917 A.2d 95 (D.C. 2007), 05-CV-303, Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co.

Docket Nº05-CV-303.
Citation917 A.2d 95
Party NameNokomis N. HINTON, Appellant, v. SEALANDER BROKERAGE CO., Appellee.
Case DateFebruary 15, 2007
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

Page 95

917 A.2d 95 (D.C. 2007)

Nokomis N. HINTON, Appellant,

v.

SEALANDER BROKERAGE CO., Appellee.

No. 05-CV-303.

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

February 15, 2007

Submitted December 12, 2006

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-7988-03), Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge

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Nokomis N. Hinton, pro se.

Morris R. Battino, Washington, for appellee.

Before FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

FERREN, Senior Judge:

This appeal presents an unusual, ostensibly inconsistent combination of circumstances: a landlord's wrongful, self-help eviction, followed by the tenant's holdover as a trespasser on the premises. The pro se tenant, Nokomis Hinton, filed an action in forma pauperis against her landlord, Sealander Brokerage Co., for allegedly locking her out of her single family rental house before she had been able to move out all her furniture and personal belongings.1 The landlord then filed a counterclaim for unpaid rent attributable to the tenant's holding over by leaving property in the house after she had left. The trial judge ruled for the landlord on both the claim and the counterclaim. We vacate the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. Background

The tenant filed her complaint on September 29, 2003, alleging that she had given the landlord a "30 day notice" that she was leaving the premises;2 that the landlord had changed the locks before her "30 day[s were] up" and that the landlord had denied her access to her "belongings" that remained in the house.3 She sought $16,000 in damages. The landlord answered, alleging among other things that the tenant had "abandoned the property" (both real and personal) and had no "lawful right" to it. More than eight months later, the landlord received the court's permission to file a counterclaim alleging that "in September 2003," the tenant had become "delinquent in her monthly rent" and owed the landlord "rent in the sum of $6,615.00." Despite two orders from the court to answer the counterclaim, the tenant never formally did so. In her pretrial statement, however, she alleged in response to the "Counterclaim for monies owed" that "no money was due." Thereafter, both the landlord and the trial judge

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treated the counterclaim as if issue had been joined. Then, after a bench trial, the trial court ruled for the landlord on both the claim and the counterclaim and awarded money damages against the tenant totaling $7,808.30 (plus statutory interest from March 21, 2005) as compensation for storing the tenant's personal property on the premises for ten months ($7,000) and, thereafter, in a U-Haul storage facility ($808.30).

The tenant now appeals, arguing (with the benefit of reasonable inferences from her pleadings) that her "rent was paid in full" through September 2003; that the "lease was over" when she moved out beginning September 3, but that she was entitled to "30 day[s]" within which to remove her furniture and other property; that the landlord had engaged in an "illegal lock out," changing the locks "on September 19[,] 2003" with "half of the appellant's furniture lock[ed] in the house"; that the landlord had "refused" to give a key to the tenant; that the landlord's actions therefore amounted to an "illegal withholding" of the tenant's "furniture and things"; and that "there was no agreement" that the tenant would pay for storage on the premises.4

II. Wrongful Eviction

"In resolving an appeal from a non-jury trial, we may review both as to the facts and the law, but the judgment may not be set aside except for errors of law unless it appears that the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." Crescent Props. v. Inabinet, 897 A.2d 782, 789-90 (D.C.2006) (internal quotations omitted) (citing Zoob v. Jordan, 841 A.2d 761, 764 (D.C.2004)); D.C.Code § 17-305(a) (2001). The trial court's findings of fact will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous, Crescent Props., 897 A.2d at 790, and the evidence will be viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Real Estate Escrow, Inc. v. Fitzgerald, 846 A.2d 289, 290 (D.C.2004) (citing Drevenak v. Abendschein, 773 A.2d 396, 415-16 (D.C.2001)).

