CLAS Scores Significant Trial Victory for Soldier
On Tuesday, August 5, 2008, the Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers (CLAS) scored a significant victory for members of the armed forces in Virginia.
Part of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act contains a provision that allows a servicemember to terminate his/her lease early if (s)he is “ordered to report for government-supplied quarters resulting in the forfeiture of basic allowance for quarters.” Va. §Code 55-248.21:1. A soldier terminated his lease early and moved on base, relying on the statute. His landlord not only refused to return the soldier’s security deposit, for which the soldier had sued in small claims court, but counterclaimed for the balance of the rent due under the full lease term (and damages and attorneys’ fees), bringing the case within the jurisdiction of the Arlington District Court. The landlord argued that the soldier was involved in securing both the availability of on-base quarters and the “order” to move into quarters on a military installation, thus making the statute inapplicable.
Operating with less than a week’s notice, CLAS accepted the soldier’s application and signed him on as a client, and prepared the soldier’s bill of particulars, answer and counterclaim in the time required for filing by the District Court. The soldier’s counterclaim sought damages under Virginia’s Consumer Protection Act, arguing that that the landlord’s refusal to return the security deposit is a prohibited attempt to “collect . . . liquidated damages or penalties under any clause . . . unenforceable under any otherwise applicable laws of the Commonwealth.” Va. Code §§59.1-200(13), 204 and 207.
Judge Karen Henenberg presided over a two-hour trial in which both parties supported their positions with testimony and documents. CLAS student Robert May, operating under a Virginia third-year practice certificate, conducted both direct and cross-examination.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the Court rejected the landlord’s argument that the soldier’s involvement in obtaining “orders” to move into base housing was disqualifying under the statute. The Court refused to read into the statute language that was not there, noting that especially where the landlord was aware of the statute, early termination is a risk the landlord assumes. The Court also observed that if a tenant’s involvement in obtaining orders to move on base should make the statute inapplicable, that is an issue for the Virginia General Assembly to address. The Court finally ordered the landlord to pay damages under the Consumer Protection Act.
Avoidance of the landlord’s claim for rent, damages and fees, and the award of the security deposit and tenant’s damages, resulted in a victory for the CLAS client in excess of $13,000, and a judgment under the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act that should prove important to military tenants in Virginia. Key members of the Department of Defense legal assistance community were following the case closely.
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