Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (06-LTB-37007) (Hon. Thomas J. Motley, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge
Before RUIZ, GLICKMAN, and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.
This is the second case in a series of actions appellant (landlord) has brought against appellee (tenant) in an effort to gain possession of the property that appellant purchased at a foreclosure sale. We reverse and remand for further proceedings because the trial court granted summary judgment under the misapprehension that the decision in the first case was dispositive of the issues raised in the action that gives rise to this appeal.
In the first action, appellant sued appellee and the prior owner of the property, Sinclair Skinner, under a theory of "wrongful detainer." See Molla v. Skinner, No. 04-LTB-19104. In that case, Judge Melvin R. Wright ruled in favor of appellee, concluding that she had the right to continue occupying the premises pursuant to an existing lease between her and Skinner, despite the subsequent conveyance of the property to appellant. Judge Wright found that "the evidence establishes [appellee's] legal right to occupy the property pursuant to the terms agreed to by [appellee] and the prior owner . . . ."*fn1 Appellant did not appeal from the judgment in favor of appellee's continued tenancy.
About six months after this ruling, on June 16, 2006, appellant gave notice to appellee that he was increasing her rent from $450 (the amount due under the lease with Skinner), to $1,600. On August 17, 2006, appellant gave appellee "notice to cure or quit," telling her that "you have been violating the obligation of your tenancy . . . . Please be advised that your monthly rent is One Thousand Six Hundred . . . Dollars . . . . Your violation consists of not paying your August rent."
Appellant then filed the underlying action, this time for possession for nonpayment of rent.*fn2 Both parties moved for summary judgment. Appellant prayed for judgment for possession and a money judgment for unpaid rent in the amount of $1,600 per month from August 2006 through February 2007. Appellee opposed, and in her motion for summary judgment, claimed that appellant's action was barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel because the (unappealed) order that Judge Wright had issued validated the existing lease including, by implication, the amount of monthly rent due ($450).
The court, Judge Motley, concluded that appellant's claims were barred because Judge Wright had already ruled on the matter:
[Judge Wright] decided that the lease was in effect. You want me to change his ruling. That's what you want me to do. . . . You might have said he was wrong. You might want to appeal it or have him change his mind. But I cannot change what I think he did. . . . My ruling is based on the fact that Judge Wright has decided this issue.
Judge Motley rejected appellant's argument that the continuing enforceability of the lease terms -- as opposed to the existence of a tenancy that survived transfer of the property -- was not a necessary finding in Judge Wright's ruling.*fn3 He therefore granted partial summary judgment to appellee on the question of the monthly rent due.*fn4
We review the grant of summary judgment de novo. See, e.g., Osei-Kuffnor v. Argana, 618 A.2d 712 (D.C. 1993). We must affirm the judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c). "In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, it is our function to determine whether, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion . . . that evidence gives rise to a genuine factual dispute. If so, summary judgment must be reversed, and trial held on the disputed issues." Leichtman v. Koons, 527 A.2d 745, 746-57 (D.C. 1987).
We agree with appellant that Judge Wright's ruling in the prior action is not dispositive of the issues relevant to the action for possession that was before Judge Motley. While there is no statutory action for "wrongful detainer" in the District of Columbia, cf. Legacy Funding LLC v. Cohn, 914 A.2d 760, 766 (Md. 2007) ("Although there is little guidance in the caselaw regarding the elements of a non-statutory wrongful detainer action, we think it is at least implicit that, to establish the basis of such a claim . . . the claimant must show that (1) it was lawfully entitled to possession, (2) it demanded possession following its entitlement to do so, and (3) the possession was wrongfully denied."), we recognize that the action filed by appellant in the first litigation was effectively one for ejectment, pursuant to D.C. Code §16-1103. To prove a case for ejectment, "it is sufficient to entitle the plaintiff to relief to show that he is entitled, as against the defendant, to the immediate possession of the premises claimed, and that the defendant is: (1) in possession of the premises, and is holding adversely to plaintiff . . . ." Id. § 16-1104 (a) (2001). As appellee's claim of right is that of tenancy with the prior owner -- and since she was in actual possession of the property -- the lease was relevant to whether appellant was entitled to immediate possession because appellee was adversely in possession, instead of a lawful occupant. See D.C. Code § 16-1103 (2001) (referring to proof that defendant in an ejectment action is "wrongfully in possession" or "wrongfully exercising acts of ownership"). Thus, Judge Wright's ruling in favor of appellee, recognizing that she had a valid lease with Skinner, was necessary to the holding that appellant had failed to prove his case for ejectment, because appellee was not holding the property adversely ...