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Oliver v. Mustafa

August 9, 2007


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-6724-03) (Hon. Maurice A. Ross, Trial Judge).

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

Argued April 2, 2007

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and FARRELL and KRAMER, Associate Judges.

This case began with a complaint filed in the Small Claims Branch of the Superior Court, where appellee, Sirage Mustafa, sued appellant, Diane Oliver (the owner of a rooming house where Mr. Mustafa had lived), for the recovery of his $400 security deposit and $543, the estimated value of a few items of Mr. Mustafa's property that Ms. Oliver had confiscated and disposed of without his permission. Ultimately, the complaint was amended to include additional counts, and the case was transferred to a regular civil calendar. There a default was entered against Ms. Oliver, who had never actually filed an answer to the complaint. At the conclusion of a jury trial that addressed solely the issue of Mr. Mustafa's damages, a jury awarded Mr. Mustafa $11,826 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The trial court separately awarded Mr. Mustafa $211,350 in attorneys' fees. On appeal, Ms. Oliver argues that the trial court erred in ordering a default on the claims that underlay the jury's award, in instructing the jury on punitive damages, in declining to permit the admission of certain evidence and in awarding attorneys' fees. We affirm.

The factual background is as follows. In December 2001, Mr. Mustafa rented a room in a house owned and run by Ms. Oliver. They entered into an oral agreement by which Mr. Mustafa paid a $400 security deposit plus $400 per month in rent. After she accepted his deposit and first month's rent, Ms. Oliver informed Mr. Mustafa that tenants who stayed in the house for less than three months forfeited their security deposits.

After he moved in, Mr. Mustafa found the building to be grossly unsanitary, insecure, and the site of drug use, drug sales, and prostitution. The front door was frequently unlocked, and it was not unusual for homeless persons and drug addicts to enter and sleep in the hallway. The common bathroom was in a state of disrepair. Since it was used by drug users to get high and by prostitutes to service their clients, the sink was often clogged with needles and condoms. When an employee of Ms. Oliver's fixed up the bathroom for $600, she fired him for wasting her money. Drug users and prostitutes also used the common hallways for their activities. The kitchen was in the basement of the building, and was infested with vermin. Mr. Mustafa testified that he would take a few steps down the stairway, and then wait a few seconds before proceeding to let the rats and mice "situate themselves" in a corner. The kitchen was also directly below the bathroom, and flushing the toilet would result in raw sewage overflowing and dripping into the kitchen.

The police were summoned to the building on a regular basis. Mr. Mustafa complained to Ms. Oliver in private about the conditions of the house and the criminal behavior he witnessed. In July of 2002, soon after he complained to her about his co-tenants, they confronted him, saying that he had been labeled a "snitch," leading him to deduce that Ms. Oliver had told them of his complaints. He feared for his personal safety, and began to invite friends to spend the night so he would not be alone in his room. It was this "snitch" incident that made him finally resolve to move out, and he informed Ms. Oliver that he would leave at the end of July.

On the day he was removing his possessions, Mr. Mustafa requested his security deposit in exchange for his key. Ms. Oliver refused to return the deposit. Thus, Mr. Mustafa had a new lock installed on his door. Thereafter, he left for a short time "to seek available legal remedies to his problem" with Ms. Oliver. While he was gone, Ms. Oliver had his new lock changed and confiscated the few remaining items of his property in this room. These items included a color television, antenna, coffee maker, telephone, answering machine, and dining room chair. Upon his return, Ms. Oliver refused to allow him access to his room or his property, and again refused to return his $400 security deposit. Without the security deposit, Mr. Mustafa lacked the funds to obtain other housing, and was thus homeless for three months.

On October 15, 2002, Mr. Mustafa filed a complaint in the Small Claims Branch of the Superior Court. A default judgment was entered against Ms. Oliver awarding Mr. Mustafa $943. The default judgment was vacated on July 7, 2003, however, after she successfully contested service of the complaint. Mr. Mustafa then filed an amended complaint in the same court on July 18, 2003, alleging unlawful eviction, breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, breach of the implied warranty of habitability/constructive eviction, conversion of personal property, intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress, retaliatory action, failure to refund security deposit, and failure to provide required documentation.

The action was transferred from the Small Claims Court to the Civil Division. On April 7, 2004, based on Ms. Oliver's repeated failure to appear at scheduled hearings and to comply with discovery, Judge Michael Rankin issued a second order of default. This order was vacated sua sponte the next month and discovery proceeded again. Subsequently, when Mr. Mustafa's counsel attempted to interview the other tenants at the building, Ms. Oliver interfered. When the tenants spoke to counsel elsewhere, she evicted them all the following day. Indeed, one tenant testified in a deposition that Ms. Oliver repeatedly called him and told him not to respond to his subpoena. Because of these actions, Judge Rankin imposed a temporary restraining order against Ms. Oliver, enjoining her from contacting potential witnesses to influence their testimony, evicting anyone from the house, or destroying any documents that had been requested.

At the hearing granting this order, Judge Rankin summoned a marshal to keep Ms. Oliver from interrupting him. He then stated:

I have done some preliminary research into your history in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and I have come to learn that you are no ordinary pro se litigant, but that you have appeared as both plaintiff and defendant in numerous cases in this court. And so you clearly, very clearly, are aware of court processes, such as the time the Court starts, such as the need to respond to pleadings, such as the impropriety of appearing after the other side has been here and gone and then attempting ex parte argument with the Court on substantive issues affecting the case. . . . You are free to continue in this matter without counsel as long as you please. But henceforth, you will be held to the same standards as a defendant who is represented by legal counsel because it is very clear that you are an experienced litigator and that you have the means to hire a lawyer if you wanted to do so.

On the same day, Judge Rankin granted Mr. Mustafa's motion to compel responses to discovery requests.

Thereafter, Ms. Oliver obtained counsel as advised by Judge Rankin. Despite explicit testimony at her deposition that she possessed requested documents and knew where they were, she subsequently answered discovery requests with assertions that requested documents were lost, destroyed, or never existed. On October 18, 2005, a third default was entered against Ms. Oliver, and the matter was set down for a jury trial before Judge Maurice Ross on the issue of damages alone, liability having been established by the default. On January 11, 2006, at the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Mr. Mustafa $11,826 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. Ms. Oliver filed no post-trial motions contesting this award. The trial court granted Mr. Mustafa's unopposed motion for attorneys' fees on March 8, 2006, finding by clear ...

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