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Wylie v. Glenncrest

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

July 21, 2016

Turquoise Wylie, Appellant,
v.
Glenncrest, Appellee.

          Argued January 19, 2016

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division (LTB-15864-14) Hon. Wendell P. Gardner, Jr., Trial Judge

          Jonathan H. Levy, with whom Rachel A. Rintelmann was on the brief, for appellant.

          Mark R. Raddatz, with whom E.L. Pugh II was on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Thompson and Easterly, Associate Judges, and Kravitz, Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia. [*]

         JUDGMENT

         This case came to be heard on the transcript of record and the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the judgment on appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded for full consideration of appellant's Rule 60(b)(1) & (6) motion, as well as for a resolution of other questions that might support relief under Rule 60(b)(4).

         Julio A. Castillo Clark of the Court

          OPINION

          Catharine Easterly, Judge.

         Turquoise Wylie appeared in court in response to a lawsuit for nonpayment of rent filed against her by Glenncrest, her landlord, but she failed to return to court for the rescheduled initial hearing. The trial court entered a default against her and ultimately granted Glenncrest a judgment for possession. Ms. Wylie subsequently filed a pro se motion to vacate this default judgment pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 60 (b). The trial court held a hearing, but even though the parties disputed issues of fact, the court heard no testimony and took no evidence. Moreover, the court's consideration of the factors bearing on Ms. Wylie's motion for relief from a default judgment was skewed toward upholding the default judgment-as it did-instead of favoring a decision on the merits. Concluding that the trial court abused its discretion, we reverse and remand.

         I. Facts

         Ms. Wylie was a long-time tenant of Glenncrest. By the time Glenncrest filed and served[1] its complaint for possession due to nonpayment of rent, Ms. Wylie had been living in a Glenncrest townhouse at 5069 Kimi Gray Court, S.E., for approximately eight years. Glenncrest's complaint alleged that Ms. Wylie had failed to pay rent from January through June 2014.

         At the initial hearing in July 2014, Ms. Wylie and counsel for Glenncrest each entered an appearance and together signed a praecipe asking for a one-month continuance.[2] At the further initial hearing in August, Ms. Wylie failed to appear, and Glenncrest requested and obtained an entry of default. The court scheduled an "ex parte proof hearing"[3] and, according to the docket, mailed a notice addressed to Ms. Wylie with the following information:

The above-captioned Landlord and Tenant case has been scheduled for Ex Parte Proof Hearing on the date and time shown below. All parties shall appear before Judge COURTROOM LANDLORD & TENANT.
Hearing Date: September 12, 2014 Time: 10:00 am.
Location: 510 4th Street, NW., Washington, DC 20001 LandLord & Tenant Courtoom B-109

         PLEASE BRING THIS NOTICE WITH YOU WHEN YOU APPEAR.

         Ms. Wylie did not appear in court on September 12, 2014, and the ex parte proof hearing was held without her. At the hearing, Glenncrest's counsel asked its property manager, Ophelia Johnson, to read into the record a provision in Ms. Wylie's lease expressly waiving her right to a 30-day notice to quit or vacate.[4] Ms. Johnson also testified that Ms. Wylie owed $2, 556.99 for some combination of past-due rent, late fees, [5] and utility bills. The court entered a redeemable judgment for possession in favor of Glenncrest, with a Trans-Lux[6] amount of $2, 556.99. Four days later, the trial court issued a notice to Ms. Wylie informing her that a judgment of possession for nonpayment of rent had been entered against her, and that she would have to pay $2, 592 (the Trans-Lux amount plus court costs) to avoid eviction. Ten days later, the Superior Court issued a writ of restitution to the U.S. Marshal Service. On September 30, 2014, two and a half weeks after the ex parte proof hearing, the U.S. Marshals Service evicted Ms. Wylie.

