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Rutland Court Owners, Inc. v. Taylor

July 8, 2010

RUTLAND COURT OWNERS, INC., APPELLANT,
v.
WILLIAM TAYLOR, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LTB1657-08) (Hon. Stephanie Duncan-Peters, Trial Judge).

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

Argued May 18, 2010

Before REID and KRAMER, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Appellant, Rutland Court Owners, Inc., filed suit for possession of the cooperative apartment occupied by William Taylor after it revoked his shares in the wake of a dispute over the building's plan to provide extermination services for a bedbug infestation. After a bench trial, the court made findings of fact and ordered judgment in favor of Taylor based on its conclusion that he was entitled to an accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601--3631 (2000). On appeal, appellant argues the trial court erred in finding a violation of the Fair Housing Act and in denying possession of the unit after the building owners revoked Taylor's shares in the cooperative. We affirm.

Appellant now argues that, although the trial court found Taylor to be eligible for an accommodation under the Federal Fair Housing Act, there was no accommodation requested or proposed and that no accommodation would have been reasonable under the circumstances. Appellant contends, therefore, that the trial court erred in allowing Taylor to maintain possession of his unit in the building. We review the legal determinations of the trial court here de novo but will accept the findings of fact made by the court unless they are clearly erroneous. Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 974 (D.C. 2000). The court's judgment based on the facts will not be disturbed unless it is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it. Langon v. Reilly, 802 A.2d 951, 953 (D.C. 2002). As appellant "takes no issue with the Superior Court's findings of fact," we adopt those findings and set them forth here.

The Rutland Court building, located at 1725 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., is organized as a cooperative association in which residents own shares of stock in Rutland Court Owners, Inc., a corporation owner. The corporation is managed by a Board of Directors (hereinafter "Board") and governed by corporate bylaws. Owners of shares of the corporation stock are entitled to reside in a corresponding unit of the building through an occupancy agreement. Appellee William Taylor was a shareholder in the cooperative and has resided in Unit 114 of the building since 1972. Taylor suffers from several mental health disorders, for which he takes medication, and has both a caseworker and a psychiatrist who are active in helping him manage his conditions.

During August 2007, the Board was notified by one resident that bedbugs had become a problem in her unit. Around August 25, 2007, Taylor notified the Board president that his unit also had bedbugs. The problem was discussed at the monthly Board meeting, on August 27, 2007, and a committee was formed to oversee extermination efforts. The committee established a resolution that "all units must be inspected . . . by a professional exterminator" and that "[i]f a resident or owner refuses treatment by the exterminator hired by the Cooperative, the Committee shall solicit that person's alternative professional treatment plan, evaluate the plan to determine the effectiveness, and communicate its decision to the resident owner." On August 29, 2007, residents were notified by letter that Home Paramount Exterminators had been hired to inspect the building and begin treating for bedbugs on the first of September. Taylor raised various concerns about the exterminator selection and about the chemicals that would be used in the extermination process. In its letter to residents, the Board provided that alternative treatment plans could be submitted and, if deemed effective by the Board, could be used provided residents submitted proof within one week that the treatment was completed by a professional. Although Taylor indicated he had begun following an alternative treatment plan based on studies from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Kentucky, he did not submit a formal plan for alternative treatment of his unit.

Taylor allowed Home Paramount to inspect his apartment on September 1, 2007, but limited the extermination to only the bedroom. On September 25, 2007, the committee gave Taylor a detailed list of instructions for preparing his unit for further treatment, scheduled for two days later. Taylor refused to grant Home Paramount access to his unit on that date. In October, the property manager and Taylor's caseworker from Community Connections met with Taylor at the unit to discuss the general condition of the apartment, which was described as "extremely cluttered." After Taylor had made concerted but inadequate efforts to clean the unit, the property manager suggested having Elgen Cleaning Services assist him in the effort. The cleaning company did not gain access to Taylor's apartment on either of the two visits it made, although the property manager admitted that for at least one of the visits Taylor had not been notified and Taylor explained that he was unable to accommodate the second visit because it conflicted with a pre-existing appointment he had elsewhere. The property manager subsequently contacted a government-funded cleaning service, but this service left the unit shortly after arriving there for reasons that remain unclear.

On October 23, 2007, the committee informed Taylor by letter that if his unit was not cleaned and prepared for extermination by November 15th he would be fined $100. Taylor was subsequently contacted on November 8 and 14 by the property manager but again expressed his concerns about the health implications of the exterminations and asked to limit extermination to certain areas of the unit. On November 19, 2007, a new extermination company hired by the Board again inspected all building units for bedbugs and, upon entering Taylor's apartment, noted there were "extreme sanitation issues" including "garbage in the kitchen," "open cans of food," "papers and books stacked floor-to-ceiling" and a "serious infestation" of roaches and bedbugs. At trial, the owner of the company testified that treatment in such circumstances would have some effect on the infestation but that the clutter made it likely some bedbugs would survive and eventually cause a resurgence. He also testified that when he explained this, Taylor said he would need additional time to adequately prepare his apartment for extermination services.

On November 27, 2007, the Board proposed a resolution revoking Taylor's shares in the corporation. The resolution was passed at a stockholders' meeting held on December 12, 2007.

Taylor was then given until January 12, 2008, to vacate his unit. Around the same time in mid-December, Taylor hired Terminix to carry out extermination services in his unit. At the time of trial, he testified the company had been to his unit approximately five times to conduct treatments, which were still ongoing. However, despite these extermination efforts, the Board's resolution required him to vacate the unit and a subsequent suit for possession of the unit was brought.

At trial in June 2008, Taylor's psychiatrist testified that he suffered from "bipolar disorder . . . post-traumatic stress disorder and basic mood instability" which are treated with "a number of medications." He further testified that these conditions impede Taylor's ability to organize, concentrate, focus his attention, and stay motivated to complete tasks. These conditions had been further exacerbated by Taylor's recent unemployment beginning in June of 2007.

The trial court determined that Taylor had taken steps to eliminate the bedbugs and to clean his unit in conjunction with Terminix's extermination services, including vacuuming, throwing out "hundreds of pounds of books" and cleaning out closets in the unit. However, it found that Taylor was in denial concerning the severity of the infestation and the need to temporarily vacate the unit for satisfactory extermination to take place. It then granted Taylor's motion for a stay to provide him with an additional opportunity to clean and exterminate the unit.

On June 27, 2008, the parties returned to court and both the property manager and Taylor agreed that, while improvements were made in the condition of the unit, there remained additional work to be done. The trial court issued an order for Taylor to temporarily vacate his unit by July 10, 2008, and instructed him to comply with treatment by Conquest Pest Control, which would arrange for intensive treatment of the unit over the course of eight weeks. The order also required Taylor to pay half of the extermination costs. This order was supplemented on July 7, 2008, to include compliance with the services of furniture movers and a cleaning crew prior to the extermination ...


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