Jessalee Landfried had been out of law school for less than a year and at her firm for only a few months when she sought out an opportunity to get courtroom experience. Fortunately, it was easy for Jessalee to get involved because her firm, Beveridge & Diamond, partners with Legal Aid to handle landlord and tenant cases.
In early 2014, Jessalee teamed up with a more senior colleague, Eric Klein, to represent a young mother who had been sued for eviction from her Anacostia apartment after falling slightly behind on her rent. Eric already had experience handling eviction cases, so he was an ideal partner for Jessalee.
When Jessalee and Eric first met with their client, they learned that there had been long-standing problems with water entering her apartment. During every rain storm, her below-grade apartment would flood, and the carpet throughout the apartment – particularly in her son’s bedroom - would become drenched. The carpet gradually rotted, as did her son’s bedroom furniture. The apartment reeked, and the client and her son both experienced rashes and breathing problems that worsened with the flooding. Repeated complaints to the landlord were ignored or insufficiently addressed.
Beveridge & Diamond commissioned a mold test which revealed the presence of highly dangerous mold spores present in their client’s apartment. Yet still the landlord refused to remediate, and the flooding and mold persisted.
In response, Jessalee and Eric not only not only defended the eviction action, but also filed an affirmative tort claim against the landlord alleging negligence based on their client’s exposure to mold and the landlord’s refusal to properly remediate. The landlord ultimately dismissed the eviction case and moved the client and her son to a third floor apartment with no water intrusion problems.
The tort action remained, however, and Jessalee and Eric pursued a robust fact discovery investigation. During a deposition of a low-level maintenance manager on the landlord’s staff, the attorneys were startled when the deponent admitted that the landlord’s policy was to actively avoid recording tenants’ complaints of mold. With this admission of the landlord’s deceptive maintenance policy, the tables turned decisively in favor of Jessalee’s and Eric’s client.
The landlord eventually agreed to a financial settlement in the tort case, and the client and her son are spending this holiday season in a healthy apartment without flooding or mold issues.
“I wanted to support Legal Aid’s mission and get inside a courtroom to develop my litigation skills, including dealing with technical and scientific data to support a litigation case -- this case provided all of that and more,” said Jessalee. “It was an amazing learning opportunity for a junior associate like me. Thinking back, I see how our most significant strategic decision was to go on the offensive. The landlord’s attorney wasn’t expecting that, and it really changed the whole dynamic for our client. Best of all, we were able to get a life-changing outcome for our client.”
Far too many of Legal Aid’s housing clients struggle with mold in their homes like Beveridge &
Diamond’s client. They are rightfully concerned about the significant deleterious effects of mold
on their own and their families’ health. That is why Legal Aid worked with other housing advocates throughout the city to secure passage of the Air Quality Amendment Act of 2014, that requires, among other things, that landlords inspect and remediate mold according to professional standards and disclose information about mold in rental housing to their tenants. Legal Aid is continuing its work to ensure that regulations drafted by the District Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) are finalized so that the law can be implemented fully.