[t]he relationship of landlord and tenant may be for any length of time fixed by agreement."34

B. Overview of Georgia Landlord-Tenant Laws

Due to the significant property interests at stake for both parties, landlord-tenant relationships are heavily regulated by state and federal law.

1. Statutory Provisions

Under O.C.G.A. § 44-7-1,35 a landlord-tenant relationship forms when a property owner grants another individual the right to "possess and

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enjoy" the property for a period determined by agreement or will of the grantor.36 Whether the parties intentionally or unintentionally enter these relationships through oral or written contract or conduct, the law upholds these relationships.37 Once a landlord-tenant relationship is established, neither party can waive the rights, duties, or remedies created during the tenancy.38 While tenants retain the right to possess and enjoy the property, landlords retain the duty to maintain the safety of the premises by upkeeping repairs and improvements.39 If landlords fail to "keep the premises in repair," they become liable to tenants in tort for any damages arising from the neglect.40 Alternatively, tenants must refrain from "injur[ing] the property" as their use of the property is limited to possession and enjoyment of the land.41 Tenants are also liable to landlords for rent.42

2. Due Process of...

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