When a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered a landlord to return Robin Gyebi's rent money and pay her $1,000 in punitive damages, he made local history and added to a small number of similar decisions in other states, according to attorneys who specialize in housing cases.
It was the first time in the District of Columbia that a landlord had been ordered to pay punitive damages to a tenant for failure to repair defects in rental housing, and is "the start of a trend" in the city, said Timothy J. Aluise, one of the lawyers representing Gyebi. A San Francisco real estate attorney predicted that, although there have been only three similar decisions elsewhere, courts and local governments throughout the country would follow the lead of the District and the three states.
D.C. Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said in his written opinion that the award of $1,000 in punitive damages was "amply justified" by apartment building owner Jerel K. Friedman's "wanton, willful, fraudulent and malicious conduct" toward Gyebi. In addition to the damages, Friedman was ordered to repay the $475 Gyebi gave him last January for a security deposit and rent. The case was heard in the small claims branch of the Superior Court.
Friedman's failure to appear in court resulted in a default judgment, a factor that weakened its value as a precedent-setting case, according to Washington attorney Benny Kass. The apartment owner, a Navy Department employe in Rosslyn, did not return a reporter's phone calls.
According to court papers, when Friedman showed Gyebi the one-bedroom apartment Jan. 14, she saw several things wrong with it although it was dark because the electricity was not on. She noted broken windows, a rusty bathroom sink and no handles on the faucets, but the landlord promised to make repairs so that she could move in quickly with her two children, according to the court documents. She was about to give birth to her third child and wanted to move out of the one-room apartment where the family was living.
Friedman did not have the repairs made, and after an inspection of the apartment on March 21, the D.C. government cited Friedman for 80 violations of the city housing code, the documents said. Testimony in the case indicated the apartment, at 2013 4th St. NE, was in about the same condition as it was when Gyebi first saw it two months earlier.
Gyebi paid Friedman $275 as a security deposit and $200 toward the first month's rent in January. He told her to keep the balance of $50 owed for the rent and use it to buy windows for the apartment, Gyebi told the court. When she went to the apartment a second time with Friedman, Gyebi found things were worse than she had thought, but again Friedman told her he would make repairs, she said. Gyebi testified that in addition to the defects she had seen on her first look at the apartment, she found a burst water pipe had spilled water on the floor and walls, there was no running water, the refrigerator did not work and contained mildewed food, walls were moldy and paint was peeling, the lock on the door barely worked and the unit and the apartment were littered with trash.
The apartment was too unsafe and unsanitary to move her family into, and when Gyebi tried to reach Friedman to talk to him about the problems, he did not return her phone calls, she told the court.
Friedman has agreed to pay the amount awarded to Gyebi by the court in three installments, starting this week, said Amy S. Friend, an attorney who also represented Gyebi.
The Gyebi decision is important for all D.C. renters because poor tenants are often forced to rent housing that is in "unspeakable, disgusting, illegal shape," despite 20 years of a "tenants' rights revolution" in the city, said Florence Wagman Roisman, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project.
The number of D.C. tenants who benefit from the decision may not be large, however, because "there are not enough lawyers for poor people," she said. "The benefit of this decision . . . is going to be limited to people who have . . . aggressive lawyers."
The outcome of the suit is in keeping with a D.C. tradition of being on "the leading edge" of landlord-tenant law, with court decisions and legislation protecting renters, said Aluise. A 1970 court decision made the District the first jurisdiction in the nation to take the position that a rental lease implies a guarantee that the home or apartment complies with the city housing code, and that tenants can withhold rent if code provisions are violated, he said. An earlier decision held that a signed lease can be deemed void if the property violates housing codes, he added. The substance of the rulings has since been incorporated into the D.C. housing code.
San Francisco attorney Richard E. Blumberg said the precedent of making owners subject to financial punishment if their rental property violates local housing codes set by the Gyebi and similar decisions in three states will influence court and local government actions in other areas. The rulings holding landlords "strictly liable" for the condition of their property "will become rule of law across the country in the next five years," he predicted.
Blumberg and D.C. attorney Kass differed on the importance of the Gyebi precedent.
Because Friedman did not show up in court, the judge's "decision was based only on the plaintiff's side," Kass said. If the case had been tried with both sides testifying, an award of punitive damages would have been "highly significant." With the default judgment, the "message" to landlords is to "show up in court," he said.
"It's always better when both parties are there in court to fight the battle," Blumberg said. But he believes the message to D.C. landlords is that failure to comply with housing codes "may leave you open to punitive damages and failure to show up in court could make it worse for you."