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Byron S. Mitchell v. Annie Gales

February 28, 2013


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA2-1246-11) (Hon. Robert S. Tignor, Judge-in-Chambers)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterly, Associate Judge:

Argued November 21, 2012

Before FISHER and EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.

Byron S. Mitchell appeals from the denial of his Application for Entry of Administrative Agency‟s Final Order as Judgment in Superior Court. The order Mr. Mitchell sought to enter as a judgment was issued by the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"), which had adjudicated Mr. Mitchell‟s petition for reduction of rent and had ordered his landlord, Annie Gales, to pay him $13,014.32.*fn1 The Superior Court denied Mr. Mitchell‟s application to convert the OAH order into a judgment because it determined that (1) Ms. Gales had a valid defense of res judicata based on an earlier-filed Small Claims action, in which Mr. Mitchell had also prevailed, and (2) representations that Ms. Gales had "likely" become mentally incompetent*fn2 at some point during the OAH litigation supplied adequate justification to permit Ms. Gales to raise this defense for the first time in a collateral proceeding.

The Superior Court‟s ruling was in error. Our law has long been clear that collateral attacks on prior judgments are only permitted where a challenge is made to the original tribunal‟s jurisdiction or an assertion is made that the original order was procured through fraud. Nothing in the record as it stands induces us to relax that rule. Thus, the appropriate forum for Ms. Gales or her representatives to raise incompetence as the reason for her failure to timely challenge the OAH order on res judicata grounds is in the OAH proceedings - not in a collateral attack on the OAH order in Superior Court. Accordingly, we reverse and remand to Superior Court with instructions to enter the OAH order as a judgment.

I.Facts and Procedural History

In 2007, Mr. Mitchell rented an apartment from Ms. Gales for $425 per month. In May 2010, an inspector from the Inspections and Compliance Administration of the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspected the unit and determined that it was not habitable due to, inter alia, exposed electrical wires, holes in the walls, a sewage drainage pipe that was not intact, a moldy bathroom floor, bedbugs, and mice. The subsequent dispute between Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Gales over the condition of his apartment and the money he was due in rent refunds and damages spawned litigation in three fora: (1) a law suit in Small Claims court for breach of contract; (2) a proceeding before OAH to litigate his petition for reduction in rent filed with the Rent Administrator; and, (3) lastly, after Mr. Mitchell won in the OAH proceeding, an application in Superior Court to convert his OAH award into a judgment. It is this third proceeding that is now before us on appeal.

Mr. Mitchell first filed a complaint for breach of contract in the Small Claims branch of Superior Court on May 25, 2010 ("the Small Claims Court proceeding"). Shortly thereafter, he filed a petition for reduction in rent due to a reduction in services with the Rent Administrator on June 4, 2010 ("the OAH proceeding"). Ms. Gales was represented by counsel in the Small Claims proceeding, though apparently not in the OAH proceeding. The Small Claims proceeding resolved first when Mr. Mitchell received a $900 judgment on July 15, 2010. Six weeks later, on August 26, 2010, Ms. Gales participated in an oral exam hearing in the Small Claims Court proceeding in order to identify her assets.

More than two months after Mr. Mitchell won a judgment in Small Claims court, the OAH litigation moved forward. An evidentiary hearing in the OAH proceeding was scheduled for October 4, 2010. Ms. Gales failed to appear, but she filed a document with OAH the following day stating that she had been absent because her lawyer told her that the hearing had been scheduled for October 5, 2010.*fn3 OAH construed this note as a motion for a new hearing and rescheduled the evidentiary hearing for December 1, 2010. Ms. Gales again failed to appear, and OAH proceeded in her absence. On January 7, 2011, OAH issued a Final Order. In pertinent part, the order reduced Mr. Mitchell‟s rent by $300 per month for the period of his rental and directed that he be refunded that amount plus interest, a total of $13,014.32.*fn4

After prevailing both in Small Claims Court and before OAH, Mr. Mitchell began the proceeding now before us on appeal ("the Superior Court conversion proceeding"). On February 15, 2011, Mr. Mitchell petitioned Superior Court to enter the OAH order as judgment pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12-I (b)(i). At a show cause hearing in front of Judge-in-Chambers (then-Senior Judge John R. Hess) on May 13, 2011, Ms. Gales was represented by counsel and her power of attorney, Tamara Scurlock. Ms. Gales‟s attorney informed the court that he was in the process of filing a motion for relief from a final order in the OAH proceeding because Mr. Mitchell had already had an opportunity in the Small Claims proceeding to litigate his claims against Ms. Gales regarding the habitability of his apartment. In addition, counsel for Ms. Gales informed the court that he had initiated a proceeding to appoint a guardian for Ms. Gales "because of her incapacity now." The court observed that it was up to the administrative agency to rule on the timeliness of Ms. Gales‟s motion for relief and that her claim of res judicata "goes back to the agency," as well. The court then continued the case pending a ruling from OAH on Ms. Gales‟s motion for relief, telling Mr. Mitchell that "if the agency denies . . . any relief from this order, you come back here for entry of the order."

That same day, Ms. Gales, through counsel, filed a Motion for Relief from the Final Order in the OAH proceeding. OAH determined that the motion was untimely filed, however, and denied it on that basis.*fn5 After obtaining an adverse ruling from OAH, Ms. Gales returned to Superior Court on July 1, 2011, and moved under Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss Mr. Mitchell‟s Application for Entry of Administrative Agency‟s Final Order as Judgment.*fn6

In her motion, Ms. Gales pressed the res judicata defense that Judge-in-Chambers had previously directed her to litigate before OAH. In addition, Ms. Gales argued that to convert the OAH award into a judgment would permit Mr. Mitchell to obtain double recovery.Ms. Gales explained that she had not raised these defenses in the OAH proceeding prior to the issuance of the final order from OAH because she "had been determined to be incapacitated by her medical doctor."*fn7 Ms. Gales cited no authority for the proposition that her alleged incompetence should excuse her failure to raise these defenses earlier or allow her to raise them for the first time in a collateral proceeding.

Mr. Mitchell opposed the motion to dismiss. Citing Strand v. Frenkel, 500 A.2d 1368 (D.C. 1985), he argued that a collateral attack on the merits of an administrative decision is not permitted in an action to enter the administrative order as judgment.*fn8

The motion to dismiss went back to Judge-in-Chambers, but a new judge (Senior Judge Robert S. Tignor) was sitting. Reversing course from the earlier directive that any defenses to Mr. Mitchell‟s administrative petition must be raised before OAH, the court granted Ms. Gales‟s motion to dismiss in a one-page order. The court first determined, without reference to any authority, that Ms. Gales‟s incompetence permitted her to collaterally attack the OAH order. The court did not actually rule that Ms. Gales was legally incompetent. Instead it repeated Ms. Gales‟s contentions that she had been "determined to be incapacitated by her medical doctor" and "that her mental incapacity was likely compromised during summer of 2010," and it noted that these assertions "are essentially uncontested." The Superior Court then determined that it was not too late for Ms. Gales to raise res judicata as a defense to the OAH order, observing that "[t]here appears to be no case law on point from our Court of Appeals." Although the court acknowledged that "it is certainly preferable ...

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