Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LT-47754-04) (Hon. Mary A. Gooden Terrell, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, Associate Judge
Submitted January 7, 2008
Before FARRELL, FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.
Double H Housing Corporation ("Double H") filed a Complaint for Possession in the Superior Court Landlord Tenant Branch, charging that its tenant, Brian David, had failed to pay rents due for October through December 2004. Double H now appeals the court's judgment in favor of David. We reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand.
Factual Background and Procedural History
In 1995, David entered into a lease agreement with Double H for an apartment located at 4601 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., for a lease term commencing July 29, 1995, and ending July 31, 1996.*fn1 After the lease expired, David continued to occupy the apartment as a month-to-month tenant.*fn2 By letter dated May 27, 2003, Double H notified David that his rent, which was then $1,473 per month, would increase effective August 1, 2003. The letter stated that the increased rate would be $1,488 per month if David signed a new lease. Otherwise, the new rent for continuation of David's month-to-month tenancy would be $1,561 per month.
David commenced paying $1,488 per month as of August, 2003, but never signed a new lease. During a bench trial before the Honorable Mary Gooden Terrell, David testified that he had negotiated with Double H rental manager Tony Towler to pay that amount instead of the $1,561 quoted in the May 27, 2003 notice.*fn3 The court admitted into evidence a past-due-rent notice that Double H sent to David on August 14, 2003 for failing to pay the $1,561, and Double H property manager Maria Wilsey testified that Double H had sent David other past-due notices as well. But no other past-due notices were introduced into evidence,*fn4 and David testified that Double H sent him no "other notices that my rent was deficient or not paid correctly." It was undisputed that Double H continued to negotiate David's payments of $1,488 per month for each month up to and including October 2004.*fn5
This was notwithstanding the fact that on May 24, 2004, Double H sent David a letter notifying him that his rent would increase again effective July 1, 2004. In pertinent part, the May 24, 2004 letter advised David that he could "renew [his] current lease for another 12-month term starting July 1, 2004, at the same Lease rate of $1,561 . . . . Should you decide not to sign for another one-year lease, your rental rate will be $1,611 per month." David wrote a response letter to Double H explaining that his current rent was $1,488, not $1,561; asserting that the "12-month cycle for adjustments to the rent terms for my apartment commences August 1, not July 1"; and stating that he was agreeable to maintaining the rent at $1,488, but that a new lease "should not be necessary." In a follow-up letter to David dated July 8, 2004, Wilsey stated that because David was on a monthto-month tenancy, "your rent may be increased at any time, given a 30-day notice," that David had the option to "renew for another 12-month term for a monthly rate of $1,561, or to continue on a month to month term at a rate of $1,611 per month," and that "[t]here is no offer to renew for a rate of $1,488 per month."
David continued to pay $1,488 per month and Double H cashed his checks for July, August, September and October, 2004. In November 2004, however, Double H began returning David's checks. Double H returned his checks for November and December 2004, and then, on December 20, 2004, filed its complaint for possession for non-payment of rent, which the complaint stated was $1,611 per month.*fn6 The Superior Court docket sheet indicates that service of the complaint on David was accomplished by posting on January 14, 2005.
One of Double H's trial exhibits indicates that Double H returned David's January 2005 check for $1,488, but cashed his February 2005 check for $1,488. The Superior Court docket sheet shows that beginning in March 2005, David made rent payments of $1,561 into the court registry, pursuant to what the docket sheet states was a "protective order by consent."
At the close of the bench trial held on October 5, 2005, the trial judge ruled that Double H was not entitled to the arrearages that it sought. The court reasoned that Double H was "entitled to rent increases, but it should not be conditioned upon whether someone negotiates a new lease," because that approach "puts the tenant at a tremendous disadvantage." The court ruled that the rental rate would be considered $1,488, the amount "that had been accepted for a whole year." The court also held that the offer of a lower monthly rent in exchange for signing a new lease was "void." The trial judge stated that "if the landlord wants to increase the rent, then they need to . . . do a rental increase, and not condition it upon any leases being signed. . . ."