Displacement and distress: statutory interpretation at the Washington Supreme Court

Segura v. Cabrera, No. 90088-4 (Wash. Oct. 29, 2015).

Segura v. Cabrera Washington Supreme Court landlord tenant damages

Suppose you rent from a Washington slumlord and conditions are so bad that code-enforcement officers require you to vacate the premises. In that case, Washington law may entitle you to a fixed amount of relocation assistance from the slumlord. You may also be entitled to “any actual damages . . . that exceed the amount of relocation assistance.”

The question here is whether the phrase “actual damages” includes damages for emotional distress. 

A majority of the Washington Supreme Court holds that the phrase does not include damages for emotional distress. While some of the opinion is a bit opaque, the basic outlines of its reasoning may be reconstructed. When the statute allows for actual damages that may “exceed the amount of relocation assistance,” it treats actual damages and relocation assistance as commensurable—as having a common measure. The statute could treat actual damages and relocation assistance this way, the majority seems to reason, only if they represented the same kind of damages for the same kind of injury. And because relocation assistance compensates economic harm, not emotional harm, “actual damages” must compensate only economic harm as well. 

Justice McCloud, joined by three other Justices, concurs in the result only. Precedent has defined “actual damages” as including damages for emotional distress. The legislature was presumably aware of that precedent when it enacted the relocation-assistance statute, so it presumably meant to make emotional-distress damages compensable. This inference is only strengthened by the use of the term “any,” the inclusive adjective that the statute pairs with “actual damages.” Justice McCloud concurs in the result simply because, in her view, the particular tenants in this case cannot recover emotional-distress damages. They requested an amount of damages that was less than the fixed amount of relocation assistance—and the statute allows for emotional-distress damages only when they exceed the amount of relocation assistance.