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Landlords: Going to Court

Authored By: D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center
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Information

I filed a Complaint to have the tenant evicted. What happens when I go to Court?

Make sure you arrive and are seated in the Courtroom by 9:00 AM. The judge will explain how the process works and what help may be available. If you do not speak English or are deaf or hard of hearing, make sure you tell the Courtroom Clerk before the announcement begins.

Then, the Clerk will read the names of all parties who are scheduled to appear. You must answer "here" or "present" and state your name when your name is called. 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, your case may be dismissed. If the defendant does not answer when the case is called, you can ask the Clerk to enter a "default" against the tenant.

If you do not hear your name during the roll call or you are late arriving to Court and aren't sure if your name was called, you should go to window number 4 in the Clerk’s Office (Room 110) after the roll call is over and make sure that the Clerk knows that you are present.

Once the Clerk completes roll call, you can decide to do one or more of the following:

  • Settle the case with the tenant or the tenant's lawyer.
  • Ask the judge to grant a judgment in your case. If you have a legal reason for seeking the tenant's eviction and the tenant does not have a defense to your claim, the judge can enter judgment for possession and, if you are entitled to one, a judgment for the rent owed to you, immediately at the initial hearing. If the tenant has a defense, the case probably will be set for a trial on a different day.
  • "Mediate" your case through a Court-appointed mediator. A mediator will talk to both sides and try to help settle the case. However, you do not have to settle the case, and you should speak to a lawyer if you do not understand any part of the mediation or what is being said to you by the mediator.
  • Ask for a protective order or reserve your rights to a protective order if the tenant asks for a continuance or a trial. If you "reserve your rights," then when a protective order is entered, it can be retroactive to the day you first requested it.

Either you or the tenant (or tenant's attorney) may ask for a "Protective Order" that requires the tenant to deposit all future rent into the Court registry. See the section titled "Protective Orders" for more information.

For more information about what happens on your first day in court, click here.

What happens if I can't appear in Court on my scheduled day?

You should immediately call the Clerk of the Court at (202) 879-4879 explain why you cannot appear. Ask the Clerk for his or her name and write it down. You also should immediately call your tenant or the tenant's attorney to tell him or her you cannot appear. If you have time to come to Court on another day before your Court day, you can file a notice with the Court explaining that you cannot come to Court and requesting a new date. If the Clerk does not give you another date to appear in Court, get to Court as soon as possible and find out what happened. Even if you call the Court, the judge may still dismiss your case. If your case is dismissed because you are not there, it is called a "dismissal for want of prosecution," and you can usually file a motion to re-open the case or file a new case.

What happens if the tenant does not come to Court?

If the tenant does not come to Court on the initial hearing date, you can usually have a "default" entered against the tenant during the morning roll call. In most cases, a default means that a judgment for possession will be entered after you file paperwork with the Court proving that the defendant is not in the military. In some cases, you are also required to present proof (called "ex parte" proof) of your case to the Court before you can get a judgment for possession, even if the tenant does not come to Court or if the tenant came to Court but left or did not come back to Court for a continued hearing. If proof is required, the judge might set another Court date about two weeks after your first one. If the tenant does not come to Court, the Clerk will usually tell you if you need to appear in front of the judge after roll call. If you aren't sure, you can ask the Clerk after the roll call is over what you should do next.

What happens if the tenant pays all of the rent before we go to Court?

If you are suing the tenant for eviction because the tenant owed you rent and the tenant pays all of the rent before the case goes to Court and brings the account completely current at any point after you file the case, then you are required to dismiss the case. If the tenant stops paying rent again, even if it is the very next month, then you can start the eviction process over again. The tenant is not required to pay court costs if the tenant pays before a judgment is entered, even if your lease allows it. (Tenants are never required to pay legal fees even if your lease allows it, unless a judge orders it.)

The tenant filed an Answer. What is an "Answer?"

