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Crescent Properties v. Margolinabinet

April 20, 2006

CRESCENT PROPERTIES, APPELLANT,
v.
MARGOLINABINET, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LT-28291-03) Hon. A. Franklin Burgess, Jr., Trial Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Belson, Senior Judge

Argued November 10, 2005

Before RUIZ, Associate Judge, and BELSON and TERRY, *fn1 Senior Judges.

Appellant, Crescent Properties,*fn2 brought an action against appellee, Margol Inabinet, seeking a judgment for possession of her rental unit under the District of Columbia Residential Drug-Related Evictions Act of 1990 ("the RDEA").*fn3 In its complaint, Crescent Properties alleged that Ms. Inabinet's apartment was used as a drug haven. In a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of Ms. Inabinet, finding that Crescent Properties had established that Ms. Inabinet's apartment had been a drug haven, but failed to prove that the unit remained a drug haven. On appeal, Crescent Properties argues: (1) the trial court incorrectly applied the RDEA when it required Crescent Properties to prove that the property currently remained a drug haven; and (2) the trial court's finding that the property was no longer a drug haven was clearly erroneous. Finding no error, we affirm.

I.

Crescent Properties manages a four-unit building at 812 Otis Place, N.W. in the District of Columbia. In December 2000, Ms. Inabinet moved into the building with her daughter, Erica. On August 5, 2003, Crescent Properties filed a complaint for possession of real estate, alleging that Ms. Inabinet's apartment was used as a drug haven.

At trial, three witnesses testified that Ms. Inabinet's apartment had a reputation in the neighborhood as the site of heavy drug activity. All three further testified to witnessing acquaintances of Ms. Inabinet's daughter, Erica, using drugs in or around Ms. Inabinet's apartment. Two of the witnesses claimed to have seen Ms. Inabinet's daughter personally using drugs. According to one of the witnesses, a known drug dealer named "Chico" was a frequent guest at Ms. Inabinet's apartment.

Ms. Inabinet testified that she never personally used illegal drugs. She admitted that Erica, who had mental health problems, may have abused drugs and alcohol, but claimed that Erica never used drugs in her presence. Ms. Inabinet denied having personal knowledge of drug activity in her apartment.

Ms. Inabinet testified that on March 29, 2003, over four months before the suit was brought, her daughter suffered a heart attack, and remained hospitalized thereafter. She stated that the heart attack left Erica "brain dead." No witness testified to observing any drug activity after that date, nor had Chico been seen on the premises since February or March of 2003.

The property manager testified that he had more recently seen "the same drug users" congregate around Ms. Inabinet's back porch. Ms. Inabinet and the property manager testified, however, that a short fence made the backyard accessible to the public, while a broken lock allowed access to the porch from the yard. According to Ms. Inabinet, it was impossible for her to detect the presence of others on the porch while she was in the apartment, because she always kept the blinds drawn.

During closing argument, counsel for Crescent Properties asserted that, to grant Crescent Properties relief, the trial court "must find by a preponderance of the evidence the property was a drug haven." (Emphasis added). The trial judge corrected him, observing that the proper inquiry was whether the property "is a drug haven." (Emphasis added). When he made his findings of fact in open court, the trial judge stated that he was required by the statute to consider evidence of the discontinuance of a drug haven or nuisance. He pointed out, however, that such evidence would not prevent him from granting relief to Crescent Properties. Although the trial judge found "ample evidence" that Ms. Inabinet's apartment had been a drug haven, he concluded that the evidence did not support a finding that the apartment remained a drug haven after Ms. Inabinet's daughter was hospitalized. The judge stated that he was "satisfied given the medical condition of the daughter that the problem has gone," and that any evidence suggesting continued use was not sufficient to satisfy him.

II.

Crescent Properties argues in effect that the trial judge incorrectly construed the RDEA to provide that the controlling determination is whether a property is a drug haven or a nuisance, not whether a property was a drug haven or a nuisance. Because this case requires an interpretation of the RDEA, we must review the matter de novo. Cook v. Edgewood Mgmt. Corp., 825 A.2d 939, 944 (D.C. 2003) (citing In re Estate of Louise Green, 816 A.2d 14, 16 (D.C. 2003)). In interpreting a statute, "we must first look at the language of the statute by itself to see if the language is plain and admits of no more than one meaning. . . . [I]n examining the statutory language, it is axiomatic that 'the words of the statute should be construed according to their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them.'" Peoples Drug Stores, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 753 (D.C. 1983) (quoting Davis v. United States, 397 A.2d 951, 956 (D.C. 1979)). "In appropriate cases, we also consult the legislative history of a statute." Abadie v. District of Columbia Contract Appeals Bd., 843 A.2d 738, 742 (D.C. 2004).

The RDEA, codified at D.C. Code §§ 42-3601-3610 (2001), provides a mechanism for "eliminating drug trafficking in housing accommodations." Cook, supra, 825 A.2d at 945. The statute enables a housing provider to bring an action in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the Civil Division of the Superior Court for recovery of a rental unit alleged to be a drug haven or nuisance. D.C. Code § 42-3602 (a) (2001).*fn4 According to D.C. Code § 42-3602 (a), "recovery or eviction shall be ordered if the Court has determined, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the rental unit is a drug haven or that a nuisance exists." (Emphasis added). D.C. Code § 42-3602 (a) ...


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