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Wilson v. District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

May 18, 2017

David G. Wilson, Petitioner,
District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission, Respondent, and Smith Property Holdings Van Ness, L.P. & Archstone-Smith Communities, LLC, Intervenors.

          Submitted February 14, 2017

         On Petition for Review of an Order of the District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission (RH-TP-07-28, 907)

          David G. Wilson, pro se.

          Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, filed a statement in lieu of brief in support of intervenor.

          Roger D. Luchs was on the brief for intervenors.

          Before Thompson and Beckwith, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.

          Thompson, Associate Judge.

         Petitioner David G. Wilson challenges two decisions by the District of Columbia Rental Housing Commission ("RHC") in which the RHC upheld determinations by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") of the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"). The ALJ rejected petitioner's claims (1) that his housing provider's offer to continue his rent for the twelvemonth period beginning October 2, 2004, at the same monthly rate he had theretofore paid as a holdover month-to-month tenant if he signed a new twelvemonth lease - which offer petitioner accepted - constituted a rent increase, which the housing provider effected without complying with statutory and regulatory notice and filing requirements; and (2) that the housing provider's offer of that and other lease options that made it financially disadvantageous for petitioner to remain in his rental unit as a month-to-month tenant was retaliatory and coercive conduct, in violation of D.C. Code § 42-3505.02 (2003 Supp.). For the reasons explained below, we affirm the RHC's rulings.


         Petitioner leased an apartment unit (unit S1006) located at 3003 Van Ness Street, N.W., from intervenors Smith Property Holdings Van Ness LP and Archstone-Smith Communities LLC (the "Housing Provider") for a term starting on June 24, 2002, and ending on June 30, 2003. The leased unit was rent-controlled under the Rental Housing Act of 1985 (the "Act"), which, at that time, permitted a landlord to increase the rent charged for a housing accommodation up to the amount of the specific rent ceiling for that accommodation. See D.C. Code § 42-3502.06 (a) (2003 Supp.).

         On July 1, 2003, after his lease ended, and without executing a new lease, petitioner remained on the property as a hold-over, month-to-month tenant, paying the same rent ($1303 per month) as under his prior lease. On August 4, 2004, over a year after the month-to-month tenancy began, the Housing Provider sent petitioner a letter providing him twelve leasing options should he wish to remain in the rental unit. One option allowed petitioner to remain a month-to-month tenant but increased his rent from $1303 to $1755 per month. Another option allowed petitioner to sign a twelve-month lease at a continued monthly rent of $1303. The other options involved lease terms between two and eleven months, with rent increases inversely proportional to the length of the lease. No option in the letter increased petitioner's rent to an amount above the rent ceiling, which at that time was $2411. According to the letter, the option petitioner chose would become effective on October 1, 2004. The letter also stated that if the housing provider received no response from petitioner by August 23, 2004, his tenancy would remain month-to-month at the increased rate of $1755, effective October 1, 2004.

         Petitioner chose to sign a twelve-month lease at a monthly rent of $1303. However, on March 6, 2007, he filed a Tenant Petition raising two principal claims: First, petitioner alleged that his new twelve-month lease afforded the Housing Provider a benefit over and above the cash rental amount, in the form of "a guaranteed future cash flow for that [twelve]-month period." Petitioner contended that this additional "benefit" to the Housing Provider constituted a "rent increase" and, therefore, triggered notice and filing requirements (including notice about the justification for the rent increase, a summary of tenant rights, and a list of sources of technical assistance for tenants).[1] Petitioner contended that because the Housing Provider had not complied with those requirements, petitioner was "entitled to a refund of $452[2] for each of the [twelve] months that the violation continued . . . plus treble damages for the bad faith exhibited by the Housing Provider's threats . . . ." Second, petitioner alleged that ''[t]he Housing Provider "engaged in retaliatory action when it coerced [him] into accepting a term lease and abandoning his month-to-month lease."

         On January 7, 2011, the OAH ALJ dismissed the Tenant Petition with prejudice, finding that "[a] discount in the amount of legal rent charged in return for a lease is not illegal, " that "[t]he notice and filing requirements were not necessary, " and that the "tenant [was not] coerced into 'abandoning a month-to-month tenancy.'" Petitioner appealed to the RHC, which, in a March 10, 2015, Decision and Order, affirmed the ALJ's decision except with respect to the retaliation claim. The RHC remanded as to that claim, concluding that "the ALJ failed to address the legal requirements of a claim of retaliation under the Act[] and [to] make factual findings and provide conclusions of law with respect to the merits of the Tenant's claim . . . ." On remand, the ALJ again rejected petitioner's retaliation claim, finding that "[o]ffering a lease option was a decision Housing Provider made independent of any action on part of ...

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