Freaky Friday: “Legally, Your House is Haunted.”

Dudes, the law can be downright creepy at times. I’m not talking about stuff like the fact Ted Bundy went to law school, lawyers who are rapists, or any of that sort of mundane shit. I’m talking about “a knock at the door of your cabin in the middle of the woods at 3:00 in the morning” creepy. I’m talking about being upstairs alone in the house and clearly hearing someone downstairs call your name. I’m talking about that feeling you get when you go into the basement for something and from one specific corner you get the feeling there’s someone standing there, staring holes of hatred in your back…but the corner is empty. Yeah, that’s the type of shit I’m talking about here.

This is the first Freaky Friday post here on Lawyers & Liquor, where we’re going to talk about some weird shit that goes down in the practice of the law, from cases that are mysteries on up to the paranormal. “Why are we doing this, Boozy?” I can hear you moan over the clanking chains, “Don’t we have enough themed shit to deal with already?” No, and fuck you. My blog, my rules, and my rules say now is the time we talk about ghosts and shit.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “How much of this shit can there be?”

Well, considering that one of the cases every lawyer learns declares a house to be legally fucking haunted, you tell me.

Every year a new crop of 1L’s enter into either their property or contracts class, pop open their casebooks, and turn to the case of Stambovsky v. Ackley169 A.2d 254 (NY App. Div. 1991). They then proceed to giggle upon reading the first line of this famous case:

Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists, reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years.

Id. at 255-56. That’s right. This is a lawsuit that was brought because somebody bought a haunted fucking house.

Here are the facts:  At some point in the 1960’s a woman named Helen Ackley bought a house in Nyack, New York. For a long time the house had been empty and in serious disrepair, and so, naturally, the local kids, being the assholes that all fucking kids are, told her that the house was haunted. Cue Ms. Ackley and family reporting they were being haunted by the ghosts of prior residents of the home, who did such things as:

  • Ghosts shaking the kids awake for school;
  • Ghosts approving of Ms. Ackley’s interior decorating skills;
  • Ghosts providing the family with silverware; and
  • Ghosts standing in the corner of the fucking room, freezing your ass in place, and watching you sleep.

Of course, like any intelligent person would do, and in a manner that makes me think I may be the spiritual successor to Ms. Ackley, she turned into a big ol’ media hog about the haunted house, listing it on haunted house tours in the area, reporting her encounters to the neighbors (who likely said “Oh…that’s nice, Helen George, lock the fucking doors tonight, Ackley’s seeing dead people and we’re next.”), and reporting it to Reader’s Digest!

Oh, wait, right, it’s 2017. You see, kids, Reader’s Digest is that magazine your grandma has on her living room table. A magazine is something people used to read offline. I know, fucking weird, right?

Anyhow, back to the story. Somewhere around 1989, Ms. Ackley decided she’d had enough of the ghosts and wanted to retire to Florida, where her co-tenants would be nearly, and not fully, dead. So she stuck the house on the market, and in came Jeffrey Stambovsky. Stambovsky wasn’t from Nyack, Stambovsky was from motherfucking’ New York City and he was willing to buy the house for $650,000. That’s about $1,200,000 today, give or take a few hundred grand. And why wouldn’t he have paid that, I mean, it was a nice historic home in good repair in a quiet little town only about 20 miles away from Manhattan (technically). Prime fucking real estate.

You know, except for the goddamn ghosts.

See, Ackley and her realtor had…neglected to mention that they’d spent goddamn decades telling people the house was haunted locally and nationally, and Stambovsky, who was apparently not in his 80’s and therefore not a frequent reader of Reader’s Digest, was unaware of this press. You know, because he wasn’t from Nyack, and apparently those helpful kids who had told Ackley about the haunting had all mysteriously disappeared around the same time the house went up for sale or something. Who knows. What we do know, is it wasn’t until after the downpayment was made and the contract was signed that Stambovsky became aware he was buying several tenants in the transaction.

So, Stambovsky sued to rescind the contract, basing it on the fact that Ackley had failed to disclose a material fact regarding the home that was known and could reasonably be discovered only by her. The court looked at this and said “Oh, come the fuck on” and dismissed the case. Then Stambovsky appealed, and the appellate court said “Well, wait a second…”

So, let’s do some law shit now that you have the background:

So The Court Found the House Was Haunted?

Yep. Well, no, but yep. Technically, what the appellate court found was that Ackley had advertised and gone to great lengths to present the house as being haunted. She had gone to national magazines and shit about it. Accordingly the appellate court found that, as a matter of equity, she was estopped (prevented) from arguing that the house wasn’t haunted. It’s not…exactly the same thing as legally declaring a house is haunted, but for the purposes of this case it had the same effect as legally declaring the house was haunted.

Here’s the thing, the law doesn’t like people making a statement, benefiting from that statement or act, and then turning around and trying to deny that statement or act when it seems like they may get in trouble. Even lawyers are held to this shit: If we make an argument and succeed on it in one part of a case, we then can’t switch positions and argue the opposite side later in the case. The court will mightily smack us the fuck down. So, in looking at the case, the court really just said “Look, Helen, you spent about thirty fucking years telling people your house was haunted and advertising it. We’re definitely not going to let you back out of those statements now simply because you may lose money. As far as this court is concerned, in this case ghosts fucking exist and all of them live at your house.”

