Above photo:Process servers are supposed to deliver summonses that tell tenants about their eviction cases. But a DCist investigation uncovered hundreds of affidavits in the span of just two months, filed by two prolific process servers, that contradict one another. Katty Huertas / DCist.
Thousands Of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year.
Do They All Know To Show Up To Court?
This story is the result of a months-long investigative project in partnership with Spotlight DC. Evictions have been suspended in D.C. since Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency on March 11 over the coronavirus pandemic, and will remain so until 60 days after the emergency order ends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also barred many evictions through the end of year. But after such restrictions end, tenant advocates fear a huge influx of eviction cases.
Joseph Gelletich’s life began to unravel in September of 2018, 16 days after he missed a rent payment.
His landlord filed an eviction lawsuit, triggering the legal process that would eventually leave him homeless. But Gelletich says he didn’t actually find out about the proceedings until months later—after many of his options for fighting to keep his apartment had already evaporated.
Gelletich had called Harvard Hall home since 1991. Almost 60 now, he moved into the stately, seven-story building at the southern end of Mount Pleasant as a young man, just starting a career remodeling kitchens and bathrooms.
In 1995, he moved up to a rent-controlled two-bedroom with his boyfriend, Patrick, who passed away a few months later. Gelletich resolved to stay in their home. “I saw no reason to ever live anywhere else,” he says. “I expected to die there.”
But by 2018, Gelletich’s financial situation had grown precarious: he found himself taking care of his ailing mother, while his longtime employer’s business collapsed.
Gelletich missed a monthly rent payment of $2,130 in September, and the property manager, Borger Management, promptly moved to evict him.
As part of that process, the company’s lawyers hired Karl Stephens, a prolific process server in eviction cases, to serve Gelletich with a summons to appear in D.C. Superior Court for a hearing. Stephens would later claim that he attempted to contact Gelletich twice to let him know about his eviction hearing, but that no one answered the door, so he left a summons outside his apartment and sent a second copy in the mail.
But Gelletich says he didn’t receive either copy of the summons, and thus wasn’t aware that his property manager had started eviction proceedings. Because he did not appear at the initial hearing on October 11, Gelletich automatically lost the case.
After a few routine procedural steps, Borger Management had a green light to evict.
Thanks to the work of legislators and tenant advocates over the years, renters facing eviction in D.C. have more rights than almost anywhere in the country, and Superior Court judges dutifully administer those rights inside the courthouse.
But the entire system rests on a pin: the means by which tenants are notified that they need to come to court.
In D.C., tenants are supposed to find out about eviction cases—which are currently halted by the coronavirus pandemic—via private process servers, who are hired directly by landlords (or their lawyers) to deliver summonses. They let tenants know about their cases and tell them exactly when to come to court. Earlier this year, Superior Court also began sending notice of suits by mail.
But the only evidence that a tenant was informed of their eviction hearing is a document called an affidavit of service, in which a process server swears that they served the summons. Upon closer examination, though, many of these affidavits are demonstrably false.
A nine-month investigation—which included observing week after week of eviction proceedings in Superior Court, poring through more than 13,000 pages of court records, conducting nearly 60 interviews, and reviewing hours of security camera footage—turned up more than 600 cases in just two months where two process servers filed affidavits containing discrepancies that, if brought to a judge’s attention, would likely result in the eviction case being dismissed.
Karl Stephens has worked as a process server in D.C. for roughly 20 years, according to his past court testimony, and he now owns Metropolitan Process Services L.L.C., which is headquartered at his house in Silver Spring. Matthew Buck files court documents under the company’s address.
They have played an outsized role in the city’s eviction system. Reviewing the first 4,500 landlord-tenant cases filed in 2019, DCist found Stephens and Buck served the summonses in about 2,650 of them—almost 60 percent. No other process server came close.
Oddly, however, the two men almost never managed to find the tenants they were hired to serve. Despite the requirement that he make a diligent effort to serve tenants in person—visiting their apartments twice, on different days, if no one answers the first time—Buck reported, in roughly 990 eviction cases, that not a single person answered the door. According to affidavits that Stephens filed, out of roughly 1,660 cases in the first two months of 2019, he only managed to serve 11 people in person.
And in one instance, Stephens swore that he contacted more than 15 D.C. tenants in a two-hour period, when he was actually in a courtroom in Maryland, facing a charge of driving while impaired.
DCist analyzed nearly 500 other landlord-tenant cases, chosen at random from a five month period at the beginning of 2019, and found that when other process servers went to tenants’ apartments, they managed to find someone at home more than 40 percent of the time.
