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Simpson Thacher Secures Second Court of Appeals Victory for Tenant Referred from Legal Aid

Earlier this year, we blogged about a great decision issued by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in favor of a tenant who had been sued for eviction.  Legal Aid initially referred the tenant to the Washington, D.C. office of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett for pro bono representation back in 2010 when the case was still pending in the trial court.

On August 22, 2013, the Court of Appeals affirmed a second jury verdict that Simpson had won for their client.  Simpson attorneys Conor Reidy and Jonathan Porter discuss the Court’s decision below . . .

Porter

Jonathan Porter, Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP

Reidy

Conor Reidy, Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP

Our client was sued by her landlord for alleged lease violations.  This was the landlord’s second attempt to evict our client that reached trial and Simpson represented her both times.  Through two trials and two appeals over more than three years, Simpson has successfully kept our client in her home.

The landlord sued to evict our client based on allegations that she failed to make repairs, that an unauthorized person lived on the property, that there was fighting on the property, and that the landlord and potential purchasers were not given reasonable access to the property.  During pretrial proceedings, Simpson successfully secured dismissals for three out of the four claims.  Specifically, the trial court dismissed the claim based on the failure to repair the property because the landlord failed to demonstrate that he asked the tenant to make or pay for the repairs during the “cure” period.  The trial court dismissed the claim concerning an unauthorized resident as a sanction for discovery violations for the landlord failing to disclose any details of the alleged unauthorized resident.  Last, the trial court dismissed the claim for fighting on the property because the landlord failed to demonstrate any evidence existed that supported a timely or legally cognizable basis for eviction on that ground.

The sole issue at trial was whether the landlord and potential purchasers had reasonable access to the property.  On the second day of trial, the trial court granted Simpson’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the claim that the landlord was denied access because the landlord failed to show that he had ever requested permission to enter the home, as required by the lease.  The only issue considered by the jury was whether the tenant denied potential purchasers access to the property.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the tenant.  The landlord appealed on several grounds.

The Court of Appeals first addressed the tenant’s argument that the landlord’s appeal was filed untimely.  The Court of Appeals reached the “inescapable conclusion” that the landlord’s appeal was untimely.  Due to a procedural change in the D.C. Superior Court’s rules, appellants in civil cases are no longer necessarily afforded five additional days to file an appeal when the trial court’s judgment is mailed.  However, the Court of Appeals declined to dismiss the appeal as untimely because of uncertainty about how the rules functioned after relatively recent amendments.  The opinion, which accepts the tenant’s position concerning the calculation of a timely appeal of a jury verdict, clarified the rules and serves as a warning to future appellants that the five additional days formerly permitted in many appeals of civil cases will now be substantially limited.

In addressing the merits of the appeal, the Court of Appeals found none of the landlord’s arguments warranted reversal.  The Court of Appeals rejected the landlord’s argument that he could seek eviction for alleged lease violations that occurred more than six months before the issuance of a notice to cure the alleged lease violation or quit the premises.  In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed that a landlord may seek possession for only those lease violations that occur within six months before issuing the notice to cure or quit and that are not cured within thirty days after the notice is issued.  The Court of Appeals found no injury suffered by the landlord for his claim related to his access to the property because the undisputed record revealed that the landlord in fact entered the property for inspection and to make repairs requested by the tenant.  The Court of Appeals rejected several other arguments by the landlord challenging certain rulings by the trial court including an allegation that the trial court was biased against the landlord, that the verdict form was improper, and that the trial court’s handling of a juror overhearing a bench conference during trial.  The Court of Appeals held that the trial court committed no errors of law or abuse of discretion.

In making these rulings, the Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict in our client’s favor.

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