Legal Aid just won a technical, but highly important, appellate case before DC’s highest court. The case is a great example of how Legal Aid’s style – a focus on high-quality litigation, pursuing creative legal theories where necessary – can advance the cause of justice for low-income DC residents. The case was also a lot of fun to bring!
In DC, the law is clear that a tenant does not owe full rent if there are serious housing conditions in the apartment. But the law is almost impossible to enforce without a lawyer. Tenants are routinely paying full contract rent even when they live in deplorable conditions. Until the Court sets up tenant friendly procedures for bringing affirmative cases – that will be the subject of a separate blog entry – the primary way for tenants to get their conditions fixed and pay the right rent amount is to withhold rent, then wait to be sued, putting themselves at risk of eviction.
But how can a Section 8 tenant with no income enforce his or her rights? In a series of cases, the DC Court of Appeals established a system such that when a tenant receiving a housing subsidy counterclaims due to bad conditions, the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) can intervene in the case and collect the back rent it paid. But this set up a perverse set of incentives. In our case, our client and her two children had to live with dangerous and unsanitary conditions for years. Yet DCHA did nothing. During the winter our client had to “use the oven” to heat the apartment; the water was at times cut off; the toilet at times did not work. Legal Aid took the case, counterclaimed, and brought the case to a final hearing. On the day of her hearing, the Housing Authority intervened in the case, but then did virtually nothing more. At the end of the hearing, the client received a $15,000 judgment, all of which had to be turned over to DCHA under prevailing case law.
On appeal, Legal Aid contended that, even though (according to the case law) our client was not entitled to the award once DCHA intervened, her lawyers should still be entitled to attorney's fees, because they did the entire job of prosecuting the claim. (DCHA did essentially nothing beyond filing a motion to intervene -- it presented no evidence, questioned no witnesses, amassed no proof, and offered no argument as to the abatement.) The trial court sympathized, but ruled that it was bound by law to deny our motion for fees.
In June, the Court of Appeals reversed, accepting Legal Aid’s argument that DCHA had been unjustly enriched by the client’s and Legal Aid's efforts and that it owed compensation in an amount to be determined by the trial court.
Former Skadden loaned associate Emily Helms worked on the case, as did Legal Aiders Barbara McDowell, Peter Wilson, and Julie Becker. David Reiser, of Zuckerman Spaeder, also played a key role in working on the case.
This case is important not just because it will earn Legal Aid a fee, but more significantly because it will create an incentive for DCHA to become involved in these cases at an earlier stage and to make more of an effort to actually enforce Section 8 tenant’s rights.