By contrast, in the first two months of 2019, Stephens and Buck managed to serve tenants in person just 0.4 percent of the time.
Situated in a nondescript, white building on the corner of 4th and F Streets NW, D.C. Superior Court’s landlord and tenant branch has played an often overlooked role in a period of seismic change for the city.
After decades of population decline, the District saw an influx of people starting in the mid-2000s. Since 2005, the city’s population has grown by more than 135,000, and these newcomers have changed the face of the city. “Chocolate City” is no longer majority African American, and the economic transformation has been just as stark: from 2009 to 2019, the median home price rose by 63 percent.
In the face of economic instability, eviction proceedings touch the lives of a substantial number of Washingtonians. More than 4,500 households were evicted in 2016, the most recent year with data available, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
And even more D.C. residents came dangerously close. Landlords filed over 27,000 eviction cases in 2016, an average of nearly one eviction case for every six rental units in the city (though some may have been filed against the same unit on more than one occasion).
Evictions have been temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, but experts expect a “tsunami” of cases will follow when moratoriums end and tenants are left owing months of back-rent. The global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross recently estimated that 57,000 households in the District are now at risk of losing their homes.
A growing body of research suggests that evictions often have a significant, long-term impact on people’s ability to find housing at all. “There’s this assumption that someone who is evicted can stay with family and friends,” says Lavar Edmonds, a researcher at Princeton’s Eviction Lab. “But for plenty of people, that’s not true. A fair number end up in some sort of homeless shelter.”
Studies indicate that eviction can impact people’s housing stability not only in the short term, but for years to come. Since many landlords check court records or credit reports before accepting a rental application, an eviction on an individual’s record can make finding another place to live extremely challenging.
Between 2014 and 2018, almost 20,000 tenants in the District of Columbia lost their landlord-tenant cases by default simply because they didn’t appear at their court hearings. There are a number of reasons why this can happen: tenants may not be able to take a day off work, can’t find childcare, or believe that they don’t have any options if they do go. But others, like Gelletich, say they didn’t show up because they had no idea their landlords had initiated eviction proceedings against them.
Over the years, case law has established strict rules for how process servers must give notice in eviction cases—rules which stem out of tenants’ constitutional right to due process.
That includes the right to know what you’re being accused of, the right to present evidence on your behalf, and the right to cross-examine your accusers. “All the things we think of as basic,” explains Lori Leibowitz, an attorney who oversees housing cases at D.C.’s Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “In the United States, we don’t take away someone’s apartment without giving them those rights. But the prerequisite for due process is knowing there’s a case against you. So notice is really the core.”
Superior Court rules state that “generally, a judge will find that a process server has made diligent and conscientious efforts to serve the defendant/tenant personally only if the attempts were made on two different days and at two different times of day.” If the process server still can’t find the tenant, then, “as a last resort,” they must attach the summons to their door and mail the tenant a copy.
If a process server doesn’t follow these rules, Leibowitz explains, “they haven’t done what the Constitution requires. Unless they serve the tenant properly, the case can’t move forward.”
But there is no mechanism in place in D.C. to check whether these process servers were truthful in their affidavits and actually delivered the summonses. And in practice, Superior Court judges who hear eviction cases nearly always take process servers at their word.
“The court functions on the presumption that process servers are telling the truth,” Leibowitz says. “It’s a shortcut on which the whole system is based. And of course some process servers are going to lie, because then they can get paid to do nothing.”
The District of Columbia doesn’t license or otherwise regulate process servers—a process server only needs to be at least 18 years of age and not a party to the case. And the temptation to cut corners can be powerful.
Most of the summonses in eviction cases in the District are delivered by roughly a dozen private process servers who generally charge from $60 to $100 a case, according to published rates and accounts from landlords and a process server (they may offer discounts for bulk service). On any given day, a process server who works—or claims to work—at a breakneck pace can generate a lot of income.
On March 11, 2019, for instance, Karl Stephens swore that in under eight hours, he attempted to serve 137 tenants scattered across D.C., knocking on a different door, on average, every three and a half minutes. If he charged $60 a case, that would amount to $8,220 (though because he managed to find none of those tenants at home, Stephens would need to visit each one twice).
When process servers don’t serve papers they say they did, it’s often called “sewer service,” referring to a perhaps apocryphal episode where process servers were caught throwing summonses into storm drains. Reports of sewer service in the District of Columbia stretch back for decades.
