Making Justice RealThe Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Contempt Finding Against Landlord’s Counsel Upheld
The Landlord and Tenant Branch is the busiest courtroom in the Superior Court. More than 40,000 cases are brought by landlords each year seeking the eviction of tenants. The Court only hears actions by landlords and the docket is dominated by a few large management companies who retain a small group of lawyers. Most tenants are unrepresented. As a result, the procedures have been designed for the convenience of landlords and their lawyers. The volume of cases and pressure for the landlord bar has, in many cases, allowed landlords to grow accustomed to a casual practice that may ignore the rights of other parties. In a recent case the Court of Appeals emphasized the importance of treating the proceedings in the Landlord and Tenant Branch as formal legal actions to which the law and the rules of evidence apply.
Last week, DC’s highest court affirmed a contempt finding against Kenneth Loewinger, of Loewinger & Brand, PLLC, for violating a court order in a landlord-tenant case. The opinion can be found here. Legal Aid participated as amicus at both the trial and appellate levels. Our brief at the Court of Appeals, principally drafted by the late Barbara McDowell, can be found here.
The case was important in two respects: first, it strongly affirms the District’s receivership law to the benefit of tenants. Under the receivership statute, when a landlord fails to pay for utilities at a building, a receiver can be appointed to collect rents. Once the receiver is appointed, the landlord is prohibited from collecting rents – and such a landlord or attorney can be held in contempt if it attempts to do so.
Second, the case sends a powerful message to landlords’ attorneys about the dangers of violating court orders (and indeed of making false statements to the Court). The attorney in this case, Kenneth Loewinger, is the author of a landlord-tenant treatise: “We wrote the book on L&T law in DC!” his website states. His firm is one of the highest volume landlord firms in the District. Accordingly, the fact that the Court held a hearing and subsequently found Mr. Loewinger’s sworn testimony not to be credible was significant, as was the finding of contempt against the law firm.
Finally, the case was of significant importance to the tenant involved. The law firm of Covington & Burling, through lead counsel (and 2009 Servant of Justice Honoree) Tony Herman, obtained a highly favorable settlement for the tenant involved in the case. Tony was a recipient of Legal Aid’s 2009 Servant of Justice Award.