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Segreti v. DeIuliis

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

September 13, 2018

Mario J. Segreti, Appellant,
v.
Luke DeIuliis, et al., Appellees.

          Argued January 16, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-4255-04) (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge)

         Appellee Luke DeIuliis filed a statement in lieu of brief supporting the April 19, 2016, decision of the trial court.

         Appellee Antoinette Witt filed a statement in lieu of brief supporting the April 19, 2016, decision of the trial court.

          Michael B. McGovern for appellant.

          Before Glickman and Fisher, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.

          FISHER, ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         Appellant Mario Segreti sought attorney's fees after prevailing in three actions concerning his rights as a tenant. The Superior Court denied his motion. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Appellant moved in with his grandmother, Marguerite Corsetti, in 1990. Before she died, Corsetti deeded the house to an inter vivos trust, and shortly after her death in 2004, the trustees attempted to remove appellant from the property so they could sell it. Determined not to treat appellant as a tenant, which, as their lawyer explained, they feared would confer on him "all kinds of special rights," the trustees declined to seek a judicial eviction and instead sent appellant a letter demanding that he vacate. When he refused, they told the companies that provided electricity and water to the Corsetti house that a squatter lived on the property—an assertion that led the companies to shut off services.

         That act launched the protracted legal battle that gives rise to this case—a procedural history we summarized in a prior memorandum opinion and judgment ("MOJ") concerning the merits of that litigation. See Corsetti Trust v. Segreti, Nos. 10-CV-1021, -1039, -529, 11-CV-1111 & 12-AA-1656, Mem. Op. & J. at 2 (D.C. Sept. 30, 2014). First, in May 2004, appellant filed a complaint in the Superior Court ("the civil case") seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions restoring his utilities and enjoining co-trustee Luke DeIuliis from interfering with his lawful use of the property. DeIuliis responded with an answer and a six-count counterclaim. Second, appellant filed a petition with the Rental Accommodations and Conversion Division of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs ("the administrative action"), that alleged, among other things, that the trust cut off his utility services for retaliatory purposes. Finally, in November 2008, the trust decided to switch tactics and filed a complaint for possession in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of the Superior Court (the "landlord-tenant case").

         Appellant prevailed in all three of these actions and, except for one issue not relevant here, we affirmed each decision on appeal.[1] After those appeals, he filed a renewed motion for attorney's fees and costs in all three cases, as the Superior Court had held a similar motion in abeyance pending our review of the trial court and agency decisions. The Superior Court awarded appellant costs but denied his claim for fees. After the court denied his motion for reconsideration, he filed this appeal, contesting the court's denial of fees. Neither the trust nor its trustees filed a brief as appellee, resting instead on the Superior Court order.

         II. Analysis

         The American Rule generally renders each party responsible for its own fees for legal services. Assidon v. Abboushi, 16 A.3d 939, 942 (D.C. 2011). However, that rule admits of exceptions and appellant contends that two of them apply here. He first argues that, under D.C. Code § 42-3509.02 (2012 Repl.), he was entitled to attorney's fees for services rendered in the civil and administrative cases. Second, appellant invokes the common law "bad faith" exception to argue for additional fees, primarily those amassed in the landlord-tenant case. We consider appellant's claim for fees in each case in turn.

         A. Claim for Fees in the Civil Case

         D.C. Code § 42-3509.02 authorizes courts to "award reasonable attorney's fees to the prevailing party in any action under this chapter, except actions for eviction authorized under § 42-3505.01." While appellant prevailed on his complaint and on the counterclaims in the civil case, his success makes him eligible for fees only if those claims arose "under this chapter," that is, chapter 35 of title 42 of the District of Columbia Code—the Rental Housing Act ("the Act" or the "RHA"). Thus, in order to decide whether the trial court should have awarded appellant statutory fees, we must determine, as a threshold matter, whether the complaint or the counterclaims arose under the Act, a question of statutory construction that we consider de novo. See ...


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