The former owner of nine disputed row houses on the 1700 block of Seaton Street NW has filed a $1.2 million lawsuit charging conspiracy against supporters of his one-time tenants, who have succeeded in their battle to buy the house.
The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court by landlord James Ruppert, charged the Adams-Morgan Organization, the tenants' attorney, Johnny Barnes, and D.C. rent control commission member Marie Nahikian, with "champerty and maintenance." Ruppert is demanding $400,000 in damages from each defendant.
The charges are based on old common law prohibitions against soliciting clients by lawyers (champerty) and interference in a lawsuit by a third party who has no interest involved, for the gain of profit (maintenance).
When Ruppert sold 26 houses in the block to Centre properties, Inc. for renovation last year, his tenants, some of whom had rented there for 40 years, filed a suit charging they were denied the legal right to buy the homes first.
The tenant's suit against Ruppert was settled out of court last May, giving them the right to buy the houses from Centre Properties. Nine of the families signed settlement papers for the houses on Thursday.
AMO, a neighborhood activist group that has sought to deter widespread sale of inner-city houses for renovation (a practice that places the houses beyond the means of low income persons), raised nearly $40,000 from fund-raisers and donations, enabling the nine families to buy the homes.
Rupperts has charged that the tenants' suit listed one house that he owned on Seaton Street but did not sell Centre Properties. He accused Barnes, AMO and Nahikian of conspiring to persuade the tenant of that house, katherine Green, to falsely sue him.
Earnes said Green's house was one of those mentioned in the original suit against Ruppert. Court action on Green's behalf was dropped, Barnes said, when it was learned tht Ruppert had not sold the house Green lived in.
According to Ruppert, however, the erroneous listing of Green's house damaged his rights as a landlord and cost him unnecessary court expenses. He said the suit is supported by a sworn statement from Green, saying she did not know Barnes was a lawyer and that she never asked him to represent her.
Ruppert's suit accuses Nahikian of violating her oath as a rent commissioner and as a notary public. Nahikian notarized affidavits filed in the original lawsuit.
AMO chairman Frank Smith declared Ruppert's suit a "terrible" legal action designed to penalize the organization "for trying to help low and moderate income people. We are sure justice will prevail and that we will win this case as we won the right to buy theses houses," Smith said.