Ellen Scully, one of the city’s top experts on landlord-tenant law, ran Catholic University’s legal clinic for more than 25 years. “We often had to send students to a tenant’s home to keep the Marshals from doing anything while the tenant came down to court to say, honestly, that they had no idea they were being evicted or being sued,” she recalls. “Sewer service is a blight on the court. You can’t even imagine how many people never knew.”
Karl Stephens was busy on October 2, 2018, the particular Tuesday when he swore that he posted a summons on the door of Gelletich’s apartment.
Sworn affidavits filed in Superior Court show that Stephens claimed, in the span of seven hours, to have knocked on the doors of 83 renters, including Gelletich’s, all over D.C.—an average of one every five minutes. According to his own affidavits, not a single tenant answered the door.
And in nine different cases that day, Stephens swore he served at least one other tenant in a completely different part of the city at the exact same time.
In one affidavit, for example, Stephens claimed that he attempted to serve a tenant at 11:30 a.m. at 2420 14th St. NW, in Columbia Heights. But in an affidavit filed in a different eviction case, Stephens swore that he was posting a summons on the door of an apartment at 3828 South Capitol St. SE, about eight miles away, at the exact same time. Both cases ended up before the same judge two weeks later, but neither she nor anyone else, apparently, noticed that at least one of Stephens’ affidavits had to be false.
The discrepancies on that date aren’t a one-off occurrence. DCist found more than 600 eviction cases in the first two months of 2019 with sworn affidavits of service prepared by either Stephens or Matthew Buck, where one of their affidavits appears to contradict what they filed in at least one other case, with conflicting dates and times of service. Some examples:
- On February 12, 2019, Buck claimed to have visited 47 apartments scattered around D.C. in just two hours, finding no one at home. He swore he attempted to serve tenants in Fairlawn, Congress Heights, and Mount Pleasant in three separate cases—all at exactly at 7:30 p.m. (The Fairlawn and Congress Heights apartment buildings are over a mile from each other, and the Mount Pleasant building is at least eight miles away from each). In seven other pairs of cases that day, Buck swore to visiting tenants in different neighborhoods at the exact same time.
- On February 22, 2019, Stephens claimed in legal filings to have visited 100 apartments and found no one at home. In one case, he swore to have visited a tenant at the Woodner Apartments, at 3636 16th St. NW, at 6:11 p.m. In a separate case, Stephens swore that he posted a summons on the door of a tenant at 4921 G St. SE, in Marshall Heights, a 10-mile drive away, at exactly the same time. He swore that six minutes later, at 6:17 p.m., he served a different tenant in Marshall Heights at the exact same time that he attempted to serve another tenant in the Woodner Apartments. In 33 cases that day, Stephens claimed to have visited two or more tenants in different neighborhoods at the exact same time. According to the times reported in his affidavits, Stephens would have had to have traveled back and forth between Mount Pleasant and Marshall Heights 13 times in just 18 minutes.
- On February 27, 2019, Stephens claimed in affidavits to have visited 68 apartments and again found no one at home. Stephens swore that at 7 a.m., he affixed a summons to the door of a tenant at Safe Haven House in Columbia Heights. In a different case, he also claimed to have taped a summons at exactly 7 a.m. on a door about six miles away at Park 7 Apartments in Northeast. This happened several times—Stephens’ sworn affidavits place him at both apartment complexes simultaneously at 7:02 a.m., then again at 7:04 a.m., and again at 7:06 a.m. By 8:58 in the morning, according to his affidavits, he had visited 51 tenants at Park 7 Apartments and another 12 tenants across Northwest D.C. In 16 different cases, he swore that he knocked on the doors of tenants in apartments at least four miles apart at the exact same time.
This map visualizes the locations that Karl Stephens reported visiting in sworn affidavits in a twenty minute span on February 22, 2019.
One of Stephens’ affidavits from that day had a problem that was easier to spot without digging through court records.
Tenise Wilson, a single mother with four children, is one of the 51 tenants at Park 7 whom Stephens swore he served the morning of February 27. (He reported serving her at 7:24 a.m. But he also swore in a different affidavit that he served a tenant seven miles away just six minutes later.)
Wilson says she never got any court summons and that she didn’t learn that her landlord was trying to evict until she came home to a piece of paper on her door saying the eviction was already scheduled. “I really thought I was going to be put out,” she says.
But process servers are required to give a brief description of an apartment’s door, and in Wilson’s case, Stephens said it was red. It is actually light brown, giving Wilson proof that the affidavit was wrong. The opposing lawyer agreed to vacate the default judgment, cancelling her family’s eviction and buying her a chance to fight the case.
