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In the District of Columbia, the landlord's common law right of self-help has been abrogated, and the legislatively created remedies for reacquiring possession are exclusive. A tenant has a right not to have his or her possession interfered with except by lawful process, and violation of that right gives rise to a cause of action in tort. Snitman v. Goodman, 118 A.2d 394 (1955) is hereby overruled.
The tenant rented a house owned by the landlord by the month. After the landlord evicted the tenant by removing all of her possessions, the tenant filed an unlawful eviction action. The trial court awarded her $ 100 in actual damages and $ 300 in punitive damages. The landlord appealed, arguing that he was simply exercising the right of a landlord to use self-help to evict a tenant, a right recognized at common law.
Did the landlord still have the right to use self-help to evict the tenant?
The court held that D.C. Code Ann. § 16-1501 abolished landlords' common law right of self-help and that the statute provided a landlord's exclusive remedy to evict a tenant. The statute's purpose was to avoid landlords' resort to self-help and force, and to continue to allow landlords to do so would invite and sanction violence. The court applied its new rule of law retroactively to the parties in this case because the landlord acted unreasonably in relying on a prior case whose validity had already been brought into doubt, and because the tenant was a one-time individual tenant. However, the court reversed the punitive damage award because the landlord's conduct amounted to an innocent mistake, rather than malice, given his reliance on the prior case.