Being involved in a lawsuit, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, can be a serious anxiety-inducing scenario for any business owner. When you find yourself on the receiving end of a court summons, it is a terrible feeling. You get slapped with some papers by a process server, who sometimes even says “your served,” like you see on television. You may feel publicly accused, possibly humiliated, usually angry, and you might even have the desire to loudly explain to anyone within earshot that the case is “nonsense,” or you might use stronger language.
Even after you receive the Complaint and the initial shock wears off, you need to decide your next move, and that often involves uncertainty and stress. The law only gives you a certain amount of time to respond to a Complaint (20 days in D.C. Superior Court Civil Cases), and now that you have been served, you have a ticking clock. You might not know who to call or what to do or where to look for someone who knows the answers to all of the questions swimming around your head, let alone your worries about the cost of defending this lawsuit.
For plaintiffs, the experience is different, but not necessarily better. Often, plaintiffs have been frustrated in their efforts to resolve a dispute, without involving lawyers. Perhaps the would-be defendant stopped communicating, would not reciprocate efforts at a reasoned resolution, or could not perform obligations that they were supposed to, and the options have run out.
The point is that civil litigation, on either side, can be a painful, time-consuming, and often expensive process for all of the parties involved. It must be treated as a last resort and approached with a common sense view towards cost-effectiveness. Too often the cost of litigation is near or exceeds the amount in controversy. Inevitably, this makes resolution of the case prior to the Court deciding it, far less likely. For that reason, it is extremely important to have an honest discussion about your budget in our first meeting.
In order to achieve your goal, I need to know what outcome you consider to be a “win,” and what resources you are willing to dedicate to reach that result. A “win” is not always a jury verdict or judgment in your favor. In fact, quite frequently, that turns out to be a “loss.” If you have spent more money on the litigation than you have sued for, even if you get a judgment, what have you really won? You have a piece of paper awarding you an amount of money that may or may not be collectible. A situation in which the loser pays the winner’s attorney’s fees is a rare exception to the general rule that each party pays their own lawyer.
Given the risk of the Pyrrhic victory (where a technical win actually turns out to be practical a loss), it is imperative that we decide at the outset exactly what financial resources you are able to dedicate to the matter and discuss what, if any settlement possibilities that raises.
Sometimes there is no choice but to move forward, with a case. It is my job to give you all of the information I can about the consequences and what the possible outcomes will mean for you and your business. I work very hard to put you in a position to make sound decisions based on the facts of your case, applicable law and the practical impact that litigation may have on your business.
D.C. Superior Court is not the only forum in which contested cases can be tried. Executive agencies of the government are charged with the responsibility to regulate certain industries, professions, and practices. As part of that regulatory responsibility, the agencies must serve an adjudicatory function. That means, an agency, like the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), or the Housing Regulation Administration (HRA) writes the laws (which are called “regulations”) and has the ability to enforce them. This type of case is generally referred to as “Administrative” or “Agency” Law.
An administrative case can arise in a number of different ways, but broadly speaking, cases are brought in one of two ways. First, a case may be brought by the District, against a business or individual, alleging some violation of the regulations governing the industry. An example of this would be where an investigator for ABRA conducts a site inspection of a bar, witnesses what he believes to be a violation, writes a report, and refers it to the ABC Board. At that point, the Attorney General’s office has the option to charge the licensee with a violation. If the business owner denies the allegation of a violation, the owner has the right to a Board hearing to determine liability.
The second way an administrative case can be initiated is by tenants, neighbors, or members of the public impacted by your business, whom the law gives certain rights to. A few examples of this type of case would be a Tenant Petition against a landlord or a Protest of the issuance or renewal of an alcoholic beverage license. In a Tenant Petition, a tenant would file an administrative complaint with the HRA – Office of the Rent Administrator, that, for example, alleges that the landlord increased the rent on the unit without being properly registered under the District’s rent control law. The landlord has the right to contest the allegations, and have the case heard by an administrative law judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings.
When an alcoholic beverage license is issued or renewed, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), neighbors who own property abutting the establishment, or any group of five or more members of the public with complaints in common can “protest” the license. That means they can ask the ABC Board to refuse to issue or renew it, based on reasons such as an adverse effect on the”peace order and quiet” of the neighborhood. If that happens, the business applying for the license or renewal is entitled to a hearing before the Board, to determine whether the issuing the license is “appropriate.”
Administrative litigation is often shorter, less formal, and less expensive than civil litigation because procedural rules are not as rigid with the government agencies. However, business owners should not take the relative informality of agency proceedings, as a cue, to handle these matters without representation. The outcome of administrative cases can have a direct effect on your ability to do business, as sanctions can include fines, suspension, revocation, or denial of your licenses. Moreover, in housing cases specifically, landlords can be ordered to return rent to their tenants, paid over the three (3) years prior to the filing of the case.
Litigation, whether in Court, before a Board or administrative hearing officer, can be complex and stressful. You need to be represented by someone who has the experience to advise you of the potential outcomes, so you can plan accordingly; and where all else fails, someone who you know is going to do everything possible to protect your business.