On more than 150 distinct dates and times in the first two months of 2019, Stephens or Buck swore that they simultaneously knocked on the doors of two or more tenants—casting doubt on at least two cases each time. DCist also found hundreds of instances where, according to their affidavits, they would have had to travel impossible distances in a matter of minutes.
Additionally, on at least three occasions Stephens or Buck even filed sworn affidavits that would require them to know about court dates that didn’t exist yet—stating that they attempted to serve summonses to tenants before their hearings had even been scheduled.
While the court requires that affidavits be notarized—signed in person in front of a sworn public authority, who then stamps the document—dozens of those prepared by Stephens and processed by Montgomery County notary Deborah Cooper Kaye have telling inaccuracies: Stephens gets his own age wrong, stating he was a year older than he actually was when the document was notarized. DCist also found one affidavit that bears Buck’s name but Stephens’ signature. Kaye did not respond to requests for comment by phone or through the mail.
Stephen and Buck did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the phone, by email, or through letters dropped off at their homes. The person who picked up Stephens’ phone hung up when this reporter identified himself.
A spokesperson for Superior Court said that the Court could not comment on the evidence presented in this article, as ethics rules prohibit judges from commenting on matters that may be relevant in future cases. However, the spokesperson added, “As a court, judges take very seriously any evidence presented in a case that a person has provided information that is not accurate.”
On one day when Stephens swore he was notifying Washingtonians of their impending eviction hearings, DCist discovered that Stephens wasn’t even within the bounds of the District.
The process server was called to a Maryland court to address his own legal matter on the morning of June 3, 2019.
The previous fall, he had been pulled over after running a flashing red light in Silver Spring. The officer, finding that Stephens smelled of alcohol, asked him to take a breathalyzer test. After Stephens refused, he was charged with driving while impaired by alcohol.
When Stephens’ DWI court date rolled around, this reporter also attended the proceedings.
Stephens arrived at the courthouse in downtown Silver Spring a little after 9 a.m, and stayed for more than two hours.
Stephens would later swear that at precisely 9:47 a.m.—while he was sitting with his lawyer in a courthouse hallway—he was attempting to serve a tenant at 600 H St. NE, near Union Station. (The tenant missed their court date, receiving a default.) Stephens later claimed, in separate affidavits, to have served summonses to three more households by the time he went back inside the courtroom. He swore that none of the tenants were home.
By 11 a.m., Stephens was standing before Judge William Graves Simmons. He pleaded guilty, making it his second conviction for driving while intoxicated, and was accepting his sentence of community service. “It’s been a very humbling and very strong learning experience,” he told the court. “I’m very sorry for what happened, and I know it won’t happen again.” Stephens would subsequently claim in an affidavit that at exactly that moment, he was knocking on the door of an apartment at 2714 29th St. SE, more than ten miles away.
In all, he would later swear that he attempted to serve 16 tenants in the District of Columbia while this reporter was staring at the back of his head.
Keisha Whitlock reckons that she has spent hundreds of hours trying to stave off evictions for the residents of Takoma Place Apartments, where she has lived and cared for her elderly mother since 2015.
“Every time I turn around, people are getting evicted,” Whitlock told DCist last autumn. “People are leaving because they can’t afford to miss work three times to come to court.”
The New York City-based NHP Foundation bought the towering complex in Brightwood in 2017. The following November, the D.C. government helped the company secure nearly $32 million in funding to renovate it.
A month later, Whitlock says she received a letter saying that NHP had filed for a 501(f)—a complicated and little-used provision of the D.C. code that allows landlords to temporarily evict tenants to carry out alterations or renovations that “cannot safely or reasonably be accomplished while the rental unit is occupied.” In short, the provision allows a landlord to remove all its tenants without cause, though they must have a plan for relocating tenants and tenants have the right to eventually move back in.
(Since 2018, NHP has cleared out five of the seven buildings that make up the complex; some tenants have moved back into three of them. “Residents have been temporarily relocated either onsite or offsite within a few miles of the properties and then return to their units when renovations are complete,” an NHP spokesperson told DCist.)
As Whitlock’s neighbors began to leave in droves, she went to D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate in February of 2019 to ask its general counsel, Dennis Taylor, about the 501(f) process. But as Taylor pored through the court records, he pulled up something that shocked Whitlock, she said: records of three unrelated eviction cases against her, filed by NHP’s management firm within days of each other, all with sworn affidavits from Stephens stating that he’d already served her with summonses.
