Garner v. Gerrish and the Renter’s Life Estate: Teaching a New Concept of 'Home'
Faulkner University Law Review, Vol. 2, pp. 1-44, 2010
45 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2011 Last revised: 24 Feb 2011
Date Written: February 15, 2011
Property law scholars have been interested in Garner v. Gerrish, 63 N.Y.2d 575 (1984) because it presents a unique opportunity for discussing the boundaries of leasehold doctrine. As such, it is covered in various first-year property law textbooks. Its unusual fact pattern makes it useful as a means of helping students understand the differences among leaseholds for a term of years, the periodic tenancy, and the tenancy at will.
A landlord drafted a lease on a pre-printed form, writing in the terms of the lease, but without the advice of counsel. The lease had no end date and the tenant paid rent on a monthly basis. The landlord died within a few years of drafting the lease. In a dispute to determine the rights of the parties, the New York Court of Appeals held that since the tenant alone had the right to terminate, the landlord gave the tenant a determinable life estate. The tenant thus had a home for life, for which he need only pay the prescribed rent for as long as he chose to live on the premises. Though the case provided the basis for the Court of Appeals to modernize the tenancy at will in New York, I argue that it did not present the best fact pattern for doing so. Although the lease effectuated New York state rent control laws where they were not required by statute, it also indicates the possibilities to be found in disguised leasehold arrangements redefining the boundaries of “home.”
This article discusses the treatment of Garner v. Gerrish in typical first-year property textbooks. It explains and assesses the opinion from the trial court to the appellate decisions – the theories of the case developed by the parties, and the courts’ interpretations of landlord-tenant law. The article offers analyses of the archived records in the case that indicate the failures of the landlord’s executor to articulate the defenses of unconscionability and undue influence. It is unclear why the executor pursued this strategy.
Cases like these, where there are more questions than answers, present ideal opportunities for property law faculty to develop multifaceted pedagogical strategies. These might encourage students to think not only about doctrine but litigation strategies in the real estate context, and the perils to be found in flawed strategies that might result in decisions that go against them. In Garner v. Gerish, this meant a limited understanding of the case that coincided with prevailing pro-tenant sentiments in New York landlord tenant law.
Keywords: residential leaseholds, landlord tenant law
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