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King v. Berindoague

July 26, 2007


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LT-18408-05) (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge)

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

Argued May 30, 2006

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

When a landlord sues a tenant to recover possession of real property, "the Seventh Amendment preserves to either party the right to trial by jury." Pernell v. Southall Realty, 416 U.S. 363, 376 (1974). In this case the tenants were denied that right, and we accordingly remand for a new trial.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

In June 2005 appellees filed a complaint for possession of the second floor apartment at 1471 Park Road, Northwest, explaining that Stacie Courbois, one of the owners of the building, sought possession for her personal use and occupancy. See D.C. Code § 42-3505.01 (d) (2001). When the case was called on July 21, 2005, counsel for the landlords asserted that "this property is vacant. Ms. King hasn't lived there for months. My clients bought this property in October of '04. Not a penny of rent has ever been paid. And, Stacie Courbois really is going to move in."

Betraying some frustration at the tenants' resistance in these circumstances, and at the prospect of further delay, counsel informed the court that he now was "looking at an answer and a jury demand." The court responded: "I don't have an answer and a jury demand." Student counsel assisting (but not representing) the tenants explained that "Ms. King and Mr. Le would have answers to both complaints to file. . . . There is a jury demand in both cases."*fn2 However, "[t]he computers are down in the Clerk's office and they won't let us file them." When asked what the answers would say, student counsel explained that the tenants were claiming that the notice to quit had been served in retaliation "for complaints that [the tenants] have made about the property and other activities that they have conducted -- within their rights on the property." In addition, "they have an argument against the good faith of this notice to quit."

Skeptical about the tenants' ability to prove that Ms. Courbois did not intend in good faith to occupy the apartment, the court expressed its concern that the request for postponement of the trial was "a bad faith stalling tactic." Testifying under oath, Ms. King voiced several grievances. She complained that the previous owner had sold the building without giving Ms. King, her husband, or the tenants downstairs a "right of first refusal." See D.C. Code §§ 42-3404.02 (a), 42-3404.08 (2001).She asserted, as well, that the conditions in the apartment were "horrible." "They've made it impossible. They came in and dismantled the entire kitchen. We had no heat all winter. We have no hot water now. There's no cooking. They've taken everything out. The place is filled with dust." When the landlords had not made repairs after "months and months," the tenants "brought some people in to try to get it livable," but the landlords called the police to remove them.

Given the condition of the apartment, Ms. King and her family were then living in Virginia. However, they hoped to return:

Our children are in D.C. schools, we work in D.C., we want to stay in our neighborhood where my husband grew up, it's a block from my mother-in-law, two blocks from my sister-in-law, it's our neighborhood, it's our community. And, we know the neighborhood's hot right now and everybody's going condo on our block, but we want to stay and live in our building.

Ms. King also claimed that Ms. Courbois did not truly intend to live there. "They want to flip that property."

The trial court opined that the conditions of the apartment were irrelevant in a "notice to quit case." "There's no claim here if Stacie Courbois is moving in. . . . I don't consider this defense asserted in good faith." A recess was taken to see if Ms. Courbois could reach the courthouse in time to testify that day.

When the case was called again late in the afternoon, Ms. King explained that "we've been trying since this morning to get the answer filed." The court responded: "I'm sorry about the computers but it's a quarter to five and I'm going to determine whether or not I have to continue the case for trial.""[T]he question before the court is whether or not there is a good faith basis to assert a defense of retaliation such that the trial should not be held today and I should give the tenants an opportunity to file an answer, a jury demand, obtain counsel if they choose to and prolong these proceedings indefinitely until a trial on the merits can be held." Furthermore, "the issue in a notice to quit case of this kind is the intent of the landlord[;] if the landlord states that intent and it is convincing to the fact finder, there is no real contrary proof that can be offered."

Ms. Courbois testified that she and her grandmother own the building.Sheintended to move into the second floor apartment with her son ...

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