Whitlock says she hadn’t gotten any of the summonses. “I walked out of that meeting and I was completely numb,” she says. “What would’ve happened if I didn’t have that meeting?”
Whitlock already had some experience with the headaches of landlord and tenant proceedings. Since buying her building, NHP had tried to evict her twice before. She managed to avoid eviction in both cases, but at a steep price: Over a two-year span, she spent more than 30 days in court battling NHP’s Bethesda-based law firm, Cole, Goodson, & Associates, a behemoth in landlord-tenant court that frequently works with Stephens and his company.
After all that time in the courthouse, Whitlock has become disillusioned about the system. “As a Black person going in on a default, you already look guilty when they see an affidavit,” she says. “[Judges think], ‘You did get served—it says so right here.’”
Faced with three new cases, Whitlock tried to contest Stephens’ service from the get-go. But she knew she was unlikely to prevail without evidence beyond her own word. Then she had an idea: Her building has only one entrance, with a surveillance camera perched over the door. At her next court hearing, she asked for footage from the day Stephens swore he delivered her summonses.
When she got it, Whitlock felt vindicated: It contained incontrovertible evidence that she had been telling the truth. The video, which DCist reviewed, starts at 9:31 a.m., 35 minutes before Stephens claimed that he had posted the first summons on Whitlock’s door. For the next five hours, he is nowhere to be seen.
An NHP spokesperson told DCist these eviction cases are handled by a third party, and that the organization had “not been made aware of any problems” but “will inform our management firm about your comments.”
On April 11, faced with proof that Stephens’ affidavit was false, Timothy Cole—lead partner at Cole, Goodson, & Associates—asked the court to dismiss all three eviction cases against Whitlock.
Five days later, NHP’s management firm filed a new one.
Even after the security footage proved that at least three of Stephens’ affidavits were false, Cole, Goodson, & Associates continued to rely on his company.
But Whitlock was not the first tenant to raise issues with Stephens’ work for the law firm. In a May 2018 hearing with Timothy Cole, a different tenant submitted more than 150 of Stephens’ cases into evidence: In all of the cases, Stephens didn’t find a single tenant at home, which the tenant’s attorneys believed supported her claim that he wasn’t following the law.
But, according to the court transcript, Cole dismissed their research—saying they might have “cherry picked” cases to make Stephens look bad—and instead attacked her credibility. The sworn statements of process servers should be presumed to be accurate, he argued, while the tenant has “a strong interest in not necessarily being truthful.”
In the first two months of 2019, Cole, Goodson, & Associates hired Metropolitan Process Services to serve summonses in nearly 1,000 landlord-tenant cases, according to affidavits examined by DCist. During that period, Stephens and Buck claimed to have visited apartments owned or managed by clients of Cole’s firm nearly 2,000 times. In all these attempts, the two process servers only managed to find someone home twice.
For several of the firm’s biggest clients—including D.C.-based property management firms WC Smith, which oversees 10,000 units in D.C., and Horning Management Company, which oversees 4,000—Stephens and Buck batted .000.
Cole did not respond to DCist’s repeated, detailed questions about Stephens and Buck.
In the same two-month period, Stephens and Buck did no better for three of their other most frequent employers:
Offit Kurman, a law firm with offices in 13 cities in the mid-Atlantic region, hired the men to serve over 600 summonses. In those more than 1,200 attempts, Stephens and Buck didn’t find any of the tenants they were looking for.
“Offit Kurman has become aware of concerns with some of the affidavits of service filed by Metropolitan Process Service,” William Cannon III, who heads the firm’s landlord-representation practice, told DCist in an email last month. “We have terminated our relationship with Metropolitan and now require our process servers to maintain date and time-stamped photographs of any service by posting.”
Stephens and Buck served summonses on behalf of Washington lawyer Joanne Sgro in roughly 345 D.C. landlord-tenant cases over that period. Neither man found a single tenant at home. Reached by telephone, Sgro ended the conversation when asked about discrepancies in affidavits she filed, and did not respond to subsequent questions via email.
And Fairfax-based lawyer Michele Meiners had the men serve summonses in about 250 D.C. cases in that time frame. Neither of the process servers managed to contact a single tenant in person. Meiners did not respond to DCist’s requests for comment.
In some instances, landlords’ attorneys wouldn’t have to look very far to find evidence that Stephens and Buck’s sworn statements were suspect. Cole, Cannon, Sgro, and Meiners all had instances where if they compared the affidavits filed in their own cases, they would see that Stephens or Buck swore to being in at least two different places at the exact same time. Cole, Cannon, and Sgro each had more than 40 of these cases in just two months.
