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Williams v. Paul

March 27, 2008

UHURA WILLIAMS, APPELLANT,
v.
NICOLE PAUL, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (LTB6413-06) (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Motions Judge) (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge).

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

Argued February 13, 2008

Before FARRELL andRUIZ, Associate Judges,and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

In this action by Nicole Paul (the landlord) for possession and other relief, Uhura Williams (the tenant) appeals from an order of the trial judge (Weisberg, J.) dismissing without prejudice her counterclaim for recoupment of rent paid. In her counterclaim, the tenant alleged substantial housing code violations. Concluding that the landlord's action was not based on the non-payment of rent, the trial judge ruled that the tenant's counterclaim was not authorized by Super. Ct. L&T R. 5 (b). The trial judge's ruling was contrary to an earlier decision by the motions judge (Fisher, J.), who had denied the landlord's pretrial motion to dismiss the counterclaim. We conclude that it was error to dismiss the counterclaim. Accordingly, we reverse.

I.

Ms. Paul and Ms. Williams became landlord and tenant in August 2004, when Ms. Paul purchased the building located at 3526 Clay Place N.E. in Washington, D.C.At that time, Ms. Williams resided in Apartment 3, which she had been renting from the prior owner since 2001. Ms. Williams lived in the unit with her four children, who ranged in age from five to eleven.

Soon after Ms. Paul acquired the building, Ms. Williams brought to her attention several alleged deficiencies in the condition of her unit. Ms. Williams complained of mold, water leaks, cockroach infestation, exposed electrical wires, and other defective conditions. In October 2004, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs conducted an inspection of the apartment, and subsequently ordered Ms. Paul to make certain repairs. According to Ms. Williams, these repairs were inadequate. Ms. Williams alleged that over the following year, she continued to encounter numerous problems in her apartment, including leaking water from the ceiling and, during winter, lack of heat.

Despite these deficiencies, Ms. Williams continued to pay her rent of $550 per month to the landlord.The landlord claimed, however, that Ms. Williams' rent payments were consistently untimely, in violation of the tenant's obligations under the lease. On November 7, 2005, Ms. Paul served Ms. Williams with a thirty-day notice to correct the violations or vacate the premises. In the notice, Ms. Paul alleged a number of violations of the lease, as follows:

[Y]our violation consists of the following: Consistent late payments, Non payment of rent for months October & November = $1020 total (October rent $550 - $150 rent discount = $400 plus $35 late fee November rent $550 plus $35 late fee total $1020). Landlord seeks possession of unit.

Ms. Williams declined to vacate her apartment in response to the landlord's notice, and on February 22, 2006, Ms. Paul filed suit for possession and other relief in the Landlord & Tenant Branch of the Superior Court's Civil Division.

In her complaint, the landlord asked the court to grant her possession for "Violations of Notice to Cure or Vacate: Consistently late rent; Overoccupancy; Subletting."The complaint also stated that "the landlord asks the court for . . . judgment for rent, late fees, other fees, and costs in the amount of $550.00."The notice to correct or vacate was attached to the complaint.

Ms. Williams filed a motion to dismiss the landlord's complaint, claiming that the complaint and notice to correct or vacate were defective. On May 9, 2006, the judge then assigned to the Landlord & Tenant Branch (Canan, J.) struck the claims of "overoccupancy" and "subletting" on the ground that they had not been included in the notice to correct or vacate. In all other respects, the judge denied the tenant's motion to dismiss. At the conclusion of the hearing on Ms. Williams' motion, her attorney inquired as to what claims remained pending:

COUNSEL FOR TENANT: Your honor, just so I'm clear. So the overoccupancy [and] subletting allegations were ...


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