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11/18/93 TRACI BARNES v. THEODORE J. SCHEVE AND

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


November 18, 1993

TRACI BARNES, APPELLANT
v.
THEODORE J. SCHEVE AND GERALDINE E. SCHEVE, APPELLEES

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Bruce S. Mencher, Trial Judge)

Before Ferren and Steadman, Associate Judges, and Newman, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge: In this case the Civil Division of the Superior Court entertained a summary action for possession, triable to a jury, under Landlord and Tenant Branch Rules. The trial court, after determining on defendant's motion for directed verdict that the plaintiff's tax deed was invalid, denied the tax purchaser's claim for possession. The court, however, imposed a lien against the property under D.C. Code § 47-1308 (1990) for the amount the purchaser had paid for the tax deed the court set aside. We hold that the trial court lacked authority to impose the lien, and accordingly we reverse.

I.

In September 1987, plaintiffs, the Scheves, brought suit in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of Superior Court, seeking possession of the premises at 1429 Parkwood Place, N.W. based on a tax deed. *fn1

The defendant, Barnes, argued that the Landlord and Tenant Branch did not have subject matter jurisdiction. She also demanded a jury trial and interposed a plea of title. As a result, the case was transferred to the Civil Division of Superior Court for trial. See Super. Ct. L&T R. 5(c) (plea of title), 6 (jury demand). Shortly before trial, Barnes withdrew her plea of title.

On December 4, 1990, the trial court granted a directed verdict in Barnes' favor, ruling that the Scheves were not entitled to possession because their tax deed was invalid. On December 17, 1990, however, the trial court imposed a lien against the Parkwood Place property in the Scheves' favor for the amount of the taxes they had paid plus statutory interest. *fn2 The court's order explained that the court had imposed a lien, rather than ordering Barnes to compensate the Scheves for taxes paid, because Barnes was "not the property owner." *fn3 The court ruled that the Scheves were entitled, nonetheless, to "appropriate relief."

Barnes appeals, contending that the trial court had no authority to impose a lien against the property. More specifically, she argues that (1) the trial court had no authority to impose a lien on the property because its authority to act was limited to that of the Landlord and Tenant Branch, which only had authority to rule on the issue of possession; (2) there is no statutory authority for the imposition of a lien under D.C. Code § 47-1308, (supra) note 2, as a remedy for the purchaser of an invalid tax deed; and (3) the trial court, in any event, did not have authority to impose a lien on the property because the court did not have jurisdiction over the actual owner of the property. We agree with Barnes' first contention and therefore do not reach the other two.

II.

This case concerns the authority of the Civil Division over a possessory action, certified and transferred by the Landlord and Tenant Branch because of a jury demand and a plea of title, when the plea of title -- but not the jury demand -- is withdrawn before trial. *fn4 It is important to note, first, that the rules governing the Landlord and Tenant Branch narrowly and specifically limit its reach. Rules 1 and 3 limit that Branch to summary actions for possession of real property, claims for personal property in the premises, and claims for money judgments based on rent in arrears. *fn5 Similarly, Rule 5 strictly circumscribes the defenses and counterclaims a defendant may assert in the Landlord and Tenant Branch. In addition to a general denial, the defendant is limited to an equitable defense of recoupment or set-off, certain counterclaims for a money judgment, and a plea of title. *fn6 Furthermore, the Landlord and Tenant Branch itself is limited to bench trials; when a tenant-defendant demands a jury, Rule 6 requires certification of the action to the Civil Division for trial. *fn7 Similarly, even in the absence of a jury demand, when a defendant answers with a plea of title, the case must be certified under Rule 5(c) for trial in the Civil Division. See (supra) note 6.

Rule 1 provides that any case certified by the Landlord and Tenant Branch to the Civil Division pursuant to Rule 5(c) (plea of title) "shall be subject in all respects to the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure." *fn8 In contrast, Rule 1 further provides that a case certified to the Civil Division pursuant to Rule 6 (jury demand) "shall remain subject to these Landlord and Tenant Rules in all respects, except that the actual conduct of the trial shall be in accordance with the Rules of the Civil Division governing trial procedure." See (supra) note 8.

When this case was originally certified to the Civil Division pursuant to Rules 5(c) and 6, the case became subject in all respects to the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure because of Barnes' Rule 6 plea of title. After the case had been certified, however, but before trial, Barnes withdrew her plea of title and the case then proceeded in the Civil Division only because of Barnes' jury demand. *fn9 According to Rule 1, therefore, this case should have remained subject to Landlord and Tenant Branch rules -- including limitations on cognizable actions -- in all respects, except for the actual conduct of the trial (under the Rules of the Civil Division governing trial procedure). See (supra) note 8. The trial court's authority accordingly was limited in scope to that of the Landlord and Tenant Branch; the court had no authority to grant the Scheves relief beyond awarding the claimed right to possession, see Super. Ct. L&T R. 1 & 3, (supra) note 5, just as the court would have had no authority to entertain a counterclaim beyond the scope of Landlord and Tenant Branch rules. See Mathis, supra note 6; Brown, supra note 6.

Once the Scheves' claim for possession failed for lack of a valid tax deed, the trial court -- limited to the claims cognizable in the Landlord and Tenant Branch, see (supra) note 5 -- should have ended the matter. The court had no authority to entertain and impose any remedy under D.C. Code § 47-1308, (supra) note 2, or any other form of relief. The trial court's judgment accordingly must be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. *fn10

So ordered.


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