40 198 Pernell v. Southall Realty 8212 6041

Decision Date24 April 1974
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
Citation94 S.Ct. 1723,40 L. Ed. 2d 198,416 U.S. 363
Parties. 40 L.Ed.2d 198 Dave PERNELL, Petitioner, v. SOUTHALL REALTY. —6041
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Since the right to recover possession of real property was a right ascertained and protected at common law, the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution entitles either party to demand a jury trial in an action to recover possession of real property in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia under § 16—1501 of the District of Columbia Code. Pp. 369—385.

294 A.2d 490, reversed and remanded.

Norman C. Barnett, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Herman Miller, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to trial by jury in an action brought in the District of Columbia for the recovery of possession of real property. In May 1971, petitioner, Dave Pernell, entered into a lease agreement with respondent, Southall Realty, for the rental of a house in the District of Columbia. In July 1971, Southall filed a complaint in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia seeking to evict Pernell from the premises for alleged nonpayment of rent. Suit was brought under D.C.Code §§ 16—1501 through 16—1505, which establish a procedure for the recovery of possession of real property. In his answer, Pernell denied that rent was owing, asserted that Southall maintained the premises in an unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary condition in violation of the housing regulations of the District of Columbia,1 and alleged that Southall breached an agreement to waive several months' rent in exchange for Pernell's making certain improvements on the property. Pernell also claimed a setoff of $389.60 for repairs made to bring the premises into partial compliance with the District's housing regulations and a counterclaim of $75 for back rent paid.

In his answer, Pernell also requested a trial by jury. The trial judge, however, struck the jury demand, tried the case himself, and entered judgment for Southall. Pernell appealed to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, claiming that the Seventh Amendment guaranteed the right to trial by jury in all cases brought under § 16—1501 and, alternatively, that he was entitled to a jury trial in this case by virtue of the counterclaim and setoff specified in his answer. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 294 A.2d 490 (1972), holding that jury trials are not guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment in landlord-tenant cases predicated on nonpayment of rent or some other breach of the lease where the only remedy sought is repossession of the rented premises. Id., at 496. The court also held that if Pernell wished to litigate his counterclaim for damages before a jury, he should have instituted a separate action rather than raise the counterclaim in the landlord's action for repossession. Id., at 498.

Because of the novel nature of the Seventh Amendment question, we granted certiorari. 411 U.S. 915, 93 S.Ct. 1556, 36 L.Ed.2d 306 (1973). We reverse.

I

Although the statutory cause of action now codified in § 16 1501 dates back to 1864,2 it was unnecessary until recently for any court to pass upon the Seventh Amendment question now before us. Prior to 1970, D.C.Code § 13—702 preserved the right to jury trial '(w)hen the amount of controversy in a civil action . . . exceeds $20, and in all actions for the recovery of possession of real property . . ..' See, e.g., Kass v. Baskin, 82 U.S.App.D.C. 385, 164 F.2d 513 (1947). The matter now appears in a different light, however, since § 13—702 was repealed by the District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970. See Pub.L. 91—358, § 142(5)(A), 84 Stat. 552.

We are met at the outset by the suggestion that, notwithstanding the repeal of § 13—702, it might still be possible to interpret the relevant statutes as providing for a right to jury trial. It is, of course, a "cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the (constitutional) question may be avoided." United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs, 402 U.S. 363, 369, 91 S.Ct. 1400, 1404, 28 L.Ed.2d 822 (1971).

The Court of Appeals recognized that 'Congress did not make clear what it intended by the repeal of this section.' 294 A.2d, at 491. Although the legislative history on this question is meager, an argument can be made that Congress in 1970 harbored no intent to do away with jury trials, but rather repealed § 13—702 as a housekeeping measure in the belief that jury trials would continue to be afforded in all cases previously covered by that section, including actions for the recovery of possession of real property.3 The Court of Appeals, however, appears to have been of the view that, regardless of congressional intent, it was no longer possible to interpret the relevant statutes as providing a right to jury trial in light of the outright repeal of § 13—702. In its view, after 1970 the right to jury trial had to stand on constitutional ground if it were to stand at all. We find ourselves bound by that Court's analysis of the effect of the 1970 Act in the circumstances of this case.