From 2000 to 2016, D.C. saw the strongest displacement of any city in the United States, according to a study from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that analyzed Census data.
Much of that displacement has been driven by landlords seeking to maximize profits either by renovating or redeveloping their properties, or simply increasing rents. As lower-income tenants are pushed out, newcomers who can afford higher rent take their place.
“When landlords want to redevelop a property, the biggest barrier for landlords is residents—residents and their rights,” says Daniel del Pielago of Empower DC, which advocates for the city’s low-income residents.
Because of these rights, tenants who do come to court for their hearing and raise defenses generally stand a relatively good chance of avoiding eviction.
If they have an attorney, tenants accused of violating their leases—by letting dirty dishes accumulate, for example, or loitering on the lawn—can often successfully fight off eviction, according to tenants’ attorneys and advocates. Just as important, tenants facing eviction in the District of Columbia can nearly always get more time to pull money together or to find a new place to live.
Tenants can ask for a two-week continuance to speak with a lawyer. And if they ask for a trial to give their side of the story, or sign a payment plan with their landlord’s attorney, they can get even more time—sometimes months more. (Tenants aren’t informed of their legal rights and options before they come to court, but if they do come, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and the nonprofit Rising for Justice have free clinics in the courthouse.)
But to exercise any of these options, tenants generally must make it to their initial hearing.
“Tenants are only guaranteed that one opportunity to make their case—to demonstrate why they should be able to keep their homes,” says Leigh Higgins, of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center. If tenants don’t show up, “they’re losing their best opportunity to have their voice heard.”
The twists and turns of Gelletich’s case show just how powerless tenants can be after they’ve missed that chance.
Over the years, particularly in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and then later as he cared for his mother, Gelletich was late on his rent payment on more than a dozen occasions. His landlord filed suit, but in each of those cases, Gelletich paid up in time to keep his home.
In this final case, though, Gelletich says he didn’t learn about his pending eviction until four months after the case was filed (he says he no longer remembers exactly how he found out) —just a few days, in fact, before he was to be put out on the streets.
By then, he was nearly five months behind on rent. While Gelletich says he didn’t know about the case and “was sort of surprised [he] hadn’t heard anything from Borger yet,” he certainly knew he was behind. He says he just didn’t know that he’d already run out of time to find the money.
So on January 28, 2019, the very day the Marshals were scheduled to evict him, he went to Superior Court to ask for a little more time.
Gelletich had finally gotten a new job and he expected help was on the way from a nonprofit that provides emergency payments for back rent to tenants in D.C. “I now have resources to pay back rent and work has improved so I will be able to pay going forward,” Gelletich wrote in a motion to delay the eviction, pleading for a judge to give him some leeway. “I just need one more chance.”
In court that day, the attorney representing Borger Management said that day’s eviction had been postponed because of inclement weather. Judge Curtis von Kann told Gelletich that that bought him some time, and that Borger would need to send him a letter with a new eviction date, 14 days ahead of time. Gelletich says he left the courtroom confident that he could get the money he needed together before the new deadline.
A few days later, however, Gelletich was startled to find that Borger Management had already rescheduled his eviction, almost a week earlier than the judge had said was allowed. And so on February 5—the day the U.S. Marshals were once again scheduled to evict him—he returned to court.
This time, Judge Lee F. Satterfield was on the bench. Gelletich thought he would simply need to explain what Judge von Kann had told him, but Satterfield never gave him the chance.
The judge said he would allow the eviction to go forward unless Borger’s attorney agreed to the delay. When she said she couldn’t delay without her client’s permission, Satterfield allowed the eviction to proceed.
Then, for the first time that day, according to the court transcript, Gelletich spoke: “Excuse me, can—“
Satterfield cut him off: “Thank you. Thank you, sir. You may leave.”
“May I please say something, please?” Gelletich asked.
“You may leave,” Satterfield replied. “Get security up here. I’m not playing around with this man.”
“Excuse me,” Gelletich said, “but I was, I was misinformed by the judge last week.”
“Sir, I asked you to leave. I asked you to leave.”
“Get security up here right away,” Satterfield responded.
By the time Gelletich got back to his apartment, he said, the U.S. Marshals were already gone. They had carried out the eviction and changed his locks. That night Gelletich slept in his car.