An Answer puts in writing the defenses the tenant intends to raise at trial. If the tenant wants to countersue you, his or her answer can include a "Counterclaim," "Recoupment" and/or "Set-Off." If the tenant wants to request a jury trial (instead of a "bench trial" before a judge), the answer can include a "jury demand."

Does the tenant have to file an Answer?

Filing an Answer is not required in Landlord Tenant Court unless the tenant wants to file a "Counterclaim," "Recoupment" and/or "Set-Off," or the tenant wants to request a jury trial (instead of a "bench trial" before a judge).

What is a "Counterclaim?"

If you are suing the tenant for eviction because the tenant didn't pay the rent, the tenant can file a "Counterclaim" against you, claiming that the he or she paid you too much in rent because of major housing code violations and asking the Court to award a refund of rent and enter a money judgment against you for the amount owed. The tenant can claim a refund either for the period he or she has lived in the rental unit or 3 (three) years, whichever is shorter. Usually, tenants file Counterclaims only when housing conditions of the rental unit have been really bad for a long period of time. It costs $10 to file a Counterclaim unless the Court excuses the tenant from paying the fee.

If you did not personally serve the tenant with the Complaint, you cannot get a money judgment against the tenant except if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff. So, even if you do not have personal service, you can request a money judgment against a tenant if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff.

What is a "Recoupment?"

If you are suing the tenant for eviction because the tenant didn't pay the rent, the tenant can file a "Recoupment," claiming that the he or she paid you too much in rent because of major housing code violations and asking the Court to award a refund of rent. A Recoupment asks that the amount of this "overpayment" be deducted from what the tenant owes you. The tenant can claim this deduction for the entire period he or she has lived in the rental unit, even if he or she has lived in the rental unit for more than three (3) years. Usually, tenants file a Recoupment only when housing conditions of the rental unit have been really bad for a long period of time. There is no charge to file a Recoupment.

If you did not personally serve the tenant with the Complaint, you cannot get a money judgment against the tenant except if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff. So, even if you do not have personal service, you can request a money judgment against a tenant if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff.

What is a "Set-Off?"

If you are suing the tenant for eviction because the tenant didn't pay the rent, the tenant can file a "Set-Off" claiming that he or she made repairs or purchased supplies to keep the rental unit up to "code." This may include buying a new stove or replacing the toilet after you failed to do so even though the tenant asked you many times to make the repairs. A Set-Off asks that the amount that the tenant paid for repairs and purchases be deducted from what he or she owes you. The tenant can claim these expenses either for the period he or she has lived in the rental unit or 3 (three) years, whichever is shorter. There is no charge to file a Set-Off.

If you did not personally serve the tenant with the Complaint, you cannot get a money judgment against the tenant except if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff. So, even if you do not have personal service, you can request a money judgment against a tenant if the tenant files a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff.

For more information about Answers, Recoupments, Setoffs, and Counterclaims, click here.

What are some defenses to a nonpayment of rent case that the tenant might raise?

Sometimes tenants are unable to pay their rent because they've become unemployed or had to pay unexpected medical expenses due to an illness. The fact that the tenant does not have the money to pay the rent is not a legal defense to an eviction action.

However, the tenant may be able to raise legal defenses that can help him or her avoid eviction, even if that is not the primary reason the tenant initially withheld the rent. Some legal defenses include:

