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Threatt v. Winston

September 21, 2006

PATRICK THREATT, APPELLANT,
v.
GREGORY WINSTON, APPELLEE.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA7462-01) (Hon. Mary A. Gooden Terrell, Trial Judge).

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

Argued March 29, 2006

Before FISHER, Associate Judge, and KING and SCHWELB,*fn1 Senior Judges.

This dispute arises out of a landlord-tenant relationship. Appellant Patrick Threatt sued Gregory Winston for wrongful eviction, breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment, and conversion of personal property. The trial court granted appellee's motion to dismiss, concluding that the action was barred because the Landlord-Tenant Branch of the Superior Court's Civil Division previously had entered a default judgment granting possession of the apartment to Winston. Appellant argues that he should not have been precluded from bringing his wrongful eviction action because the previous judgment was void for lack of personal jurisdiction. We hold that Threatt did not follow the correct procedures for attacking the prior judgment and therefore affirm.

I. The Procedural Background

In December of 1999, Patrick Threatt leased an apartment Gregory Winston owned at 3824 V Street, S.E. (Apartment 101). Within a few months a dispute arose about Threatt's alleged failure to pay rent. Efforts to resolve the dispute failed, and Winston filed a complaint for possession. Dwayne Boston submitted an Affidavit of Service By Special Process Server stating that after several unsuccessful attempts to personally serve Threatt, he had perfected service on June 21, 2000, by posting a copy of the complaint and summons on Threatt's apartment door. See D.C. Code § 16-1502 (2001) (entitled Service of summons).

Threatt failed to appear or defend, and on July 3, 2000, the Superior Court entered a default judgment granting possession of the apartment to Winston. Winston obtained a writ of restitution, and on August 7, 2000, the United States Marshals Service removed Threatt's belongings, placing them outside, by the street.

Threatt did not seek to vacate the judgment against him, nor did he appeal to this court. Instead, on October 9, 2001, more than fifteen months after the default judgment had been entered and more than fourteen months after the eviction had occurred, Threatt filed his civil complaint against Winston, seeking $1,000,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Threatt's complaint did not mention either the default judgment or the writ of restitution.

Winston answered Threatt's complaint, but, inexplicably, he likewise failed to mention either the default judgment or the writ of restitution. It was only on October 27, 2003 -- after a jury had already been empaneled to hear the case -- that the default judgment came to the trial court's attention,*fn2 during a colloquy about pre-trial issues:

The Court: Tell me exactly what happened in this case.

Mr. Webne: What happened in this case was Mr. Winston filed a suit for possession against Mr. Threatt. Our argument and the basis of our case was that he was not notified of that --

The Court: [Y]ou're suing in this . . . case for a notice that he did not receive in a landlord and tenant case?

Mr. Webne: That's one way to say it.

The Court: [W]hat I'm hearing now is that there was a case, he got a default, he did not challenge the default. And now you want this Court to overrule the judgment in the landlord and tenant court by granting him another case to argue process that was never argued in the landlord and tenant case.

Mr. Webne: Exactly. . . .

After learning about the prior judgment, the court excused the jury and scheduled briefing and oral argument on whether the matter was properly before it. On February 6, 2004, at the conclusion of oral argument, Judge Terrell dismissed Threatt's complaint, explaining that it was barred under the doctrine ...


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