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Taylor v. Akin

September 16, 2004

ADRIENNE D. TAYLOR, APPELLANT
v.
AKIN, GUMP, STRAUSS, HAUER & FELD, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-4008-97) (Hon. Shellie F. Bowers, Trial Judge).

Before Terry and Ruiz, Associate Judges, and Steadman, Associate Judge, Retired.*fn1

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

Submitted April 29, 1999

This case arises in the aftermath of three lawsuits involving tenants of the Tyler House Apartments which extended over a period of almost ten years. Appellant, Adrienne Taylor, was a resident of Tyler House and the Secretary of the Tyler House Tenant Council when the first suit was filed in 1987. By her own account, Ms. Taylor played a substantial role in the early stages of the litigation. She helped the Tenant Council secure the services of the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P. ("Akin Gump"), on a pro bono basis. Akin Gump filed suit in the Superior Court against the apartment building and its private owners, presenting various claims based on the allegedly substandard living conditions at Tyler House. The complaint named the Tenant Council as the sole plaintiff and defined the Council's membership as all the tenants of Tyler House. There was, however, no request for class certification in that case, and no class was ever certified. Shortly after that complaint was filed, Ms. Taylor was evicted from her apartment, thus losing her tenant status and her position as Secretary of the Tenant Council. A few months after her eviction, the damage claims in the original lawsuit were dismissed for lack of standing.

About two months later, Akin Gump filed a second suit seeking relief on behalf of all the tenants of Tyler House as a class. Ms. Taylor's mother and another tenant were named as class representatives. The class was eventually certified to include persons who were tenants of the apartment building on July 27, 1988, the date on which the motion for class certification was filed - thus not including Ms. Taylor, who had ceased to be a tenant more than a year earlier. After years of litigation in the Superior Court and the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the tenants, as a class, recovered almost $1.5 million from judgments entered by both courts.

When Ms. Taylor learned about the judgments, she contacted Akin Gump in an effort to claim a share of the damages, but was told she was not eligible to receive any of the money because she was not a member of the class. After several other attempts to obtain a portion of the damages, Ms. Taylor filed the instant suit against Akin Gump seeking a declaratory judgment which would name her as a member of the class, thereby entitling her to a share of the litigation proceeds. Akin Gump filed a motion for dismissal or for summary judgment, which the trial court granted in a one-page order. From that order Ms. Taylor appeals; we affirm.

I.

Over nearly a ten-year period, Akin Gump represented the Tenant Council, and then the tenants of the Tyler House apartments as a class, pro bono, in a series of lawsuits against the owners and managers of the building, based on the substandard living conditions in the apartments. The first lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on March 3, 1987. The complaint named the Tenant Council as the sole plaintiff and described it as consisting of "all the tenants of Tyler House, a 301-unit apartment building located at 1200 North Capitol Street, N.W., Washington, D.C." When the complaint was filed, Ms. Taylor was a tenant of Tyler House and was serving as Secretary of the Tyler House Tenant Council. However, three months later, in June 1987, Ms. Taylor was evicted from her apartment. She moved in with her mother, who also lived in Tyler House,*fn2 but Ms. Taylor was no longer a tenant of the building and could no longer serve on the board of the Tenant Council as its Secretary.

All of the damage claims in the original lawsuit were dismissed for lack of standing in November 1987, five months after Ms. Taylor was evicted from her apartment. The claims for injunctive relief, however, were not dismissed. Thereafter, in January 1988, Akin Gump filed a second suit - a class action, which the first suit was not. The class consisted of all the tenants of Tyler House; Elaine Johns (Ms. Taylor's mother) and Julia Simpson were named as plaintiffs and representatives of the class. The court sua sponte consolidated the class action and the remaining injunctive claims from the first suit. The tenants then moved to certify the class on July 27, 1998. On April 27, 1989, Judge Henry Greene of the Superior Court granted the motion and certified the class as "comprised of all persons who were tenants of Tyler House as of July 27, 1988." In accordance with the judge's order, Akin Gump provided written notice to all members of the class who could reasonably be located, but it did not send such notice to anyone who was not a member of the class as defined in the order.

After the class had been certified, the tenants moved to join additional defendants. When the Superior Court denied their motion, the tenants filed a new and separate lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and sought class certification there. On February 3, 1992, the District Court certified the class to include all persons who were tenants of Tyler House as of July 27, 1988, excluding those who had moved away in the interim.

As a result of judgments in the two cases, the tenants - as a class - recovered approximately $1.5 million in damages. The money was placed in escrow and later distributed to individual class members. When she learned about the distributions in 1995, Ms. Taylor contacted Akin Gump, claiming she was entitled to a share of the money recovered in the litigation. Akin Gump informed her that, because she did not satisfy the requirements for class membership, she was not a member of the class and therefore was not entitled to any of the money. Ms. Taylor sent a letter to United States District Judge Charles Richey, who was handling the federal court case, asking him to "look into" the matter for her. Judge Richey forwarded the letter to Akin Gump and asked the firm to advise him as to Ms. Taylor's claims. When Akin Gump explained that Ms. Taylor was not part of the class, Judge Richey sent her a letter stating, "There is nothing further that I can do to be of assistance, although I would like to, in light of the letter from your counsel."

Ms. Taylor also filed a complaint with the Office of Bar Counsel. At Bar Counsel's request, Akin Gump sent Ms. Taylor another letter again informing her that she was not entitled to any of the money recovered in the class actions because she did not meet the requirements for class membership. Bar Counsel's inquiry was terminated, and no further action was taken.

Ms. Taylor then filed a "Complaint for Declaratory Relief" in the Superior Court, seeking an order naming her as a member of the class of persons represented in the litigation. Akin Gump responded with a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The court granted the motion in a brief order, stating, "On April 27, 1989, Judge Greene defined the class as 'all persons who were tenants of Tyler House Apartments as of July 27, 1988.' Plaintiff, who ...


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