So You Can Get Out of a Contract If They Don’t Tell You A House Is Haunted?

No. No, that’s not what this case says even if it is what it actually says. What this case was really about was whether the principle of caveat emptor (Buyer Beware) prevented the rescission (nullification/voiding) of the contract between Stambovsky and Ackley for the sale of the house. Okay, so, here’s the deal:

New York at this time was a pretty strict caveat emptor state. That means that when a buyer was purchasing property, he had a duty to do everything he could to make sure the property was in an acceptable condition, like searching the public records regarding the property and having inspections performed. If a buyer failed to act with all due diligence, the legal term that means “doing that shit responsibly,” then the buyer was barred from later coming back into court and arguing that something they could have, but didn’t, discover should allow them to get out of the contract. This, by the way, is sort of the general rule for this shit today. You’ll see clauses in real estate contracts where a buyer  “knowingly waives” any inspections they don’t actually order specifically to make sure this sort of argument doesn’t get any legs, spectral or otherwise.

However, there are exceptions to caveat emptor in even the strictest situations, and one of them is where the condition is one that the seller knows about which could not reasonably be discovered by a prudent investigation and due diligence by the seller. Another is where the seller themselves creates the fucking condition, knows about it, and the buyer can’t discover it, they definitely have that duty.

That was really why the court held the way it did: There was a condition, namely that the house was “haunted,” that the seller knew about and Stambovsky, despite his due diligence, couldn’t discover, which the seller then advertised to everyone but the fucking buyer. In this case, the court said that shit was not okay, and Stambovsky was entitled to back the fuck out of the contract rather than have to live his life surrounded by salt circles and tracking down graves to burn the fucking bones.

Did You Just Make a Supernatural Reference?

Do you know if the Pizza Boy truly loves the Babysitter?

Wait a second, You Said Ackley Stuck This Shit In A National Publication.

Right, right, but let me ask you a question: In 1989, prior to Google, Yahoo, or any of that shit, how the fuck would Stambovsky have discovered this? Was he expected to go through every fucking copy of Reader’s Digest ever printed before buying any house to make sure nobody had ever said it was haunted? Was he supposed to hire someone to interview all of the residents of Nyack about the history of the house and whether or not “Crazy Helen and Her Ghostly Tenants” were real or not? Maybe, as the court suggested, he should have brought a fucking psychic to inspect any property he purchased?

Stambovsky didn’t live in Nyack, and at that time there was no good way to find out all of this shit like we have today. When you buy a house, you’re normally concerned about the property condition and the title condition, not whether there are spiritual hanger-ons looking over your shoulder for interior decorating purposes. The court, wisely, determined that holding a seance was not within the scope of a buyer’s expected due diligence.

Does…Does This Mean I Can Get Out of A Contract If They Fail To Tell Me Anything?

No, asshole. No. It means they have to disclose material conditions on the property, which are defined in this case as conditions that affect the property value. Normally, a material condition is one that, if it had been known, would have prevented the contract from ever being signed in the first place. The real question becomes “what is material,” and that’s something that goes case-by-case. Sure, calling the house “haunted” may not have affected the value of the property on the market, but maybe Stambovsky has a serious fear of ghosts, so it affects the value  to him. If he was buying a commercial property, that wouldn’t matter…but he was buying a place to live. So you determine what is and is not a material condition based on the circumstances of the case and the nature of the contract itself, not by some litmus test.

But don’t go claiming the seller didn’t tell you about a fucking lightbulb being burned out, so you can rescind any contract.

THE DOUBLE WHAMMY!

In an interesting piece of dicta in the decision, which you should definitely go fucking read because it’s a masterpiece of legal snark, the court had an interesting sidenote, stating that “even if caveat emptor applied,” the contract could still be open to rescission because:

[I]f the language of the contract is to be construed as broadly as defendant urges to encompass the presence of poltergeists in the house, it cannot be said that she has delivered the premises “vacant” in accordance with her obligation under the provisions of the contract rider.

Ackley, 169 A.2d at 260. Want the fun read on that? The court was (snarkily) saying that even if the contract was to be enforced, Ackley could still be viewed as breaching because she couldn’t deliver a vacant house…as the ghosts resided in it.

So, in one decision a court in New York implied that a house was legally haunted and that the ghosts within had a legal identity as tenants.

Dudes, the law is fucking strange sometimes, isn’t it?

Seeya Monday.

Monday I’m finally reviewing Larry Kelter’s sequel to My Cousin Vinny called “Back to Brooklyn.” Then next Friday is, again, Fetish Friday where we’ll get into the topic of consent and BDSM relationships.

Till then, the weekend’s here, and I got work to do then games to play. Take it easy.

-BB

Author: BoozyBarrister

From a riverboat to a law office, the BoozyBarrister is a civil litigator with a bad attitude.