In order to establish wrongful eviction, a tenant must prove that the landlord performed "some act of a permanent character with the intention and effect of depriving the tenant of the enjoyment of the demised premises or a part thereof." International Comm'n on English in Liturgy v. Schwartz, 573 A.2d 1303, 1305 (D.C. 1990) (citing Hughes v. Westchester Dev. Corp., 64 App. D.C. 292, 293, 77 F.2d 550, 551 (1935)).5 "Whether the landlord

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performed an act with the intent to evict the tenant is a question of fact for the trial court." Id.6The law is clear in this jurisdiction, moreover, that a landlord is prohibited from using self-help to evict a tenant and must proceed instead by using the process provided by law. Mendes v. Johnson, 389 A.2d 781, 783-87 (D.C.1978) (en banc) (landlord's common law right of self-help eviction by removing tenant's belongings from premises abrogated by exclusive statutory remedy mandating reliance on legal process), abrogated in part by Davis v. Moore, 772 A.2d 204 (D.C.2001) (en banc). Nothing, however, precludes a landlord from securing a vacant unit to prevent theft and vandalism. See 14 DCMR § 6800.3 (2006) ("[T]he owner of a vacant building is required to maintain the building ... [by ensuring that] [d]oors, windows, areaways, and other openings are ... secured against entry by ... trespassers ...").7

The tenant testified at trial that she had paid her rent through September 30; that she had sent the landlord "a notice of 30-day move out . . . on the 3rd of September"; that she had been moving out "constantly" from September 3 to September 20, 2003; that on the 20th she had found the landlord's locksmith "chang[ing] the locks on the door"; and that when she had asked the landlord's representative for a key so that she "could continue to move [her] things[,] . . . [h]e refused."

The landlord's representative told a different story. He acknowledged that the tenant's rent had been paid through September 30, 2003, but said that she had "never notified" him that she was leaving. He further testified that "approximately on the 26th of September" 2003, he learned from a former neighbor of the tenant that the house was vacant and "unsecured"--the "doors were open." He then testified that when he had gone right away to check on the property, "[i]t looked like someone had abandoned it, left it, and that somebody was ransacking." In particular, "[w]indows were broken, doors had been torn off the hinges[;] ... it looked like someone was trying to, you know, maliciously damage the place." He found that the house still contained "many items" of personal property "in various states of [dis]array." (He took photos of the property inside the house and offered them as exhibits at trial.) He then elaborated:

I tried to close the door in the back as best I could and close the front door. I was able to lock the front door with a small hand lock but all the other locks had been removed, both on the gate and

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on the main door. The dead bolts had all been removed.

Accordingly, he said, in order to protect the tenant's property as well as the landlord's, he made arrangements with a locksmith "to put locks on the doors" three days later, September 29, 2003. Also on the 29th, the landlord's representative posted a notice on the front door of the house containing a phone number for the tenant to call in order to gain entry for removal of her belongings. The notice added that a "message has been left with your new landlord[;] we have no telephone number for you." The landlord's representative further testified that, on other occasions during the ensuing months, the landlord had informed the tenant that she "could pick up her things at any time."

The tenant contradicted the testimony of the landlord's representative that she had never notified him of her intention to leave, stating that she had told him this perhaps "ten or eleven" times between September 20 and 29. She acknowledged on cross-examination, however, that once he became aware that she was leaving, the landlord's representative had told her that she "could come and immediately remove [her] things," and that she had had multiple opportunities to retrieve what was hers. Nonetheless, she had declined to do so, she said, because the landlord's representative had refused to give her a key. He preferred instead to meet her at the house and open the door for her, a resolution she rejected apparently because of prior legal proceedings with the landlord which had led the tenant to believe that she was "not supposed to go around him."8 In giving his reasons for refusing the tenant a key, the landlord's representative testified:

The building had been ransacked. Doors had been torn off their hinges. Windows had been broken. We weren't sure who did that. We didn't know whether it was [the tenant], we didn't know whether it was neighbors, we didn't know whether it was some vandals cruising the neighborhood. We didn't know. What we did know was that that property was unsecured at the time and that's why we put the locks on.

Implicitly, the landlord's representative was saying that he did not trust the tenant with the key to a house that she had given up and perhaps even trashed herself.

