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Snowder v. District of Columbia

June 5, 2008

ROBERT SNOWDER, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA159-02) (Hon. Natalia M. Combs Greene, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge

Argued December 13, 2007

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

Appellants Robert Snowder, Nadine Garrick, Lawanda Harris, Ronald Kennedy, Verna Montague, and Felicia Moore appeal from a judgment in favor of appellees the District of Columbia and towing companies Perry's Towing and Storage, Inc., R&R Towing, Farco Towing, and Towing by TRP (collectively, "towing companies"). Appellants attempted to bring a class action lawsuit against the District and the towing companies under numerous theories -- breach of bailment, conversion, civil conspiracy, unjust enrichment, and violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act ("CPPA") -- seeking to recover damages on behalf of people who were charged substantial fees for towing and storage services that were imposed without adequate notice or consent. The trial court denied class certification and ultimately entered summary judgment on all claims. We affirm the trial court's denial of class certification as well as the dismissal of all claims against the District of Columbia. Regarding the towing companies, we affirm the court's dismissal of appellants' breach of bailment claim; however, because the trial court did not discuss or decide appellants' other common law claims, we must remand the case to the trial court for consideration of those claims.

I. Facts*fn1

A. Appellant Nadine Garrick & Appellee Perry's Towing

On April 11, 2001, Nadine Garrick reported the theft of her vehicle (which was titled in her father's name) to the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD"). Though she periodically checked with MPD, she did not receive any information about her vehicle. On May 16, 2001, she filed an insurance claim for the theft with State Farm. On May 31, 2001, State Farm paid her $5,248.38. On June 5, 2001, State Farm wrote to the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles, seeking to change the title of the stolen vehicle to reflect its ownership of the car.

On August 22, 2001, MPD recovered Garrick's/State Farm's vehicle and requested that appellee Perry's Towing ("Perry's") impound the vehicle. The car remained at Perry's until Perry's sent a certified letter to Ms. Garrick's father, informing him of the vehicle's location. Ms. Garrick informed State Farm, and State Farm paid Perry's for the towing and storage fees. Ms. Garrick then re-purchased her vehicle from State Farm at a public auction on February 22, 2002, for $3,933.00.

B. Appellant Robert Snowder and Appellee R&R Towing

Robert Snowder filed a stolen vehicle report on September 6, 2000. Four days later, appellee R&R Towing towed the car from MPD's 6D station. Nine weeks later, R&R Towing notified Mr. Snowder about possession of the vehicle and quoted him a $1,800 towing and storage fee.*fn2 "Under protest" Mr. Snowder paid $900 to recover his car.

C. Appellants Lawanda Harris and Ronald Kennedy and Appellee Farco Towing

On October 15, 2000, Lawanda Harris reported her vehicle stolen. MPD recovered her vehicle three days later and had appellee Farco tow and impound it. Ms. Harris discovered the location after a friend called MPD on October 24, 2000. Farco quoted a fee of $395. Harris attempted to view her car at Farco's lot, but they refused to allow her to do so. She did not recover her car; Farco disposed of it.

On October 18, 1999, Ronald Kennedy reported his vehicle stolen to the Prince George's County Police Department. On October 27, 1999, MPD recovered the car and had Farco tow it. Mr. Kennedy's insurance agent informed him of the vehicle's recovery on November 26, 1999, but MPD did not confirm the recovery and location until December 3, 1999. Farco attempted to charge Kennedy $1,353.00. Mr. Kennedy did not recover his car. Although Farco's representative testified that the car could not have been driven off the lot and that he disposed of it, Mr. Kennedy's car continued to receive parking tickets as late as 2002.

D. Appellants Verna Montague and Felicia Moore and Appellee Towing by TRP

On November 27, 2001, Verna Montague called MPD, believing her car had been stolen, only to learn that it had been towed for expired tags and impounded by TRP. Ms. Montague could not recover her car, however, as MPD was then holding her keys as evidence in connection with an investigation unrelated to this matter. Although TRP refused to release the car, it promised not to dispose of the car while she got her keys back. Ms. Montague enlisted MPD's help, and MPD helped bargain the charge of $895 down to $350. Ms. Montague then sought to have the car towed elsewhere, but TRP informed her that it disposed of the car. She thinks she may have seen her car on the streets following the alleged disposal.

On November 6, 2001, Towing by TRP towed Felicia Moore's car, as it was allegedly illegally parked. Upon learning of the location from MPD, Ms. Moore went to recover her car. She arrived between 10:30 and 10:45 P.M., but had to wait for someone to show up, which occurred around 12:45 A.M. (November 7, 2001). TRP charged her $270, which consisted of a $150 towing charge, $50 for special equipment, and $70 for two days of storage ($35 per day), even though the car had been on the lot for three hours. Ms. Moore paid the charges. She later had her parking notice of infraction dismissed, but she did not recover the towing or storage fees.

E. Towing Regulations in the District of Columbia for the Relevant Time Period

At the time the appellants' cars were stolen, recovered, or impounded, the District Municipal Regulations provided that MPD officers could direct the towing and impoundment of "unattended and illegally parked vehicles." 18 DCMR § 2421.1 (1987). Further, the regulations required the police department (or an employee of the Department of Public Works) to inform the vehicle owner immediately if possible, but if not, to provide written notice of impoundment to the last known address of the registered owner within five business days. 18 DCMR §§ 2421.2, 2421.4, and 2421.5 (1987).*fn3 Moreover, internal police orders required the MPD officer who recovered a stolen vehicle to take control of the vehicle and notify the owner where it could be reclaimed. See MPD Special Order 01-05 (Mar. 1, 2001). The Special Order specifically noted that when the officer arranges for towing, the officer must ensure prompt and accurate notification "so that towing and storage charges can be held to a minimum." Id.*fn4

II. Procedural History

Plaintiffs Robert Snowder and Jeffrey Schroeder (who sold the car to Snowder) initially filed a complaint against the District of Columbia and several towing companies on January 8, 2002. Plaintiffs (now expanded) filed an amended complaint on March 22, 2002, as a purported class action. On December 19, 2002, plaintiffs moved for class certification. The trial court (Hon. Natalia Combs Greene) denied class certification.

Perry's Towing moved for summary judgment, alleging that plaintiff Nadine Garrick (the only plaintiff involved with Perry's) lacked standing. The court granted that motion on all of Ms. Garrick's common-law claims, but preserved her claim under the CPPA. Following another motion for summary judgment by Perry's, a motion for summary judgment from the other defendant towing companies, and a motion for partial summary judgment from plaintiffs, the court granted summary judgment to the defendants, thus dismissing plaintiffs' claims except those against D.C. The trial court later granted D.C.'s motion for summary judgment on all claims (though it ...


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