         On December 17, 2014, Ms. Wylie, representing herself, filed a Rule 60 (b) motion[7] to vacate the trial court's judgment for possession, as well as an answer to Glenncrest's complaint, an application to reduce the payment required to avoid eviction, and a motion to restore herself and her family to the townhouse. In these pro se filings, Ms. Wylie asserted that she did not owe back rent for January through June 2014 (the six months identified in the complaint)-only rent for September 2014 (the month she was evicted), plus a late fee and $301.52 outstanding on a previous settlement agreement with Glenncrest. Moreover, in her Rule 60 (b) motion, Ms. Wylie explained that she "did not understand" that she needed to return to court in August because she had "an out-of-court agreement with [her] landlord, " and that after missing this August hearing she had not received notice of the ex parte proof hearing.

         The trial court held a hearing on Ms. Wylie's motions in January 2015. Ms. Wylie (still representing herself) and counsel for Glenncrest were both present, as was Tiffany Talbert, a Glenncrest property manager. Immediately after the court called the case, counsel for Glenncrest tried to persuade the court that Ms. Wylie's motions should be summarily denied in light of the fact that Ms. Wylie had "just popped up 90 days after the eviction"; that she "admitted] in her motion that she owed money" (though he acknowledged the parties "don't agree on the amount"); that the case had already gone to "a full ex [parte proof] hearing"; and that the "unit [had] been re-rented." Counsel for Glenncrest added that the only reason the case had been continued from the initial hearing date in December was to give Ms. Wylie the opportunity to find a lawyer.

         Ms. Wylie responded that she "didn't just pop up 90 days later"; rather, ever since her eviction, she had been trying to rectify the situation. Specifically, Ms. Wylie asserted that she had been trying to contest the default judgment, first by trying to secure counsel and legal advice through Bread for the City, and then by repeatedly consulting the Superior Court's Landlord Tenant Resource Center:[8]

I went through Bread for the City first to obtain legal advice and try to get a lawyer. Then I've been coming down here to the Resource Center and all my paperwork that showed that it's been taking me this long to even file my motions when I filed them in December. I had got that opportunity because I've been doing everything they've been telling me to do to try to get some type of representation or just get some type of advice or how can I continue to make my case. That's why it's been taking . . . this long since I got put-out.

         The court seemed to credit Ms. Wylie's assertions that she had been trying to obtain legal assistance, but nonetheless faulted her for not filing anything in court sooner, noting that the "people out here in the Resource Center .... [t]hey're independent people .... They don't work for us. You didn't tell anybody in the Court until over two months later that they . . . put you out under these circumstances . . . ." Ms. Wylie explained that she had been working to collect documentation to support her defenses, per the Resource Center's recommendation. She further explained that when she received the writ of restitution she tried to avert eviction by calling Ms. Crystal Cove, who was Glenncrest's property manager at the time. Ms. Wylie stated that she thought there had been a mistake-that the issuance of the writ was based on her "account balance which was already wrong .... [So] I'm not taking it serious, I'm like okay, they're going to fix it." But before she could go into more detail, the court cut her off and shifted the conversation to why she had failed to appear in court at the further initial hearing in August 2014.

         Apparently referring back to the representation in Ms. Wylie's Rule 60 (b) motion that she and her landlord had agreed that she did not have to return to court, the trial court asked Ms. Wylie why, "if the people don't have your rent calculated correctly .... would you put faith in anything they're saying." Ms. Wylie indicated that she thought everything had been straightened out at the July 2014 proceeding. She told the court she had shown Glenncrest's counsel both (1) a record of her account balance, which reflected that she did not owe back rent but instead owed money on her water bill, and (2) a copy of an agreement that she had signed with a Glenncrest representative in May 2014, to cover the amount owed, $603.06, in four payments of $150.76.[9] Having spoken to Glenncrest's counsel and having explained that she was "balancing my job and coming down in and on that particular day it was real hectic, " Ms. Wylie understood that she did not have to attend the August 22 hearing so long as she "continue[d] on with what I was doing, catch up with my July payment in August and that's what I did."[10] The court asked Ms. Wylie if Glenncrest's counsel had told her, "Don't come down on the 22nd." Ms. Wylie acknowledged that he "didn't say it [in] those same words." Counsel for Glenncrest then flatly denied either telling Ms. Wylie that she did not need to come back to court or implying as much, to which Ms. Wylie responded, "No, that's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong."