"[B]ased upon the credibility of the witnesses," the trial judge ruled for the landlord in the...

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  • Brief of Appellees
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
    • July 8, 2008
    ...36 Hill v. Medatlantic Health Care Group, 933 A.2d 314 (D.C. 2007)………………………………………………………… 36 Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95 (D.C. 2007)………………………………………………………….. 16,34 Leftwich v. Leftwich, 442 A.2d 139 (D.C. 1982)……………………………..………………………….. 17 Lucy Webb Hayes Nat. Training Schoo......
  • 84 A.3d 543 (D.C. 2014), 12-CV-711, Hernandez v. Banks
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • February 6, 2014
    ...these damages are based on the reasonable value of a tenant's use and occupancy of the property. Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 107 n. 19 (D.C.2007) (citing Habib v. Thurston, 517 A.2d 1, 13 n. 16, 18 (D.C.1985)). " Reasonable value is determined presumptively— but not......
  • 947 A.2d 38 (D.C. 2008), 05-CV-1268, Double H Housing Corp. v. David
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • March 13, 2008
    ...damages are the " 'reasonable value' for 'continued use and occupancy of the premises.' " Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 107 (D.C. 2007) (quoting Habib v. Thurston, 517 A.2d 1, 13 n.16, 18 (D.C. 1985)); see also Habib, 517 A.2d at 14 n.16 (noting that if a landlor......
  • 61 A.3d 1227 (D.C. 2013), 11-CV-20, Steuart Inv. Co. v. The Meyer Group, Ltd.
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • March 7, 2013
    ...the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Cahn v. Antioch Univ., 482 A.2d 120, 128 (D.C.1984); Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 101 (D.C.2007). We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. Hutchison Bros. Excavating Co. v. District of Columbia, 511 A.2d 3, 6......
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17 cases
  • 84 A.3d 543 (D.C. 2014), 12-CV-711, Hernandez v. Banks
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • February 6, 2014
    ...these damages are based on the reasonable value of a tenant's use and occupancy of the property. Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 107 n. 19 (D.C.2007) (citing Habib v. Thurston, 517 A.2d 1, 13 n. 16, 18 (D.C.1985)). " Reasonable value is determined presumptively— but not......
  • 947 A.2d 38 (D.C. 2008), 05-CV-1268, Double H Housing Corp. v. David
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • March 13, 2008
    ...damages are the " 'reasonable value' for 'continued use and occupancy of the premises.' " Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 107 (D.C. 2007) (quoting Habib v. Thurston, 517 A.2d 1, 13 n.16, 18 (D.C. 1985)); see also Habib, 517 A.2d at 14 n.16 (noting that if a landlor......
  • 61 A.3d 1227 (D.C. 2013), 11-CV-20, Steuart Inv. Co. v. The Meyer Group, Ltd.
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • March 7, 2013
    ...the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Cahn v. Antioch Univ., 482 A.2d 120, 128 (D.C.1984); Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 101 (D.C.2007). We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo. Hutchison Bros. Excavating Co. v. District of Columbia, 511 A.2d 3, 6......
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    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • July 3, 2013
    ...585 A.2d 158, 163 (D.C.1991)). [14] Estate of Kurstin v. Lordan, 25 A.3d 54, 68 (D.C.2011) (quoting Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 101 [15] Stone, 6 A.3d at 851 (quoting Johnson v. United States, 398 A.2d 354, 366 (D.C.1979)). [16] This was the only pinhole leak sample Corm......
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3 firm's commentaries
  • Brief of Appellees
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
    • July 8, 2008
    ...36 Hill v. Medatlantic Health Care Group, 933 A.2d 314 (D.C. 2007)………………………………………………………… 36 Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95 (D.C. 2007)………………………………………………………….. 16,34 Leftwich v. Leftwich, 442 A.2d 139 (D.C. 1982)……………………………..………………………….. 17 Lucy Webb Hayes Nat. Training Schoo......
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    • JD Supra United States
    • July 22, 2011
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    • LexBlog United States
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