WRIGHT v. HODGES, 93-CV-1298

Decision Date26 July 1996
Docket NumberNo. 93-CV-1298,93-CV-1298
Citation681 A.2d 1102
PartiesMildred WRIGHT, Appellant, v. Abraham HODGES, et al., Appellees.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals


David J. Farber, Washington, DC, with whom Michael D. Esch and Ruth L. Ramsey were on the brief, for appellant.

Sunanda K. Holmes, Silver Spring, MD, for appellees.

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and STEADMAN and SCHWELB, Associate Judges.

Opinion for the court PER CURIAM.

Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge SCHWELB at 1106.


This case concerns a landlord-tenant dispute regarding the conditions in an apartment in southeast Washington, D.C. Following a bench trial on the landlords' action for possession, the trial court entered judgment of possession in favor of the landlords, Abraham and Loretta Hodges, against the tenant, Mildred Wright. The court ruled that Mrs. Wright would be required to pay the Hodges the full amount of rent due in order to redeem her tenancy. On appeal, Mrs. Wright contends that the trial court erred in ruling for the Hodges because significant housing code violations allegedly existed on the premises, justifying her failure to pay the full rent due. She contends that the judge made inadequate findings of fact and that he applied incorrect legal standards to the evidence presented. We affirm.


On August 23, 1993, the Hodges filed an action for possession against Mrs. Wright, alleging non-payment of rent. Mrs. Wright defended on the ground that conditions in the apartment amounted to violations of the housing code.1 The case came on for a bench trial on September 27, 1993. All parties appeared pro se,2 and the court heard the testimony of Mrs. Wright, Mr. and Mrs. Hodges, and Carlos Adorno, a housing inspector employed by the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.


Mrs. Wright testified that she rented the apartment in question from Mrs. Hodges, an acquaintance of hers, in December 1991. The agreed upon monthly rent was $325. Mrs. Wright testified that in April 1993, she received notice from the Hodges that her rent would be raised to $375 per month. Mrs. Wright refused to pay the raised rent, contending that the apartment was in unacceptable condition and that no increase was warranted. Mrs. Wright claimed, inter alia, that her toilet and bathtub were backed up by sewage, that she had to pour water in the toilet to make it flush, that the exterior door locks were broken, that her ceiling leaked, that "all the light switches had electrical sensations in them," and that there were no lights on the outside of the building or in the hallway. She testified that some of these conditions, including the defective state of the toilet, existed when she moved into the unit, and that she had called Mrs. Hodges about these conditions immediately after moving in. According to Mrs. Wright, as of the date of trial, the backup in the toilet and bathtub still had not been fixed.3


The Hodges provided an account of the events in question which contradicted Mrs. Wright's version in a number of significant particulars. Mrs. Hodges denied that, uponmoving in, Mrs. Wright had called her to complain about conditions in the apartment. The Hodges insisted, on the contrary, that Mrs. Wright's complaints were precipitated by the rent increase. Mr. Hodges testified that, in June 1993, "Mrs. Wright started calling all the housing inspectors . . . telling them all these violations that [were in] the apartment."

The housing inspector first visited the apartment on July 20, 1993. Mr. Hodges acknowledged that, on that occasion, the inspector found some violations, but Mr. Hodges testified that he corrected those violations "at that particular time." Mr. Hodges suggested that Mrs. Wright had intentionally caused some of the problems of which she was complaining. According to Mr. Hodges, on July 22, 1993, two days after his initial inspection of the apartment, the housing inspector found white paint in the sink, although nobody had been doing any painting in the building. Mr. Hodges also testified that, during the July 22 inspection, it was determined that Mrs. Wright "had taken the changer loose off the flusher so that the toilet wouldn't flush."


Housing inspector Carlos Adorno testified that on July 20, 1993, he inspected Mrs. Wright's apartment in response to a complaint of a sewage obstruction or leak. He testified that he found "emergency violations" as well as "numerous routine violations within the apartment." With respect to the emergency violations, Adorno stated that

I did find a brown ring around the [kitchen] sink, but there was no obstruction. The lavatory and the bathtub did have some backup. I wasn't able to determine where that was coming from. There was a smoke [detector] that was defective in the first mechanism as well. And the exterior entrance door locks, they were defective as well.