         Without resolving what counsel had said, whether counsel had implied that Ms. Wylie did not have to return to court, or whether Ms. Wylie might have reasonably construed counsel's statements to convey that message, the court briefly shifted its focus to the basis of Glenncrest's suit, clarifying that it was unrelated to her water bill and based on her alleged nonpayment of rent. Despite Ms. Wylie's repeated assurances that she had rent receipts proving she had paid her rent for all the months listed as unpaid in the complaint, [11] the trial court did not examine Ms. Wylie's documents. Instead, the court returned to the issue of her failure to return to court, asking why, if Ms. Wylie had in fact paid her rent, she had not come back to court in August to challenge Glenncrest's case against her. Ms. Wylie again admitted that she had missed the August hearing but explained "[t]hat was the only court date that I didn't come on . . . and then I didn't even know nothing about no September the 12th court date. I didn't get no notice for me to come to court September 12th."

         The court did not follow up with any questions about Ms. Wylie's failure to appear at the September ex parte proof hearing. Instead, the court continued to focus on Ms. Wylie's nonappearance at the August proceeding. The court opined that Ms. Wylie's current efforts to reopen her case were "too little too late because if you've paid six months of rent when you're coming in July, and they say you haven't paid the six months and you've got receipts that you have paid it, seems to me, you need to be getting a trial or something, " but "[a] default was entered because you didn't come on August the 22nd." The court was unmoved when Ms. Wylie reiterated her misunderstanding regarding her obligation to appear at the hearing in August: that, when counsel for Glenncrest "told me to catch-up with my July payment I owed, I just took that as if I did that, then it wouldn't be a necessary thing for me to come" in August.[12]

         Without inquiring further, the court denied Ms. Wylie's Rule 60 (b) motion.[13] The court quickly reviewed the grounds for relief from judgment under Rule 60 (b)(l)-(6)[14] and determined that none of those subsections applied. Finally, alluding to considerations established by case law for review of Rule 60 (b)(1) and (b)(6) motions-whether the movant (1) had actual notice of the proceedings, (2) acted in good faith, (3) took prompt action, (4) made a prima facie showing of an adequate defense, and lastly (5) whether vacatur would prejudice the non-moving party, see infra Part II-the court made a number of statements in support of its determination that relief from judgment was not warranted.

         First, the trial court stated that Ms. Wylie had had actual notice of the August 2014 hearing and that, when she missed that hearing, the court properly scheduled an ex parte proof hearing. This prompted Ms. Wylie to protest, again, that she had not received advance notice of the ex parte proof hearing: "I didn't get no court date, I did not get no court papers, Judge, for me to come to court September 12th. I got the court papers in . . . mid-September of whatever they filed in court that day, I got the paper after . . . they [evicted me]. I did not get no court paper for me to come to court."

         Without addressing this contention, the court additionally said that it did not "see how [Ms. Wylie] acted promptly" in seeking relief from judgment and seemed to accept Glenncrest's counsel's representation that his client would be prejudiced by vacatur of the judgment because Ms. Wylie still owed Glenncrest $2, 500 and because the unit had been re-rented. As to the amount owed, Ms. Wylie again asserted that "I have proof of my rent, " and that "Tiffany [Talbert, the property manager who was present in court] knows." Ms. Wylie pleaded with the court, "Oh, oh, please let [Ms. Talbert] talk because she actually knows about this, she knows about it[, ] she really do, she knows about it." But instead, without taking sworn testimony from Ms. Talbert, Ms. Wylie, or anyone else, and without taking any documents into evidence, the court indicated that it did not matter what Ms. Wylie's actual defense was because she had failed to litigate her case.

         In response to Ms. Wylie's strenuous assertions that she did not owe any rent, that her dispute with Glenncrest was all about past unpaid water bills amounting to hundreds-not thousands-of dollars, and that Glenncrest "was wrong from the jump, " the court asked,

[W]ell why do you think you were going to get them to do it right by your lonesome, why would you think that? And then have the Court intervene in a situation that you found yourself in? You were relying on everything they told you and from your perspective, they were the ones that started by doing the wrong thing in the first place. It's just not adding up, that you're ...

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