This Court has long expressed its reluctance to review decisions of the courts of the District involving matters of peculiarly local concern, absent a constitutional claim or a problem of general federal law of nationwide application. See, e.g., Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 717—718, 69 S.Ct. 814, 820—821, 93 L.Ed. 993 (1949); Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476, 66 S.Ct. 1318, 1324, 90 L.Ed. 1382 (1946). See also miller v. United States, 357 U.S. 301, 306, 78 S.Ct. 1190, 1194, 2 L.Ed.2d 1332 (1958). In the past, this reluctance has typically been expressed with regard to positions taken by the courts of the District on common-law questions of evidence and substantive criminal law. But in view of the restructuring of the District's court system accomplished by the Court Reform Act in 1970, we believe the same deference is owed the courts of the District with respect to their interpretation of Acts of Congress directed toward the local jurisdiction.

One of the primary purposes of the Court Reform Act was to restructure the District's court system so that 'the District will have a court system comparable to those of the states and other large municipalities.' H.R.Rep.No. 91—907, p. 23 (1970). Prior to 1970, the District's local courts and the United States District Court and Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, unlike their counterparts in the several States, shared a complex and often confusing form of concurrent jurisdiction, with local-law matters often litigated in the United States District Court and decisions of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reviewable in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. See generally ibid.

The 1970 Act made fundamental changes in this structure. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals was made the highest court of the District, 'similar to a state Supreme Court,' and its judgments made reviewable by this Court in the same manner that we review judgments of the highest courts of the several States. See ibid. See also Pub.L. 91—358, § 111, 84 Stat. 475, codified at D.C.Code § 11—102; § 172(a)(1), 84 Stat. 590, amending 28 U.S.C. § 1257. The respective jurisdictions of the newly created Superior Court of the District of Columbia and of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia were adjusted so as to 'result in a Federal-State court system in the District of Columbia analogous to court systems in the serveral States.' H.R.Rep. No. 91—907, supra, at 35.

This new structure plainly contemplates that the decisions of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on matters of local law both common law and statutory law—will be treated by this Court in a manner similar to the way in which we treat decisions of the highest court of a State on questions of state law.4 Congressional Acts directed toward the District, like other federal laws, admittedly come within this Court's Art. III jurisdiction, and we are therefore not barred from reviewing the interpretations of those Acts by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in the same jurisdictional sense that we are barred from reconsidering a state court's interpretation of a state statute. See, e.g., O'Brien v. Skinner, 414 U.S. 524, 531, 94 S.Ct. 740, 743—744, 38 L.Ed.2d 702 (1974); Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250, 256, 94 S.Ct. 1076, 1081, 39 L.Ed.2d 306 (1974). But the new court structure certainly lends additional support to our longstanding practice of not overruling the courts of the District on local law matters 'save in exceptional situations where egregious error has been committed.' Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S., at 476, 66 S.Ct., at 1325; Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S., at 718, 69 S.Ct., at 820. This principle, long embedded in practice and now supported by the clear intent of Congress in enacting the 1970 Court Reform Act, must serve as our guide in the present case. As no such obvious error was committed here, we must accept the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the right to jury trial must stand or fall on constitutional ground after the repeal of § 13—702. Accordingly, it is to the Seventh Amendment issue that we now turn.

II

District of Columbia Code § 16—1501 provides a remedy '(w)hen a person detains possession of real property without right, or after his right to possession has ceased . . ..' The statute is not limited to situations where a landlord seeks to evict a tenant, but may be invoked by any 'person aggrieved' by a wrongful detention of property. Ibid. See also infra, at 379. Under the statute, when a verified complaint is filed by the person aggrieved by the detention, the Superior Court of the District of...

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