He then had seven days to collect his belongings before Borger could throw everything out. “At that point I didn’t have any place to take anything,” he says. So Gelletich gathered up some clothes, his passport, some treasured photographs, and a few other things—“everything I could fit in the trunk of my car,” he says—and left everything else behind.
Now homeless, Gelletich was even more determined to press his case with the help of a pro bono lawyer. Roughly two weeks later, they filed a motion arguing that because Gelletich had not been notified of the initial October 11, 2018 hearing, he should never have been evicted and should be allowed to return to Harvard Hall.
About two months went by. Then in April, Gelletich’s court date finally came around, and so, still without a permanent place to live, he returned to Superior Court for a hearing before Judge Jeanette J. Clark.
Stephens, appearing as a witness for Borger Management, testified that he had visited Gelletich’s apartment once on September 29 and again on October 2, both times with no response, and then posted the summons on the door. Gelletich swore he had never received the notice. But ultimately, it was his word against Stephens’.
Judge Clark denied Gelletich’s motions, sending him home empty-handed.
Borger’s executive vice president, Arianna Royster, declined to comment on Gelletich’s court hearings. Royster said that Borger contracts with attorneys to handle non-payment of rent cases and the attorney then hires a process server. “In the Gelletich case,” she said, “it appeared that there was multiple notifications and three different judges that also reviewed the case.”
Landlords have a lot to gain when tenants miss their court dates in eviction cases.
“It saves landlords a lot of time and money if the tenant doesn’t show up,” says Amy Gellatly, a supervising attorney with Bread for the City, a nonprofit organization that provides legal and social services to low-income D.C. residents. “If the tenant does come to court, the tenant can state their defenses and request a trial. The trial process often takes many months, and requires landlords to actually prove their allegations against their tenants.”
Higgins notes that if the landlord wins a default judgment, the tenant no longer has a right to a trial unless a judge agrees to it. “If there’s a default at that first hearing,” she says, “that raises the bar for what the tenant must prove.”
What’s more, trials are particularly costly for landlords. Not only do they have to pay their attorneys to go to court, but any rent payments a tenant makes often go, at least temporarily, to the court, not the landlord. This can mean that landlords go months or even years without receiving rent. (Generally, a judge will decide at the end how much, if any, of that amount should go to the landlord.)
That creates pressure to wrap cases up as quickly as possible. Randy Redford, a partner in Puckett & Redford, P.L.L.C., one of Seattle’s largest landlord-representation firms, says law firms try to avoid trials at all costs. “[In 2018], we started a little over 12,000 cases and had three trials,” he says. “So if we end up going to trial, in my opinion, we lost.”
Indeed, the business model of landlord-representation law practices often requires moving through thousands of cases a year while spending as little time as possible in court. “If you do a lot of cases that default, that’s a lot of money–and for what?” says Frank Tuerkheimer, an emeritus law professor at the University of Wisconsin, who led a landmark investigation into process server fraud decades ago when he was Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “You have a form on your computer. You print it out. You fill it in. That takes four minutes of lawyer time.”
Many of these law firms handle hundreds of cases a month, and contradictions in affidavits could be easy to miss if they weren’t looking for them. Nevertheless, Jonathan Tycko, a Washington lawyer and former chairman of the committee responsible for writing the D.C. Bar’s code of ethics, says that lawyers could theoretically face consequences for submitting affidavits that they knew, or should have known, were false.
“At a minimum, it would be an ethics violation by the attorney,” he says. He thinks their only real defense would be that they filed the contradictory documents unwittingly. “Essentially, they’d have to tell the Bar, ‘I don’t actually read those,’” Tycko says. “That’s not a very strong defense.”
If many more tenants received their full day in court, it’s not clear if the system could handle it. The Landlord and Tenant Branch of Superior Court processed more than 30,000 cases in 2019.
Magistrate judges oversee at least the initial hearing for most eviction cases, and it’s not unusual for them to dispose of 100 cases in just three hours. In a second courtroom upstairs, senior judges help the court keep up with the caseload and handle more complicated hearings.
On average, Superior Court judges issue roughly a dozen default judgments in landlord-tenant cases each day the courtroom is open. For each, a case that could have taken months or years to resolve is closed out in a couple of seconds. “If everybody showed up,” Higgins says, “the court couldn’t function.”
While Superior Court judges have found evidence of large-scale fraud in eviction cases before, they didn’t take meaningful action for years.
The most scrutiny probably came in 1973, after B. D. Colen, a reporter for the Washington Post, published a front-page exposé of the shortcuts taken by process servers in landlord-tenant cases. At the time, Colen reviewed affidavits from roughly 1,050 cases and found 21 instances where process servers claimed to be in multiple places at once.