  • Housing Code Violations - There were serious problems in the tenant's rental unit during the period the tenant didn't pay rent that the landlord knew about or should have known about, but refused or failed to fix, and which were not caused by the tenant or the tenant's family or guests, including serious problems with the heat, hot water, kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures, leaks, insects and rodents, floors, walls and more.
  • Incorrect Amount - The tenant does not owe the amount of money his or her landlord says because the landlord is suing the tenant for money the tenant has already paid.
  • Illegal Rent Level - The tenant does not owe the amount of money the landlord says because the landlord is charging the tenant an illegal rent level.
  • Notice to Quit was not served or waived- The tenant did not give up his or her right to receive a Notice to Quit and the tenant did not receive a Notice to Quit before being sued for eviction and served with a Complaint.
  • Notice to Quit -The tenant did receive a Notice to Quit before being sued for eviction and served with a Complaint, but:
    • The tenant does not owe the amount of money the landlord says; or
    • the Notice to Quit does not tell the tenant how much money he or she owes; or
    • the Notice to Quit gave the tenant fewer days than required in his or her lease or by law; or
    • the landlord did not provide the tenant with a copy of the Notice to Quit correctly; or
    • the tenant paid all the money required under the Notice to Quit.
  • Complaint - The landlord did not provide the tenant with a copy of the Complaint correctly.

What are defenses to a "Notice to Quit" case for lease violation(s)?

If the tenant is being sued for eviction for some other reason than nonpayment of rent, the tenant is entitled to receive a "Notice to Quit" or "Notice to Cure or Vacate." The following are some legal defenses the tenant may be able to raise:

  • Notice to Quit was not served - The tenant did not receive a Notice to Quit telling him or her why the landlord wants to evict the tenant.
  • Notice to Quit -  The tenant did receive a Notice to Quit telling him or her why the landlord wants to evict the tenant, but:
    • the statements in the Notice are not true; or
    • The tenant fixed the problem(s) before the time on the Notice ran out; or
    •  what the landlord is complaining about in the Notice does not violate the lease or the housing code; or
    • There is no written lease; or
    • the landlord did not provide the tenant with a copy of the Notice correctly; or
    • the Notice did not tell the tenant what he or she did wrong and why the landlord wants to evict the tenant; or
    • the Notice did not tell the tenant how to fix the problem(s); or
    • the Notice gave the tenant less than 30 days to fix the problem(s); or
    • the Notice was not written in both English and Spanish; or
    • the landlord accepted rent after the tenant received the Notice.
  • Complaint- The landlord did not provide the tenant with a copy of the Complaint correctly.
  • Retaliation- The real reason the landlord wants to evict the tenant is because
    • The tenant complained about problems in the residence to the landlord; or
    • The tenant complained about problems in the residence to a government agency or a housing inspector; or
    • The tenant is helping or organizing other tenants to improve the conditions in their residences and/or the building complex.
  • Discrimination- The landlord is engaging in discrimination prohibited by District of Columbia and/or federal law.
    • The real reason that the landlord wants to evict the tenant is because of the tenant's: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, family responsibilities, disability, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income (including reliance on a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher), or place of residence or business.
    • The landlord is treating the tenant differently than other tenants because of the tenant's: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, family responsibilities, disability, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income, or place of residence or business.
    • The tenant is a person with a disability and the landlord is trying to evict him or her even though the tenant is entitled to a reasonable change (or accommodation) to a policy, procedure, lease term, or the building itself so that the tenant can have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her residence. (An example of this defense is if a person needs a service animal, such as a dog that alerts a tenant who is deaf to the sounds of a door bell, phone calls, or a smoke detector. In such a case, a landlord is required to make an exception to a "no-pets" policy and cannot evict the tenant for having a dog.)
    • The landlord is trying to evict the tenant because of the number of people living in the home, the tenant has at least one child living with him or her, and the number of people living in the home is not more than (a) in an efficiency apartment, 2, or (b) in an apartment with one or more bedrooms, 2 times the number of bedrooms plus one.

What is a "Protective Order?"

Either you or your tenant (or tenant's attorney) may ask that a "Protective Order" be set which requires that the tenant deposit all future rent into the Court registry.

How much is the tenant required to pay?

The tenant is usually required to pay the full amount of the monthly rent each month until the case is over. If the protective order is entered after the beginning of the month, the judge may only make the tenant pay for part of that month.