Adorno testified that he returned to the apartment on three separate occasions to check the status of the repairs and determined that all of the emergency items (as listed above) had been corrected by the time of his last inspection on August 2, 1993.4

Adorno testified that the "routine" violations which he found included "peeling paint, cracks in the ceiling, electrical outlet that was defective, windows that needed reputting and stuff like that, just your basic routine wear and tear." He explained that he had been scheduled to return to the unit in order to determine whether the routine violations had been abated, but that Mr. Hodges had received an extension to October 4, 1993 with respect to those violations.


At the conclusion of the evidence, the judge made oral findings of fact and conclusions of law. After outlining the history of the case and the testimony of the housing inspector, and indicating that he had examined the photographs submitted by the parties, the judge found that all of the emergency violations had been abated within thirty days. The judge then concluded that the Hodges had not "done anything wrong," and that "there has been no breach of the implied warranty of habitability here, and there is no defense to [not] paying the rent here." In addition, the judge noted that "the housing inspector is on top of this situation."5 The judge ruled that, in order to redeem her tenancy,6 Mrs. Wright would be required to pay the Hodges the full amount that the Hodges claimed was due on the rent. This appeal by Mrs. Wright followed.


When a case is tried by the court sitting without a jury, the trial judge's "[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 52(a); see Super Ct. L & T R. 2 (making Civ. R. 52 applicable to proceedings in the Landlord and Tenant Branch). In determining whether the judge's findings are supported by the record, "we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to [the Hodges], giving full play to the right of the judge, as the trier of fact, to determine credibility, weigh the evidence, and draw reasonable inferences." In re T.M., 577 A.2d 1149, 1151 (D.C. 1990) (citations omitted).

Under Super Ct. Civ. R. 52(a), the trial court in a nonjury case is required to "state sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law to permit meaningful appellate review." United States Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. Kaftarian, 520 A.2d 297, 299 (D.C. 1987) (citation omitted). These findings must be "sufficient to indicate the factual basis for the ultimate conclusion." Kelley v. Everglades Drainage District, 319 U.S. 415, 422, 63 S.Ct. 1141, 1145, 87 L.Ed. 1485 (1943) (per curiam). "Where the trial court provides only conclusory findings, unsupported by subsidiary findings, or by an explication of the court's reasoning with respect to the relevant facts, a reviewing court simply is unable to determine whether or not those findings are clearly erroneous." Kaftarian, supra, 520 A.2d at 299-300 (internal quotation and citations omitted).

Nevertheless, a deficiency in factual findings does not always constitute reversible error. We will uphold the trial court's ruling against such a challenge, for example, "where the record clearly reflects the grounds of the trial court's decision," Don't Tear it Down, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 395 A.2d 388, 391 (D.C. 1978) (citing Warner Corp. v. Magazine Realty Co., 255 A.2d 479, 481 n. 4 (D.C. 1969); other citation omitted), or where the trial court's "decision is clearly supported by the record." Simpson v. Lee, 499 A.2d 889, 893 (D.C. 1985) (citations omitted). Moreover, "we have often sustained rulings of the trial court on the basis of implied findings." Battocchi v. Washington Hosp. Center, 581 A.2d 759, 768 (D.C. 1990). Finally, while "[f]indings of fact which result from a misapprehension as to the applicable law . . . lose the insulation of the 'clearly erroneous' rule," In re L.L., 653 A.2d 873, 880 (D.C. 1995) (citation omitted), trial judges are presumed to know and apply the proper legal standards. See, e.g., Walton v. Arizona, 497 U.S. 639, 653, 110 S.Ct. 3047, 3057, 111 L.Ed.2d 511 (1990); Hightower v. United States, 117 U.S.App.D.C. 43, 46, 325 F.2d 616, 619 (1963), cert. denied, 384 U.S. 994, 86 S.Ct. 1903, 16 L.Ed.2d 1009 (1966).


In the District of Columbia, every lease for residential housing includes an implied warranty of habitability. Javins v. First National Realty Corp., 138 U.S.App. D.C. 369, 380, 428 F.2d 1071, 1082, cert. denied, 400 U.S. 925, 91 S.Ct. 186, 27 L.Ed.2d 185 (1970); George Washington Univ. v. Weintraub, 458 A.2d 43, 46 (1983). "[T]o fulfill this warranty landlords are required to comply substantially with the Housing Regulations of the District of Columbia. . . ." Weintraub, supra, 458 A.2d at...

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