Initial Return Dates - Your First Day in Court
Authored By: D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center
How do I know when I am supposed to go to Landlord and Tenant Court?
The plaintiff (landlord) is required to have someone serve (or deliver) court papers to the defendant (tenant). The court date should be written or stamped on the court papers, where it says “SUMMONS – TO APPEAR IN COURT.” Initial hearings are scheduled for 9:00 a.m. at D.C. Superior Court Building B, 510 4th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001 in Room 109.
If you are not sure whether a case has been or filed or you do not have copies of your court papers, you can check with the Landlord and Tenant Clerk’s Office in Room 110. You also can search the court’s online docket information at https://eaccess.dccourts.gov
Do I have to go to Court on the Court date?
Yes. If you are a tenant and you do not go to court or are late, your landlord may be able to evict you without any other court hearings. If you are the landlord and you do not go to court or are late, your case may be dismissed.
If you are a tenant, you should go to court even if you paid the rent or the landlord promised to dismiss the case against you. You can call the Landlord and Tenant Clerk’s Office at (202) 879-4879 the day before your hearing to see if the case is still scheduled to be heard.
What happens at the first Court date?
Roll call is the first part of the day. Make sure you are seated in the courtroom by 9:00 a.m. The judge will come into the courtroom at 9:00 a.m. and will explain how the process works. If you do not speak English or are deaf or hard of hearing, make sure you tell the courtroom clerk before the announcement begins.
After the judge finishes the announcement, the clerk will read the names of all of the people who are scheduled to appear in court that day. You must answer “here” or “present” and state your name when your name is called. Make sure to speak loudly so the clerk can hear you. Make sure you can hear the clerk clearly. If you cannot hear, raise your hand and let the clerk know. If you miss your name and fail to answer, you may lose your case.
If you do not hear your name, let the clerk know that you are there after the roll call is over by lining up at the front of the courtroom on the wall where the windows are. The clerk will let you know when to come forward.
What happens after the roll call?
After roll call, there are three things you can do: 1) talk to a lawyer or law student about your legal rights and to see if there is an attorney who can help you in court that same day; 2) wait in the courtroom for your case to be called; and 3) meet with the opposing party on your own or with a mediator to try to settle the case.
If you want to settle your case with a mediator, the court provides trained mediators for free. You may sign up to meet with a mediator in the courtroom.
If you do not want to or are not able to settle the case, your case will be called again later in the day in front of the judge.
How long should I expect to spend in Court?
It depends. Many people are able to finish their cases and leave by early afternoon or sooner, but others will be in court all day. You should make arrangements with your job and for childcare in case you need to be in court for the full day. If you think that you will need to leave before your case is finished, speak to the courtroom clerk to explain your situation and see if your case can be called before the judge sooner.
If you leave before your case is finished, you may lose the case just because you are not there when the case is called before the judge.
What do I do when my case is called before the judge?
First, state your name and whether you are the plaintiff (landlord) or the defendant (tenant). The judge may begin by asking questions to both the landlord and the tenant about the case. The judge may want to know why the landlord is trying to evict the tenant. The judge may also want to know whether the tenant has any “defenses.” A “defense” is a legal reason why the landlord should not be allowed to evict the tenant.
If the tenant does not tell the judge about any defenses, the judge may give the landlord a judgment for possession of the property. A judgment for possession means the landlord has the legal right to evict the tenant. Under some circumstances, the judge might also award a judgment for back rent to the landlord. If the tenant states defenses, the case will usually be scheduled for a trial on another day.
Remember, many people feel nervous when they talk to a judge. Even if you are nervous, it is important to be calm and respectful, even if you do not like the judge’s decision. If you feel that the judge is not giving you a chance to tell your side of the story, you can politely ask the judge if you may speak.
What should I do if I can’t appear in Court on my scheduled day?
You should immediately call the Landlord and Tenant Clerk’s Office at (202) 879-4879 and explain why you cannot appear. Be sure to leave a phone number where you can be reached. Ask the clerk to put a note on your file. Ask the clerk for his or her name and write it down.
You should also call the attorney for the landlord or tenant on the other side of your case to tell him or her that you cannot appear. If the landlord or tenant does not have an attorney, call the landlord or tenant directly.
You should file a motion with the court explaining why you cannot attend the hearing, and requesting a new date. You should keep a copy of what you file for yourself and send a copy to the attorney for the landlord or tenant on the other side of your case, or to the landlord or tenant directly if they do not have an attorney. The Landlord Tenant Resource Center in room 208 can assist with preparing this kind of motion.
If you do not receive a phone call from the clerk with a new Court date within 24 hours after the court date that you missed, you should immediately call or go to the Landlord and Tenant Clerk’s Office to find out what happened in your case.
What if I am running late to Court?
You should immediately call the Landlord and Tenant Clerk’s Office at (202) 879-4879 and tell the clerk. Be sure to leave a phone number where you can be reached, if possible. Ask the clerk to put a note on your file. Ask the clerk for his or her name and write it down.
When you get to court, make sure to let the courtroom clerk know as soon as you arrive. If the clerk is still calling the roll call, wait and see if your name is called. If you do not hear your name or the roll call was over when you arrived, let the clerk know that you are there by lining up on the wall where the windows are. The clerk will let you know when to approach.
Finding Legal Help
Visit www.lawhelp.org/DC for more information including how to contact free legal service providers, or visit the Landlord Tenant Resource Center:
Landlord Tenant Resource Center, Room 208
District of Columbia Superior Court Building B
510 4th Street, N.W.
Open 9:15 AM – noon, Monday through Friday, except legal holidays.