A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday sentenced a North Carolina man to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine for ignoring repeated court orders to provide adequate heat and hot water to tenants in three dilapidated Euclid Street apartment buildings he owns.
A $5,000-a-day fine also imposed by Judge William S. Thompson in a Jan. 19 court order is continuing because the landlord, Robert S. Farmer of Greensboro, N.C., still has not made all the required repairs, according to the judge's office.
Minutes after Thompson sentenced Farmer "for his willful violation of previous court orders and willful frustration of these proceedings", the landlord was arraigned on 35 charges brought against him by the D.C. government.
These include failure to provide adequate heat and hot water, to install smoke detectors and to maintain the kitchen sinks and bathroom facilities in safe and good working condition in some apartments.
It is highly unusual for a landlord to receive a jail term for poor maintenance of his property.
"He's an absentee landlord," said Thompson after imposing the sentence. "He has not complied with any order of any judge of this court."
Farmer was released from custody yesterday afternoon after posting bond in both cases. Thompson set a $10,000 bond in the criminal contempt case, allowing Farmer to go free while he appeals his sentence, and a $1,000 bond in the city-initiated case. The judge required Farmer to post only 10 percent of each bond amount.
On Jan. 19 Thompson threatened Farmer with a six-month jail term for disregarding two earlier court orders to correct the wintery conditions inside the 52 apartments at 1014, 1030 and 1034 Euclid St. NW.
All sides agreed yesterday that the heat and hot water have been restored in the three buildings, the last repair coming Wednesday night when installation of a new boiler and new gas lines was completed.
Charles W. Halleck, Farmer's attorney, strongly objected to Thompson's actions yesterday.
He argued unsuccessfully that Thompson had no jursidiction in the case because it began in Landlord-Tenant Court and the judge is in the civil division. He also contended that the tenants brought their case against a corporation, Farmer Acquisitions Inc., and therefore Farmer could not be held personally responsible, and that Farmer had neither appeared at an earlier hearing on the contempt citation nor been represented by a lawyer.
"You can't put a man in jail in a criminal case without giving him a lawyer," Halleck said, adding: "I am troubled that there is nothing in this record to establish what the procedure is for proceeding against this man as an individual."
Halleck also asked for an additional week's delay to further prepare his case, explaining that he had been out of town.
Thompson, who gave Halleck a two-week delay in a hearing Feb. 9, declined to further postpone the proceedings.
Eric Rome, an Antioch law student representing the tenants, who have been in court since October trying to get their heat and hot water restored, argued that the request for a delay was "a further attempt by this defendant to frustrate these proceedings . . . . These tenants deserve justice and it should be given today."