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Henson v. Prue

November 27, 2002


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA9468-98) (Hon. Joan Zeldon, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Schwelb, and Reid, Associate Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge

Argued November 4, 2002

Following a bench trial, the trial court ruled that the defendant, Clarence Prue, had wrongfully evicted Gregory Henson by changing the locks to a house at which Henson had rented a room. Declaring that she did not believe Henson's testimony, however, the trial judge assessed Prue's damages at zero. Henson appeals; we conclude that, in light of the trial judge's findings, the judge could permissibly hold that Henson was entitled only to nominal damages. Because a remand for the award of nominal damages would serve no useful purpose, we affirm.


According to his testimony at the trial, Henson moved into Prue's house at 2113 First Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 1998. Although the record does not disclose a great deal regarding the nature of the house, one of the other residents, a Mr. Brooks, *fn1 described it as a "recovery house" at which "everyone in the house, to my understanding, was in recovery" and was "one step from the curb as it is." *fn2 Henson agreed with this description; he called the residence "a drug house, rehabilitation house." No drugs or alcohol were permitted. Henson paid $275 per month in rent.

The trouble with Henson's tenancy began when the residents learned that Henson, who was forty-six years old at the time of trial, was bringing minors into the house, evidently for inappropriate purposes. *fn3 Brooks related what happened next:

After a period of time of asking him to not to bring the kids in, you know, try to obey the house rules a little more, he was asked to leave. We took a vote on letting him, because that's how we do things and we also took a vote on asking him to leave.

And at the time he was asked to leave, he said he had a place to go, but it wasn't ready or something to that nature. So he was allowed 90 days to accumulate his funds and leave. And he agreed to this, verbally he agreed to this.

But, after that time, when the 90 days w[ere] up, he said he didn't have to go [any]where and he didn't. So trying to force the issue, the front door lock was changed. And the next thing I know, we are down here.

On or about December 12, 1998, Henson came home to find that the lock on the front door of the house had been changed and that he could not gain entry to the house. Two days later, Henson filed a handwritten pro se complaint alleging that Prue had evicted him without any legal process. Henson demanded judgment in the amount of $999.99. Henson also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and on December 29, 1998, Judge Russell F. Canan granted the motion. The judge ordered Prue to permit Henson to enter and occupy the house, to provide Henson with keys, and to "refrain from barring [Henson's] access to the house and apartment without resort to procedures allowable by the law." *fn4 Following the entry of the TRO, Henson regained possession of his unit.

The case came to trial before Judge Joan Zeldon on February 8, 1999. Henson was represented by counsel; Prue appeared pro se. Henson testified that during the eighteen days that he was locked out of the house, he had no access to his personal possessions, merchandise, *fn5 and medication. Henson claimed that, while he was locked out, he spent most nights at the bus station or "doze[d] off" at the laundromat, and that he could not take a shower or change his clothes. Henson stated that for about four nights he stayed in a hotel, which he was able to do with money provided to him by the man for whom he worked. Henson also asserted that he suffered substantial pain as a result of his inability to take his medication, and he proffered a $150 bill from George Washington University Hospital. Finally, Henson testified that when he regained admission to his unit, some of his jewelry was missing and that there was mildew on some of his clothes. Henson denied that he was renting premises on U Street or had a place to stay there.

At the conclusion of the trial, the judge ruled, as both Judge Canan and Judge Diaz had ruled previously, that Henson's eviction was unlawful:

I greatly respect a house of recovery and I understand full well the importance [of] honesty and obeying rules. When he failed to fulfill your rules and engaged in conduct that did not justify him being allowed to live there, you should have ...

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