Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why can houses be haunted as a matter of law?

Houses are like boyfriends. No matter how they look on paper, often it is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes or breaks the deal.

Image courtesy smemon

Sometimes, that house's je ne sais quoi is its haunted stigma.

Every year around Halloween time, we legal nerds trot out Stambovsky v. Ackley, the "haunted as a matter of law" case. Yes, as the detractors shall say, the case has little precedential value--judges nationwide aren't running around declaring things haunted as a matter of law every day. It's mostly relevant for people trying to sell historic homes in New York. So why are we still talking about it?

The case has staying power for two reasons: 1) we love a good story about something that is true in law and dubious in fact (see also the story of the man who failed to convince a court that he was not legally dead); 2) we love when the law reflects our values, even when they aren't rational. Well, OK, and 3) we love when the law, ordinarily so serious and formal, has a sense of humor. Justice Israel Rubin--or probably more accurately, his ghostwriting law clerk--does not disappoint us in the opinion he writes for the Stambovsky majority, peppering his opinion with ghost puns, Ghostbusters references, and a quote from the ghost in Hamlet.

The story behind Stambovsky is simple enough. In 1989, Helen Ackley tried to sell her ginormous mansion in Nyack, New York, to Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky. The Stambovskys put down a $32,500 deposit. All appeared to be going well, until an architect mentioned to the Stambovskys in passing that they were buying "the haunted house." Indeed, several newspaper articles (the New York Times, Reader's Digest) had covered the house as haunted. This particularly upset Patrice, who refused to move in to the house. The Stambovskys sued, claiming Ackley should have warned them about the haunting like any other home defect, and demanded their deposit back. The state trial court dismissed their claim, and the Stambovskys appealed. The opinion we read is the appellate opinion, which ruled in the Stambovskys' favor (specifically, that the Stambovskys' claim for rescission should be reinstated in the state court without them having to pay the filing fee again, which is a definite win). The parties then settled out of court: the Stambovskys paid Ackley $5,000, and she let them out of the contract.

As Colin Dayan reveals in The Law is a White Dog, cases like Stambovsky have a long history. She quotes Andreas Becker's 1700 doctoral thesis, Disputatio Juridica de Jure Spectrorum (Juridical Disputation on the Law of Ghosts), which talks about selling haunted houses in eerily similar language:
If a house is sold and the purchaser finds it haunted, can he demand a rescinding of the contract of sale? Yes, if the specters had infested the house before the sale, and he had not known it. His action would be de dolo [about trickery], and he might be aided by an actio ad redhibendum [action for recovery]. Proof of guilty knowledge on the part of the owner might be difficult, and the best means would be per delationem juramenti [by deposing an oath].
Three hundred years later, hauntings and other stigmas still have a real financial impact on the value of a house. Realtor.com recently conducted an online survey of more than 1,400 respondents: many would expect a discount on a haunted house, and more than a third would refuse to buy the house entirely.

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Suggested soundtrack: RJD2's Ghostwriter, in honor of Justice Rubin's ghostwriting law clerk. 

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