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Edwards v. Habib

    Brief Fact Summary. A tenant reported sanitary code violations on leased premises and thereafter the landlord moved to evict the tenant.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. That proof of retaliatory motive does constitute a defense to any action for eviction.

    Facts. Appellant Edwards rented housing property from Appellee Habib on a month to month basis in March 1965. Edwards then complained to the Department of Licenses and Inspections of sanitary code violations in the leased premises, which upon inspection uncovered 40 violations and ordered the landlord to correct them. Then, the landlord gave Edwards a statutory thirty day notice to vacate and obtained a default judgment for possession of the premises. Edwards moved to reopen the judgment and alleged excusable neglect for the default and as a defense to the eviction alleged that the notice to vacate was given by the landlord in retaliation for her complaints to the housing authorities. One judge set aside the default and concluded that if Edwards could prove a retaliatory motive for the eviction that would constitute a defense to the action for possession. The case was tried before another judge who deemed the evidence of retaliation irrelevant and directed a verdict for landlord. Edw
    ards then appealed to this Court for a stay pending appeal to the intermediate court of appeals and the stay was granted. The intermediate appellate court held that the landlord, under applicable statutes, could give any reason for the notice to vacate and could therefore evict a month to month tenant upon thirty days notice. The court also found that the landlord’s right to terminate tenancy was not absolute, but that any exception to the general rule, requiring no reason to be given, had to based on a specific statutory exception. Edwards appealed.

    Issue. Does the landlord have an absolute right under these circumstances to terminate the month to month tenancy and evict the tenant?

    Held. No. Reversed and remanded.
    The promulgation of the housing code by the District of Columbia Commissioners under authority from Congress implies a change in the relative rights as between landlords and tenants.
    Proof of retaliatory motive is a defense to any action of eviction where the alleged retaliation occurs due to the tenant’s reporting of housing code violations.
    Edwards challenged the constitutionality of the statute under which the landlord may elect to terminate a month to month tenancy upon a thirty day notice to quit, where judicial enforcement of such statute would render state aid to the landlord in depriving tenant of a property right, namely, the tenant’s right to report housing code violations. The Court found that this issue need not be decided. Instead, the Court would allow the tenant to present proof in an eviction proceeding of a retaliatory motive by landlord in the instituting of the eviction suit.
    Because the Court has a duty, as a court of equity, to consider the social implications of its decisions, the Court found that the public policy of protecting tenants in slum housing from inequalities resulting from their social conditions must be considered in rendering this decision.
    The Court found that the balance between the statutes authorizing the landlord to evict a month to month tenant after thirty days notice and the housing code statutes can only be struck by holding the eviction statutes inapplicable where the court’s aid is sought to effect an eviction in retaliation for reporting housing code violations.

    Discussion. Because this case was denied certiorari by the United States Supreme Court, the principles announced may have more persuasive value than a typical state case. Clearly, the Court was swayed by the social conditions and traditional notions of equity.


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