If there are major housing code violations in the apartment, the tenant can ask the judge to set the protective order at a lower amount because the apartment is not worth the full rent. The judge may set a separate hearing, called a "Bell" hearing to determine how much rent the tenant should have to pay during the case. If your case is set for a Bell hearing, you will need to be prepared to show the Judge that there aren't problems in the apartment, by telling the judge about the condition of the apartment or bringing pictures or witnesses with you to Court. If there are problems in the apartment but the tenant never told you about them or you fixed the problems in a reasonable time, you can explain that to the judge, too.

Even if the tenant is allowed to pay less than the full amount of the monthly rent, at the end of the case, a judge or jury will make a final decision about how much rent the tenant should have paid during the case. If the judge or jury decides that the protective order was too low, the tenant may have to pay the balance to avoid eviction. If the judge or jury decides that the protective order was too high, the money may be credited to the tenant's rental account or refunded to the tenant.

What if the tenant does not pay the "Protective Order?"

If the tenant does not make a protective order payment or does not make the payment on time, you can file a motion asking the Court to enter a judgment for possession against the tenant.

In most cases, however, if the tenant asks for a little additional time to pay the protective order before you file your motion or if the tenant comes to the hearing on your motion and has the money and is ready to pay, the judge will usually let the tenant pay late.

For more information about protective orders, click here.

What happens if I can't afford to pay any Court fees?

If you cannot afford to pay costs or fees relating to your Landlord Tenant case, you can file an "Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Costs, Fees, or Security" commonly referred to as an "IFP" or "In Forma Pauperis." You will be required to complete the court's form and swear to information about your financial affairs. Once you complete the Application and Affidavit, you will appear in front of the judge who will decide whether to grant your request.

What should I know about settling my case with the tenant?

One option you have after you sue your tenant for eviction is to settle your case with the tenant or tenant's attorney. You are not required to settle your case and you should not be pressured into doing so. You also probably don't want to agree to terms you cannot meet.

I have agreed to settle the case with the tenant. How can I put the terms of the settlement in writing?

Judgment for Possession by Consent / Form 4A

Most landlords require tenants who want to settle their cases to use a form called "Judgment for Possession by Consent" or "Form 4A." You can obtain a copy of the form here. This form immediately enters a judgment for possession against the tenant once it is signed by both parties and approved by the "Interview & Judgment Clerk." Again, a judgment for possession means that you have the right to evict the tenant, However, the judgment is postponed or "stayed" and you agree not to evict the tenant as long as the tenant follows the agreement.

Usually, these agreements set payment plans that allow the tenant to pay the back rent over a period of time. However, the tenant must pay the full amounts listed in the agreement on time. If the tenant does not pay the full amount or if he or she is even a day late, you can evict the tenant. Sometimes, landlords will agree to repair housing code violations according to a certain schedule listed in the agreement. An addendum to Form 4A where the parties can list a schedule of repairs is available here. However, even if you fail to fix these housing code violations in the time agreed, the tenant is still required to pay the full amount listed in the agreement on time or face eviction.

If you do not make the repairs you have agreed to in a Form 4A, the tenant can file a "Notice to Show Cause" and ask the judge to order you to complete the repairs or to fine you or reduce the tenant's future rent.

Settlement Agreement / Form 4B

You and your tenant also can enter into a "Settlement Agreement" or "Form 4B" that sets a payment plan, but does NOT automatically enter a "judgment for possession." A copy of Form 4B is available here. If the tenant fails to follow the agreement, you will need to file a "Motion for Judgment," and you both will have a chance to appear in front of the judge to explain your side.

You and the tenant can agree that you will make certain repairs as part of a Form 4B. An addendum for listing a schedule of repairs is available here .

Other Agreements

You and your tenant can also come to some other type of agreement, either on your own or with the help of a Court-appointed mediator. The Court provides blank forms called "praecipes" (pronounced "press-uh-pees") that you can use to write up any other type of agreement you reach with the tenant. Be sure that any agreement is filed with the Court. Some types of agreements must be approved by the judge before they are filed.

Last Review and Update: Mar 24, 2017