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Earl Mitchell v. Eastern Savings Bank

September 13, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge


Following the foreclosure of a rental property located in Southeast Washington, a dispute arose between Plaintiff Earl Mitchell, a tenant in the building, and Defendant Eastern Savings Bank, which acquired the property in the foreclosure. Plaintiff claims that Defendant engaged in an unlawful self-help eviction on February 9, 2009, by removing his personal belongings, changing the locks, and barring his re-entry to the property. In filing suit on February 7, 2012, in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Plaintiff alleged four causes of action connected to this incident: wrongful eviction (Count I), retaliatory eviction (Count II), breach of the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment (Count III), and "punitive damages" (Count IV). Shortly thereafter, Defendant removed the case to this Court and now moves to dismiss the suit under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Because the Court finds that Plaintiff cannot state a cause of action for retaliatory eviction or "punitive damages," it will grant Defendant's Motion as to those Counts (II & IV). Plaintiff's remaining claims, however, alleging wrongful eviction and the breach of the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment (Counts I & III) may proceed.


There are a number of background facts that appear to be largely undisputed. To begin with, Mitchell entered into a written rental agreement with Vasiliki Pappas on January 22, 1999. See Am. Compl., ¶ 6. This agreement consisted of a handwritten document, signed and dated by both parties, stating that "Earl Mitchell agrees to rent from Vasiliki Pappas the upstairs unit plus one bedroom at 2507 33rd St. S.E. Washington, DC 20020 for one year starting February 1, 1999, after that month for to month, the rent is $200.00 per month." Mot., Exh. 8 (Mitchell Lease). Mitchell moved into the property shortly after executing the agreement. See Am. Compl., ¶ 7.

In the summer of 2001, while Mitchell continued to live on the property, his landlord defaulted on the mortgage and Defendant Eastern Savings Bank foreclosed on the property. See id., ¶ 9. Following the foreclosure, ESB initiated proceedings in the Landlord-Tenant branch of D.C. Superior Court against Pappas and two of the property's tenants, Wudenha Kebede and Matt Banks, but did not initiate similar proceedings against Mitchell. See id., ¶¶ 10, 12. Mitchell attempted to intervene in the Banks case in September 2008, but his motion was denied. See id., ¶¶ 16-17. He also sent letters to Defendant's counsel in late September 2008, and again in early February 2009, in which he continued to assert his rights as a tenant of the property. See id., ¶¶ 19-20. On February 9, 2009, Defendant evicted Mitchell "by removing his personal belongings from the Property and changing the locks on the doors to permanently bar Plaintiff's entry." Id., ¶ 21. Mitchell claims that as a result of the eviction, he lost "irreplaceable family heirlooms such as the only known pictures of grandparents and other relatives, . . . certain power tools used in his trade which affected his income, and [was] left immediately homeless and forced to find alternative housing which was ultimately more expensive and burdensome . . . ." Id., ¶ 24.

Mitchell claims that he was never served with a notice to vacate the property or to correct any violation of his tenancy. See id., ¶ 14. Defendant disputes this, claiming that Mitchell did in fact receive notice in the form of a December 24, 2008, writ of restitution in the Banks litigation:

[T]he December 24 writ was an instrument legally issued by the Superior Court; was predicated on a judgment for possession; was directed to 'Matt Banks and Occupants'; set forth a date whereby Eastern would take lawful possession of the 33rd Street property; and was executed by the U.S. Marshalls [sic] in accordance with Superior Court Landlord-Tenant Rule 16(a).

Reply at 7.

ESB also disputes Mitchell's claimed status as a tenant of the property. Specifically, it contends that at the time of the foreclosure, Mitchell became an at-will tenant. See Mot. at 9. Mitchell then switched rooms with Banks, moving from the upstairs bedroom he had lived in under the lease to a room in the basement of the property. See id. at 8-9. This "trade" of rooms, Defendant alleges, constituted an unlawful assignment, which divested both tenants of their at-will tenancies. See id. at 10. Mitchell, Defendant argues, thereby became a squatter with no right to any form of notice regarding the eviction. See id. at 11.

II.Legal Standard

Defendant's Motion seeks dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Alternatively, Defendant argues that should the Court consider documents outside of the Complaint, the Motion should be converted into one for summary judgment. See Mot. at 5. The Court, accordingly, will set forth both standards of review.

A. Motion to Dismiss

In evaluating Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, the Court must "treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff 'the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (internal citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not accept as true, however, "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged under Rule 12(b)(6), the factual allegations presented in it must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in plaintiff's favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993). The notice pleading rules are "not meant to impose a great burden on a plaintiff," Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), and he must therefore be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 584 (2007). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, id. at 555, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation omitted). Plaintiff must put forth "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." ...

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