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Mason v. Morrisette: Minors Cannot Allege Violations of Federal Lead-Based Paint Act

A federal appellate court has considered whether children could bring a lawsuit for alleged violations of the federal Residential Lead-Based Paint Act ("Act").

Jason C. Mason and Natasha A. Mason (collectively, "Children") are minors and resided with their mother in a leased apartment ("Apartment") from May 1997 to July 1998. During that time period, the Apartment was transferred from James P. Morrisette to Joseph M. Griffiths (collectively, "Owners"). In September 1997, it was discovered that one of the Children had high levels of lead in her blood. Thereafter, the New Hampshire Division of Health Services inspected the Apartment and found significant lead contamination. Griffiths was ordered to remediate the Apartment, and eventually the Children were given emergency housing by the state when the other child was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood.

The Children, through their guardian, filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Act. The Act requires that sellers or lessors of property built before 1978 disclose all known information about lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards within their premises. The Act also requires the lessor or seller to provide the purchaser or lessee with a pamphlet describing the dangers lead-based paint poses to children and the Act also gives the purchaser or lessee ten days to inspect the premises for lead-based paint. Click here to learn more about the Act and the subsequent regulations enacted by HUD and the EPA ("Regulations"). The trial court determined that the Children were not "lessees" of the property, and therefore could not bring a lawsuit for violations of the Act because they did not have "standing." Therefore, the trial court dismissed the Children's lawsuit, and the Children appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the ruling of the trial court. Looking at the relevant case law, the court found that it was the first federal appellate court to consider whether or not minors who were not parties to the lease or sales transaction could bring a lawsuit for violations of the Act. The Children argued that the entire purpose of the Act was to help protect children from exposure to lead-based paint, and so it would be an "absurd" result if children who were exposed to lead-based paint could not bring a lawsuit for violations of the Act.

The court looked at the language of the Act to determine Congress' intent. The court found that the statutory language of the Act made it clear that the statute limits recovery to the "purchaser or lessee" of the property. The court found that finding was consistent with the Act's purpose of providing the purchaser or lessee with notice that there could be lead-based paint on the premises and giving the purchaser or lessee the opportunity to decline or continue with the transaction based on the knowledge that there may be lead-based paint on the premises.

Next, the court looked at the Regulations. While it was not necessary to look at the Regulations when the intent of Congress can be independently determined, the court found that the Regulations reinforced the idea that only the lessee or purchaser could bring a lawsuit for violations of the Act, as the Regulations had refined the definition of "lessee" to also include sublessees. The court found that its interpretation of the Act was not inconsistent with the Act's purpose of protecting minors, as the disclosure requirements were simply the method Congress had chosen to accomplish the goal of protecting minors from exposure to lead-based paint. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court's ruling in favor of the Owners, determining that the Children lacked standing to bring a lawsuit for Act violations.

Mason v. Morrisette, 403 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 2005).