City Landlords must go to court first if they want to evict a tenant and can no longer take it upon themselves to remove a renter from their property, the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled.
To allow landlords to conduct their own evictions "in our densely populated city, chronically plagued with serious housing shortages, would be to invite and sanction violence," Judge Julia Cooper Mack wrote in a lengthy opinion for the court.
The appeals court decision came in the case of Montina Johnson, who along with her daugther, was evicted from a basement apartment she rented in the North Capitol Street area.
According to the appeals court opinion, her landlord, Fortunato J. Mendes, packed up and removed all of Johnson's belongings from the apartment. Johnson and her daugther paid for a room in a motel before they were able to find other housing the appeals court said.
The landlord argued that he was entitled to possesion of the property - such as for nonpayment of rent - and that he had a common-law right to evict the tenant, provided the action was carried out in a peaceful manner.
John A. Lynch Jr., an attorney who represented Johnson when she took her case to the Court of Appeals, said yesterday that most lanlords go to court before they take action to evict a tenant.
The landlord in the Johnson case argued that court decisions in Washington supported his view that he was not limited to court action to evict a tenant, despite a District law that such actions will take place in the Superior Court. The actions will take place in the Superior Court. The landlord contended that the Law simply offered an alternative method for eviction.
After a trial in the D.C. Superior Court, Judge William E. Stewart Jr. rejected the landlord's view and awarded the tenant, Johnson, $100 for damage to her furniture and $300 in punitive damages. Stewart relied on a 1970 decision by Chief Judge Harold H. Greene who ruled that a landlord could not take it upon himself to evict a tenant.
Citing public policy reasons, Greene said at that time that any "self-help" action, like the seizure of a building or blocking of streets, or other acts that interfere with the rights of others, "are justly condemned by a law-abiding society in which legal and political safeguards against oppression and abuse exist."
The appeals court said it found Greene's reasoning in that case "persuasive" and held that D.C. law does remove tha landlord's common-law right to conduct a peaceful eviction.
"A tenant has a right not to have his or her possesion interfered with except by lawful process, and a violation of that right gives rise" to a complaints for damages, the appeals court said.
The appeals court, however, agreed with the landlord's argument that he relied on prior case law when he took the action and ruled that Steward erred when he awarded the tenant the $300 in punitive damages.
The full nine-member appeals court reviewed the case. Chief Judge Theodore Newman Jr. and associate Judges Catherine B. Kelly, John W. Kern III and John Ferren concurred with Judge Mack's opinion.