Resident who broke rules, didn't pay rent can be evicted from Manchester sober home, says Supreme Court

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Sep. 2—CONCORD — A resident of a Manchester sober home who broke the rules and didn't pay rent cannot use landlord-tenant laws to remain at the home, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court said that Robert St. Onge could not be legally considered a tenant of the Live Free Structured Sober Living group home on Rimmon Street in Manchester.

One of a dozen residents of the zero-tolerance home, St. Onge was kicked out for not paying rent and abusing prescription medication, according to court filings.

St. Onge had claimed that the owner of the Live Free home, Oberten LLC, was unable to kick him out, citing Gov. Chris Sununu's COVID-19 eviction moratorium and New Hampshire landlord-tenant law.

Such law requires formal notice of eviction and can stretch out in the courts for months.

But in the eight-page opinion written by Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald, the justices pointed out that St. Onge signed a contract that specified that residents of the sober living home have no tenant rights.

Further, the New Hampshire landlord-tenant law specifically exempts group homes, MacDonald wrote. The ruling could provide some direction to cities and towns, which are grappling with sober homes within their borders.

"It's important that the Court recognized the sober home as a group home," said Jonathan Gerson of Into Action Sober Living. His organization is battling Manchester city officials over a sober home he operates on Orange Street. The city has twice turned down approvals for the home, and he is expected to take file an appeal in either state or federal courts.

Gerson said he wants a reasonable accommodation under the Federal Housing Act.

Mayor Joyce Craig and one of her challengers, Richard Girard, opposed a variance for the Orange Street property. A second challenger, Victoria Sullivan, has said the home entails women trying to stay sober, and Craig has no plan other than to uproot people in need and throw them on the streets.

The case about the Rimmon Street sober home does not involve the city or Into Action. It was issued Thursday.

"Because the facility at issue is a 'group home' under (state landlord-tenant law), the relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff was not a 'tenancy,'" MacDonald wrote.

"Accordingly, the plaintiff was not entitled to the protections of (landlord-tenant law), and the defendant need not have brought an eviction proceeding before requiring him to vacate his room," the ruling reads.

It is one of the first opinions issued by MacDonald, Sununu's pick for chief justice. Although he has been on the Supreme Court since March, MacDonald has had to recuse himself from many cases because of conflicts related to his previous position as New Hampshire Attorney General.

The justices said that Sununu's moratorium applied to traditional landlords, not group homes.