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Linen v. Lanford

April 3, 2008

JAMES A. LINEN, APPELLANT,
v.
DOUGLAS LANFORD, APPELLEE.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-9357-05) (Hon. Patricia A. Broderick, Trial Judge).

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

Argued December 11, 2007

Before FISHER and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

A residential property tenant brought suit against his landlord alleging that the landlord violated his rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, D.C. Code § 42-3404.02 et seq. (2001). The tenant argued that the property was a two-unit accommodation and that thus under D.C. Code § 42-3404.10 (3) he was entitled to a ninetyday settlement period rather than the sixty-day period that the landlord afforded him. The trial court granted the landlord's motion for summary judgment, ruling that the property was a single-family dwelling and that the landlord did not violate the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) by providing the tenant with a sixty-day settlement period. Following the grant of summary judgment, the trial court granted the landlord's motion for post-judgment relief and ruled that the landlord was entitled to receive attorneys' fees and that he could retain the tenant's deposit. We affirm the trial court's order granting summary judgment, but we reverse its order that the deposit should be forfeited and transferred to the landlord and remand that issue to the trial court for further proceedings. The tenant's challenge to the trial court's award of attorneys' fees is not properly before us and thus we must dismiss this portion of his appeal.

I.

Douglas Lanford, the appellee, is the owner and landlord of a residential property located at 3140 Q Street N.W. ("the property"), in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. James Linen, the appellant, is the sole tenant at the property. On August 25, 2005, Lanford provided Linen with a written offer of sale for the property as required by the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and this document identified the property as a single-family dwelling. In correspondence dated September 6, 2005, counsel for Linen provided Lanford's attorney with written notice that his client was interested in purchasing the property and indicated that "[w]e desire to exercise the statutory 60 days negotiation period and 60 days to secure financing." On October 3, 2005, Linen provided Lanford with a signed copy of the same regional sales contract that Lanford had entered into with a prospective third-party buyer. In attached correspondence, Linen's attorney explained that "[t]o avoid the issue of whether my client matches the third party contract, we merely changed the name on the contract, initialed, and signed it." However, in the same letter, Linen's counsel objected to Lanford's characterization of the property as a single-family dwelling and asserted that his client was entitled to the settlement period for two-unit accommodations under TOPA. Although the copy of the sales contract signed by Linen as it appears in the appellant's appendix is largely illegible, one can read a handwritten notation appearing in the bottom margin of the third page that states "settlement to occur on or before December 1, 2005." On a hand-drawn line next to this notation, there is an indecipherable signature. Counsel for Lanford wrote to tenant Linen's attorney on October 4, 2005, and indicated that his client would be unable to review the purchase offer until Linen suggested a settlement date. Linen's counsel responded, in a November 7, 2005 letter, by saying that TOPA dictated the deadline for settlement but he failed to indicate his client's view as to the specific deadline for settlement in this transaction.

Linen filed suit against Lanford on December 2, 2005, alleging that Lanford failed to allow him the ninety-day settlement period TOPA requires for two-unit dwellings. The landlord filed his answer and counterclaims on January 5, 2006. On March 16, 2006, the landlord moved for summary judgment, arguing that the property is a single-family home and that he had allowed the tenant sixty-days to settle, the minimum time period required under TOPA. The trial court granted the landlord's motion for summary judgment, basing its ruling in large part on the fact that "[t]here is overwhelming evidence that the property is a single-family home."*fn1 In addition, the trial court ruled that, as the property was a single-family home, the landlord did not violate TOPA by requiring a settlement date of December 1, 2005.

Following the grant of summary judgment on the complaint, Lanford moved to dismiss his counterclaims without prejudice with the aim of securing a final judgment in the case. In addition, Lanford filed a motion for post-judgment relief asking the court to award him attorneys' fees and order that Linen forfeit the five percent deposit that had been made pursuant to the contract of sale. Lanford argued that specific provisions in the contract he entered into with Linen permitted the court to award him the relief that he sought. Linen opposed the motion for post-judgment relief on the ground that the provisions of the contract providing the landlord the right to retain the deposit and recover attorneys' fees were in contravention of TOPA. On September 13, 2006, the trial court granted the landlord's motion for post-judgment relief, ordering that Linen release the deposit to Lanford and pay the attorneys' fees, of an amount not yet determined, that Lanford incurred in defending the action and securing summary judgment. Linen appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment and its order compelling him to release the deposit and pay attorneys' fees.

II.

Linen argues on appeal that the trial court erred by ruling that: (1) the property is a single-family home; (2) the landlord provided the tenant with a settlement period that satisfied the minimum required by TOPA; (3) the landlord was entitled to retain the tenant's deposit under the contract although the court made no finding of bad faith as required by TOPA; and (4) the landlord was entitled to attorneys' fees pursuant to the contract even though he is not an aggrieved party within the TOPA framework. We first analyze the trial court's rulings that the property is a single-family home and that Linen was provided with the settlement period required by TOPA -- the two bases for its grant of summary judgment. Second, we consider whether the landlord was entitled to post-judgment relief in the form of Linen's forfeited deposit and attorneys' fees.

A. Summary Judgment

It is well-established that to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must "demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Colbert v. Georgetown Univ., 641 A.2d 469, 472 (D.C. 1994) (en banc) (internal citations omitted). Summary judgment is properly granted "if (1) taking all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, (2) a reasonable juror, acting reasonably, could not find for the non-moving party, (3) under the appropriate burden of proof." Behradrezaee v. Dashtara, 910 A.2d 349, 364 (D.C. 2006) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). On appeal, we conduct an independent review of the record and apply the same substantive standard as the trial court. Television Capital Corp. of Mobile v. Paxson Commc'ns Corp., 894 A.2d 461, 466 (D.C. 2006) (internal citations omitted). Even though this court looks at the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, "[m]ere conclusory allegations on the part of the non-moving party are insufficient to stave off the entry of summary judgment." Musa v. Continental Ins. Co., 644 A.2d 999, 1002 (D.C. 1994). The trial court does not make findings of fact when it grants summary judgment, rather its task is "to determine whether any material issues of fact exist." District of Columbia v. W.T. Galliher & Brother, 656 A.2d 296, 302 (D.C. 1995) (internal citations omitted).

1. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act

The District of Columbia Council passed TOPA with the aim of "discourag[ing] the displacement of tenants through conversion or sale of rental property" and "strengthen[ing] the bargaining position of tenants toward that end without unduly interfering with the rights of property owners to the due process of law[.]" D.C. Code § 42-3401.02 (1). TOPA provides that "[b]efore an owner of a housing accommodation may sell the accommodation . . . the owner shall give the tenant an opportunity to purchase at a price and terms that represent a bona fide offer of sale." D.C. Code § 42-3404.02 (a). The owner must provide each of the building's tenants and the Mayor of the District of Columbia with a written copy of an offer of sale. If the property has more than one unit, the offer of sale must be posted in a common area of the building. D.C. Code § 42-3404.03. Once the owner has provided the tenant with a written offer of sale, the tenant's rights with respect to purchasing the property are dictated by the number of units in the building. See D.C. ...


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