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These blogs are not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney.

The Landlord's Labyrinth

The Landlord’s Labyrinth

The Landlord-Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court has long been considered a bit of an oddity in the D.C. Court System. For starters, the court still only accepts paper filings while the Civil Actions Branch has long moved on to e-filings.

Second, the court itself is not in the court’s main building, but in an auxiliary building shared with the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch.

Third, it has its own court rules which either truncate or do away with a significant amount of court rules.

Fourth, although it revises some of the court rules to either truncate or do away with entirely a set of standard court procedures, the court has somewhat complicated the process by which to ask for some of these procedures when they could be useful.

Fifth, whatever benefit in terms of speed or simplicity that can be surmised by the court rules of the Landlord-Tenant Branch, it is offset (from the perspective of a residential landlord) by the heavy regulation governing housing in the District of Columbia.

For a landlord faced with the hard decision of starting their first eviction process, all this information can seem very daunting. Many landlords don’t even know that they cannot resort to self-help. In other words, a landlord cannot forcibly throw a tenant out of the property. For those reading this who knew that should not pat themselves on the back just yet.

Force is measured by a low legal standard, which means that even a change of locks is considered self-help and could subject you to serious criminal and civil sanction.

Some strange features can highlight the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of the Landlord-Tenant matter. People are sometimes mystified at the rarity of attorney’s fees. Attorney’s fees, as a matter of right, are prohibited in residential leases.

Nevertheless, judges do have the power to order them in limited circumstances. Another peculiar feature of the Landlord-Tenant Court is the inability to obtain a money judgment in case the tenant is not personally served. Sometimes tenants will avoid service and it may be easier for a landlord to resort to what is often referred to as “service by attachment.” Service by attachment will allow a landlord to obtain a judgment for possession but not a money judgment.

Sometimes a tenant, in limited circumstances, can open discovery into a plaintiff in Landlord-Tenant Court, which can be less than ideal for the landlord (either the owner or the management company).

All this is to say that there can be so many issues that arise in Landlord-Tenant Court that the eviction process is sometimes not given the respect it deserves. Washington, DC has some of the most complex housing laws and eviction procedures in the United States. A landlord, an owner or management company for that matter, would be well served hiring a law firm that understands the complexities of Landlord-Tennant Law in The District of Columbia.  

The Landlord-Tenant Court is supposed to move quickly based on the expedited procedures put in place. But if you get the procedures wrong, then the process can take much longer than a landlord would expect. And when you could be renting the property to someone who is not violating the lease, time is money.