Packrats, Hoarding and a “Collyer Condition”

Most people know what a “Collyer’s Condition” is even if they never heard the term before. They know it as hoarding. I think most people could see a house or apartment and make a quick conclusion whether or not the person who lives there is in fact a hoarder.

But in the context of a legal proceeding that is based on a “Collyer’s Condition,” how should the landlord demonstrate to the court that a “Collyer’s Condition” exists at a tenant’s residence? What should a tenant, who is or has been accused of being an inveterate packrat, argue in his or her defense?

I. Defining a “Collyer’s Condition”

First, it’s necessary to know how courts define a Collyer’s Condition. One court described this by highlighting the tenant’s “excessive accumulation of papers, debris and refuse, which had “taken over all livable space in the demised premises.”  Gazivoda v Sherman, 2008 NY Slip Op 50312[U], *1, 2008 WL 480014, at *1, 2008 NY Misc LEXIS 587, at *1 [App Term, 1st Dept, Feb. 22, 2008, per curiam] (quotations omitted).

Attorneys for landlords will describe a “Collyer’s Condition” in some variation of the text below:

You have maintained the Apartment in an extremely cluttered and unhygienic condition. More specifically, you have cluttered the Apartment and furniture with numerous pieces of mechanical equipment in various stages of disassembly, empty food cans, old newspapers and other unidentifiable items, completely covering most of the flat surfaces and floors in the Apartment, and piled several feet high throughout the Apartment making passage throughout the Apartment difficult. Thus, you have created a “Collyer condition” in the Apartment.

II.  “Collyer’s Condition” Must Also be a Nuisance

A “Collyer’s Condition” can’t just be proved by showing the tenant has a lot of stuff. There must be a nexus between all that “stuff” and how other people in the building are negatively effected.

To state a claim for nuisance based on the existence of a “Collyer’s condition,” the requirements for nuisance must still be established. Most of the time this isn’t difficult because it’s inevitable that in accumulating so many things, there’s the presence of organic matter (such as food), causing the presence of bugs, infestation and foul smells. Broadway Greystone LLC v. Rodriguez, 2015 NY Slip Op 30332 (“Allowing a clutter condition to exist unabated, such as that established in the case at bar, does constitute such a nuisance” when that clutter leads to foul odors and the presence of bugs.)

Landlords also may say that a tenant’s excessive accumulation of items represents a “Collyer’s Condition” because it poses a fire-hazard.  However, this argument is a bit tricky to make. You can’t just argue that because someone has a lot of things in a cluttered apartment, it’s possible for spontaneous combustion to occur, setting the residence ablaze.  Usually, claims of a fire-hazard which accompany a “Collyer’s Condition” are demonstrated by showing the tenant has papers or other, non-cooking items on the stove or that the electrical outlets are overloaded.  107-109 E. 88th St. LLC v. Nowillo, 2005 NY Slip Op 51114(U) (finding Collyer Condition where “Respondent maintained a fire-hazard Collyer condition by leaving numerous flammable items on his stove, which he uses everyday to cook.”).  And to prove that a tenant has overloaded a power outlet, in the absence of an electrical fire caused by too many cords plugged into a single outlet, would be difficult.

IV.  Collyer Conditions and Definitions

A Collyer Condition is usually described as existing “over time,” “unabated” or as a result of the tenant’s “accumulation of old newspapers and knicknacks.”  The accumulation aspect of the Collyer Condition is most interesting here. This is because the word “accumulate” connotes a time element, or gradualism.

The Cambridge Dictionary Online defines it as “to ​collect a ​large ​number of things over a ​long ​period of ​time.”  Another dictionary emphasizes the “gathering” aspect of accumulation.

Then looking to what “gather” means, we see that it refers to “collecting or obtaining things, especially from different places.

Putting accumulate and gather together, we have a clearer understanding of what the Collyer Condition refers to.  If I were a landlord, I’d be sure to show that the items or possessions which are alleged to constitute the Collyer Condition have been present in the apartment at different stages.

Moreover, it is a better argument for a landlord if the items which are part of the Collyer’s Condition are things that would not typically be found together.  For example, if the entire apartment just contains old computers that look like they were all obtained from the same place at the same time, this isn’t as strong an argument than if the apartment possessed old computers, children’s toys and unused kitchen appliances. By including three very different types of items, you do two things.  The first is to satisfy the “gather” element in that those types of different items are not typically found in the same place. The second and more powerful thing is that you give the impression to the court that there is no method to the tenant’s madness. In other words, the tenant just accumulates items without any goal or plan. While this may not be true, it makes the tenant look disturbed and that’s what you want to do if you’re a landlord.

V.  Where Clutter is Not a Collyer Condition

If a tenant just happens to collect lots of junk (old video games, auto parts, etc.) or is a packrat, that wouldn’t be sufficient to demonstrate a Collyer’s Condition. There might be an issue if pathways into and out of the apartment are obstructed, but that wouldn’t necessarily fall under a cause of action for nuisance.  And as already stated, the cluttered condition of the apartment must be such that it harms others in the building.  Most times, excessive clutter or stuff will be a Collyer’s Condition, at least to a court. I don’t believe there’s been any appellate decision in New York with respect to a situation like the following.

Suppose a tenant lived in an apartment for 25 years, without any complaints or history of hoarding. Then the tenant’s office closes or he decides to relocate his office for any number of reasons. The tenant brings the stuff from his office back to his apartment while he decides what to do with it. Of course, it would probably be easier to put it in a storage unit, but maybe the tenant needs to go through the items and that would take a long time. Or maybe he just doesn’t have the money for a temporary storage unit.

Then the day after the tenant brings the items from his office back to his apartment, the building’s manager comes by to perform a standard maintenance request made by the tenant. Now the building’s manager sees the tenant’s apartment is almost completely covered by items that have been temporarily relocated. The building’s manager tells the landlord, who tells his attorney, and they serve the tenant with a notice of termination or a notice to cure, alleging the existence of a “Collyer’s Condition.”

The tenant could be argue in his defense that (1) while there may have been an excess of items in the apartment, there was never any “accumulation” of items, as all the items were transferred to the apartment at the same time and did not appear there gradually, over time (see In re Griggsby, 404 B.R. 83 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2009)), (2) the excessive possessions did not pose a health or safety risk to other tenants – this means the stove is clear, outlets aren’t overloaded and food products are not scattered about (Zipper v. Haroldon Court Condominium39 A.D.3d 325, 835 N.Y.S.2d 43 (App. Div. 2007)) and (3) the cluttered condition has been removed through the relocation and removal of those items that were temporarily stored in the apartment.

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