Housing & Consumer Law Clinic Update
Friday, February 22, 2013
Posted by: Prof. Edward Allen
Four years ago, the clinic filed rent control petitions on behalf of about fifty, majority Spanish and Amharic speaking tenants who live in three, upper northwest buildings. There, a disingenuous landlord unlawfully and abruptly informed all tenants that they were responsible for future electricity payments. The clinic challenged the increase, but also utilized its vaunted expertise in hyper-technical "Sawyer” defenses and challenged three years of so-called annual "automatic” increases. After days of hearings, a two hundred and fifty page motion for summary judgment, administrative appellate arguments, and delays worthy of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, students in the Spring and Fall semesters tirelessly pulled together to settle nearly all of those cases. The settlements lowered rents almost a $100 a month per tenant ($5000 a month collectively) and awarded tenants between $1000 and $4000 in refunds or rent credits (collectively well over $100,000.) Settling so many disparate cases in three languages with differing rent levels and myriad legal theories was an exercise in the proverbial herding of cats, but student attorneys succeeded in wrapping up the overwhelming majority of these cases. The clinic also received attorney’s fees as part of the settlements.
In separate administrative adjudications, opposed initially by particularly obdurate landlords’ attorneys, one Latino husband and wife settled for $24,000, in mostly cash and some rent credits, to compensate for prolonged rodent infestation, lack of heat, and unlawful rent increases.
In another matter, the Rental Housing Commission affirmed an award of approximately $24,000 for an unsafe, rodent infested unit (the highest Administrative Law Judge award yet to the clinic) and a nearly equal sum in attorney’s fees. The ALJ found that the failure to repair was "heedless disregard” and bad faith and awarded treble damages. The School of Law was awarded additional fees for 3L John Miller’s successful argument on administrative appeal and expects to receive more fees in the court of appeals, where the clinic is now preparing an appellee’s brief to be filed in April. The fees tally to sums more than the judgment and will continue to grow until the matter is resolved. The hoped-for message is that prolonging meritless litigation does not pay.
In the last (slightly more than a) year, student attorneys have argued five administrative appeals at the reconstituted and energized Rental Housing Commission. The Commission issued three decisions, all favorable to our clients. One of them was insufficiently favorable, so Robert Green, 3L, spent a substantial hunk of his semester break writing a motion to reconsider the December 27 decision. With uncharacteristic swiftness, the Commission did an "about face” and rendered a tenant friendly decision on two novel, precedent setting issues, concerning the termination of electricity and notice requirements for rent increases.
In other appellate matters, the clinic (Stephon Patterson, 2013 Evening Student; Julia Gagne, 2L; Dom Mecca, 2L) just submitted an appellee’s brief in the D.C. Court of Appeals defending a the court’s award of monies to clinic after the landlord attempted to thwart a consent order granting a preliminary injunction. Students hope to argue this procedural rat’s nest in the court of appeals this semester.
The clinic finds itself in federal court (purported trademark infringement) defending a tenant case for the first time in years. Against a claim of trademark infringement by a well know local church and landlord, our client is asserting a variety of robust defenses, including retaliation and interference with her statutory right to organize. Seeking fines and attorney’s fees, the clinic is also bringing administrative affirmative claims based on those defenses.
Meanwhile, students represented several tenants facing possible eviction in the Landlord Tenant Branch and achieved favorable results by asserting technical and substantive defenses. In one case where a landlord was claiming vague lease violations by a longtime tenant, 3L Danielle Schubert’s vigorous defense caused the landlord to back down and dismiss the case without condition. In another, Stephon Patterson, Paula Gibbs, 2L, and Kim Lauer, 2L, settled a nonpayment case where the landlord agreed to significantly abate the rent, to make substantial repairs to the apartment and to a concession in the rent level that will allow the tenant to afford his rent. Bryan Colombo, 3L, Josh Basile, 3L, and current students Ryan McCoy, 2L, and Arielle Schwartz, 2L, have all advocated successfully in several forums for another tenant whose unlicensed landlord is seeking eviction despite an utter failure over several years to make repairs. Other students assisted tenants (and some small landlords) in various ways, including by participating in providing court-based assistance at the Landlord Tenant Resource Center. On several occasions over the past several semesters, student attorneys have assumed complete responsibility for staffing the Center and provided dozens of litigants with brief services.
Finally, the clinic is defending two classic gentrification cases. In Mt. Pleasant, a low income "collective” has been renting a house for more than three decades. In the past several years, desultory attempts to evict them were thwarted by the clinic’s facial challenges to notices to quit. In the present action for ejectment, the housing provider is claiming that the collective and its members are not tenants at all, but apparently cannot produce the lease upon which they rely to prove their claim. Three separate law firms represent the housing provider’s interests in an imminently scheduled mediation before a Superior Court Judge.
In Columbia Heights, the clinic is defending a landlord hardship petition which seeks a 35% rent increase for twenty-one low income and diverse tenants. In addition to opposing the hardship petition, the clinic is committed to abating the housing code violations in all the units and representing tenants who refused to pay the increase, pending final adjudication of the petition.