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Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co.

February 15, 2007


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-7988-03) (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

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

Submitted December 12, 2006

Before FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

This appeal presents an unusual, ostensibly inconsistent combination of circumstances: a landlord's wrongful, self-help eviction, followed by the tenant's holdover as a trespasser on the premises. The pro se tenant, Nokomis Hinton, filed an action in forma pauperis against her landlord, Sealander Brokerage Co., for allegedly locking her out of her single family rental house before she had been able to move out all her furniture and personal belongings.*fn1 The landlord then filed a counterclaim for unpaid rent attributable to the tenant's holding over by leaving property in the house after she had left. The trial judge ruled for the landlord on both the claim and the counterclaim. We vacate the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. Background

The tenant filed her complaint on September 29, 2003, alleging that she had given the landlord a "30 day notice" that she was leaving the premises;*fn2 that the landlord had changed the locks before her "30 day[s were] up" and that the landlord had denied her access to her "belongings" that remained in the house.*fn3

She sought $16,000 in damages. The landlord answered, alleging among other things that the tenant had "abandoned the property" (both real and personal) and had no "lawful right" to it. More than eight months later, the landlord received the court's permission to file a counterclaim alleging that "in September 2003," the tenant had become "delinquent in her monthly rent" and owed the landlord "rent in the sum of $6,615.00." Despite two orders from the court to answer the counterclaim, the tenant never formally did so. In her pretrial statement, however, she alleged in response to the "Counterclaim for monies owed" that "no money was due." Thereafter, both the landlord and the trial judge treated the counterclaim as if issue had been joined. Then, after a bench trial, the trial court ruled for the landlord on both the claim and the counterclaim and awarded money damages against the tenant totaling $7,808.30 (plus statutory interest from March 21, 2005) as compensation for storing the tenant's personal property on the premises for ten months ($7,000) and, thereafter, in a U-Haul storage facility ($808.30).

The tenant now appeals, arguing (with the benefit of reasonable inferences from her pleadings) that her "rent was paid in full" through September 2003; that the "lease was over" when she moved out beginning September 3, but that she was entitled to "30 day[s]" within which to remove her furniture and other property; that the landlord had engaged in an "illegal lock out," changing the locks "on September 19[,] 2003" with "half of the appellant's furniture lock[ed] in the house"; that the landlord had "refused" to give a key to the tenant; that the landlord's actions therefore amounted to an "illegal withholding" of the tenant's "furniture and things"; and that "there was no agreement" that the tenant would pay for storage on the premises.*fn4

II. Wrongful Eviction

"In resolving an appeal from a non-jury trial, we may review both as to the facts and the law, but the judgment may not be set aside except for errors of law unless it appears that the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." Crescent Props. v. Inabinet, 897 A.2d 782, 789-90 (D.C. 2006) (internal quotations omitted) (citing Zoob v . Jordan, 841 A.2d 761, 764 (D.C. 2004)); D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (2001). The trial court's findings of fact will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous, Crescent Props., 897 A.2d at 790, and the evidence will be viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Real Estate Escrow, Inc. v. Fitzgerald, 846 A.2d 289, 290 (D.C. 2004) (citing Drevenak v. Abendschein, 773 A.2d 396, 415-16 (D.C. 2001)).

In order to establish wrongful eviction, a tenant must prove that the landlord performed "some act of a permanent character with the intention and effect of depriving the tenant of the enjoyment of the demised premises or a part thereof." International Comm'n on English in Liturgy v. Schwartz, 573 A.2d 1303, 1305 (D.C. 1990)(citing Hughes v. Westchester Dev. Corp., 64 App. D.C. 292, 293, 77 F.2d 550, 551 (1935)).*fn5 "Whether the landlord performed an act with the intent to evict the tenant is a question of fact for the trial court." Id.*fn6 The law is clear in this jurisdiction, moreover, that a landlord is prohibited from using self-help to evict a tenant and must proceed instead by using the process provided by law. Mendes v. Johnson, 389 A.2d 781, 783-87 (D.C. 1978) (en banc) (landlord's common law right of self-help eviction by removing tenant's belongings from premises abrogated by exclusive statutory remedy mandating reliance on legal process), abrogated in part by Davis v. Moore, 772 A.2d 204 (D.C. 2001) (en banc). Nothing, however, precludes a landlord from securing a vacant unit to prevent theft and vandalism. See 14 DCMR § 6800.3 (2006) ("[T]he owner of a vacant building is required to maintain the building . . . [by ensuring that] [d]oors, windows, areaways, and other openings are . . . secured against entry by . . . trespassers . . .").*fn7

The tenant testified at trial that she had paid her rent through September 30; that she had sent the landlord "a notice of 30-day moveout . . . on the 3rd of September"; that she had been moving out "constantly" from September 3 to September 20, 2003; that on the 20th she had found the landlord's locksmith "chang[ing] the locks on the door"; and that when she had asked the landlord's representative for a key so that she "could continue to move [her] things[,] . . . [h]e refused."

The landlord's representative told a different story. He acknowledged that the tenant's rent had been paid through September 30, 2003, but said that she had "never notified" him that she was leaving. He further testified that "approximately on the 26th of September" 2003, he learned from a former neighbor of the tenant that the house was vacant and "unsecured" -- the "doors were open." He then testified that when he had gone right away to check on the property, "[i]t looked like someone had abandoned it, left it, and that somebody was ransacking." In particular, "[w]indows were broken, doors had been torn off the hinges[;] . . . it looked like someone was trying to, you know, maliciously damage the place." He found that the house still contained "many items" of personal property "in various states of [dis]array." (He took photos of the property inside the house and offered them as exhibits at trial.) He then elaborated:

I tried to close the door in the back as best I could and close the front door. I was able to lock the front door with a small hand lock but all the other locks had been removed, both on the gate and on the main door. The dead bolts had all been removed.

Accordingly, he said, in order to protect the tenant's property as well as the landlord's, he made arrangements with a locksmith "to put locks on the doors" three days later, September 29, 2003. Also on the 29th, the landlord's representative posted a notice on the front door of the house containing a phone number for the tenant to call in order to gain entry for removal of her belongings. The notice added that a "message has been left with your new landlord[;] we have no telephone number for you." The landlord's representative further ...

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