APPEAL FROM THE RENTAL HOUSING COMMISSION. [709 A2d Page 95]
Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Steadman and Reid,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge:
This appeal involves the proper application of the statute of limitations to tenant challenges of rents charged by their landlords. More specifically, the question presented is whether tenants may challenge rent charges, where they are asserted to exceed the lawful rent ceiling based solely on a single improper ceiling adjustment made some eight years previously and, therefore, not itself subject to direct attack because of the three-year statute of limitations contained in the Rental Housing Act of 1985, D.C.Code § 45-2516(e) (1996). The Rental Housing Commission ("Commission" or "RHC") ruled that the tenants' challenge was time-barred by that provision. We affirm.
Petitioners are seventy-five tenants of the Hampton House Apartments, a ninety-seven unit residential apartment building located at 2700 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., and the Hampton House Tenants Association. On April 11, 1994, they filed a petition with the Rent Administrator *fn1 seeking refunds of excessive rents paid since April 11, 1991, with interest and treble damages, and a declaration of the lawful rent ceiling level. The petition alleged that the Hampton House landlord-intervenor, Ronald Shapiro, doing business as Shapiro & Company ("housing provider"), maintained unlawful rent ceiling levels and, in reliance on these ceilings, charged unlawfully inflated rents for the years 1991-1994. The petition attributed the improper ceilings exclusively to an erroneously computed June 30, 1986 rent ceiling adjustment which, because of the statutory method for the annual updating of rent ceilings, resulted in incorrect and unlawful rent ceilings for all subsequent years. *fn1 See D.C.Code § 45-2516(a), (b) (1996). [709 A2d Page 96]
The housing provider raised the statute of limitations defense under D.C.Code § 45-2516(e), pointing out that the only disputed rent ceiling adjustment, that of June 30, 1986, occurred more than three years before the petition's filing and was thus unassailable. Petitioners countered that § 45-2516(e) only served to limit their recovery to the excess rents paid over the three years preceding the petition. They characterized the petition simply as a challenge to patently unlawful rents and rent ceilings for the years 1991-1994, not to the propriety of the 1986 adjustment, which they conceded could not be litigated because of the statute of limitations.
The hearing examiner, reversing an earlier order, agreed with the housing provider that the statute of limitations barred the petition and dismissed it with prejudice. The Rental Housing Commission affirmed.
Until the adoption of the Rental Housing Act of 1985, the applicable statute of limitations to rent overcharge claims was the general three-year statute of limitations contained in D.C.Code § 12-301(8) (1995) as an action for which a limitation "is not otherwise specially prescribed." Lustine v. Williams, 68 A.2d 900, 902 (D.C. 1949) (citing D.C.Code § 12-201 (1940), the predecessor to § 12-301). In McCulloch v. District of Columbia Rental Accommodations Comm'n, 449 A.2d 1072 (D.C. 1982), applying that statute, we upheld a tenant petition alleging rent overcharge filed more than three years after the rent increase that triggered the cause of action. We stated, "with each rental payment that is illegally charged, a new cause of action will arise." Id. at 1073. The legacy of McCulloch was that "a petition claiming illegal rents could be filed within three years of the last demand for the allegedly illegal rent, irrespective of when that rent was first implemented or demanded." Sendar v. Burke, HP 20, 213 and TP 20, 772 (RHC Apr. 6, 1988) at 21. Thus, prior to the 1985 Act, the tenants' position here would undoubtedly prevail.
The question then is whether the 1985 Rental Housing Act, which is applicable to the events before us, changed the law in that respect. We first briefly set forth the overall structure of the Act as relevant here. Section 206(a), codified as D.C.Code § 45-2516(a) (1996), establishes the concept of a "rent ceiling" as the sum of the "base rent" *fn2 and all duly authorized rent increases. See also D.C.Code § 45-2503(29) (1996) (identifying the term "rent ceiling" as the "amount defined in or computed under § 45-2516"); Winchester Van Buren Tenants Ass'n v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 550 A.2d 51, 53 (D.C. 1988). Specifically, the statute provides, "no housing provider of any rental unit subject to this chapter may charge or collect rent for the rental unit in excess of the amount computed by adding to the base rent not more than all rent increases authorized after April 30, 1985." D.C.Code § 45-2516(a). The housing provider may adjust the rent ceiling for a variety of reasons, including the annual "adjustment of general applicability" tied to changes in the Washington, D.C., Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers ("CPI-W"). D.C.Code § 45-2516(b). See also D.C.Code §§ 45-2517, -2520 to -2525 (1996).
As part of Section 206, the Act for the first time contained a statute of limitations provision specifically applicable to tenant challenges. [709 A2d Page 97]
That subsection, pivotal for purposes of this appeal, reads as follows:
A tenant may challenge a rent adjustment implemented under any section of this chapter by filing a petition with the Rent Administrator under § 45-2526. No petition may be filed with respect to any rent adjustment, under any section of this chapter, more than 3 years after the effective date of the adjustment, except that a tenant must challenge the new base rent as provided in § ...