“It was supposed to be a place where tenants got justice, and it just wasn’t. The system was rigged,” he says. “The corruption of it was just shocking, just brazen. … Theoretically, people should’ve gone to jail. I expected that the story would result in systemic changes—which just didn’t happen.”
The story did lead the Superior Court to investigate, and a three-judge committee found “numerous instances” of apparent fraud by process servers. Their original report appears to be lost to history, but for the next decade, it was cited by other legal commentators in tones that became increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of reform.
To this day, while court staff review every affidavit for internal inconsistencies—such as misspelled names—and vacate decisions if the affidavit has errors, there is no comprehensive process in place for ferreting out fraud.
Earlier this year, though, the court made an unprecedented change: Superior Court announced that it would begin mailing letters to tenants notifying them of their initial hearing. But it isn’t meant to be a replacement for process servers’ work. Moreover, the form letters, which were reviewed by DCist, don’t explain the reason the tenant is being sued, and they don’t include the word “eviction.”
A spokesperson for the court told DCist that the notice is meant to emphasize when and where the hearing is and how tenants can get legal help, with the goal of ensuring that cases are decided on their merits, not because someone didn’t show up.
Marc Borbely, an attorney and founder of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, tells DCist over email that the new mailing will be “very helpful, but does not replace the need to have process servers actually doing their jobs—and having mechanisms to hold process servers (and the law firms and landlords who employ them) accountable.”
The law has long acknowledged that sending letters isn’t enough to have all tenants know about their cases, he explains. For one, a surprising number of tenants don’t have working mailboxes. Moreover, mail service hasn’t always been reliable in some of the city’s poorest communities, and recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have only exacerbated and expanded the issues.
The full extent of the problem with the reliability of process servers still needs to be reckoned with, Borbely argues. The D.C Council and Superior Court should make changes “to increase accountability going forward,” he says, and the D.C. Office of Attorney General should also investigate in order “to help tenants who have [already] been harmed.”
Other jurisdictions have implemented more robust reforms.
Over the past 50 years, officials in New York City have periodically attempted to crack down on sewer service—unearthing a series of scandals that eventually paved the way for significant changes in the city’s laws.
Investigators in the 1980s estimated that a “staggering” one-third of default judgments in NYC civil cases were the result of sewer service, and they ultimately accused 35 different process servers of fraud. But the breaking point finally came in 2009, when the state attorney general sued to overturn roughly 100,000 default judgments he claimed were the result of sewer service. The following year, New York City legislators passed a bill to overhaul the process service industry, in part by requiring process servers to track their whereabouts via GPS.
Possibilities for reform in D.C. range from modest regulatory tweaks to elaborate, transformative changes in the system. Here are some of them:
- Require process servers to document their activity with technology. Lawmakers could mandate that process servers submit a time-stamped photo of each summons they tape to a door, or, like in New York, require process servers to log GPS coordinates while they’re out serving tenants.
- License process servers through the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and then periodically audit process servers’ affidavits (or GPS records if they have been required), levying fines or revoking licenses if they violated the city’s requirements. A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection says the Department conducted more than 1,000 such investigations since 2012, revoking some 450 process server licenses.
- Have the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia actively enforce the law. When local court systems have failed to police their own operations, state officials elsewhere have stepped in to do it for them. Recently, from California to Minnesota, state attorneys general have led the charge when it comes to both exposing sewer service and getting relief for those harmed by it—securing criminal convictions for fraudulent process servers and in one sewer service-related case, winning a settlement worth more than $100 million.
- Require eviction notices to be served in person, as is required in some other types of lawsuit. It’s more expensive, but “if service of process was changed such that landlords had to pay what they’d pay for other cases, I think that’d change things,” Scully says.
While a Superior Court spokesperson tells DCist they’re “working on” a number of reforms, it’s not clear how quickly change will come to a system that is bound to be overwhelmed in the wake of COVID-19. Superior Court already has a backlog of eviction hearings that are on hold amid the pandemic. (In addition to those filed before the crisis, property owners still filed more than 1,100 eviction complaints between between mid March and early May, when lawmakers temporarily suspended the filing of those complaints until 60 days after the city’s emergency order ends.)
Meanwhile, Stephens recently faced accusations of sewer service and a lawsuit from private attorneys.
In February, D.C. firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP filed a federal suit against Karl Stephens and Metropolitan Process Services, acting pro bono on behalf of Keisha Whitlock and two other tenants who claim Stephens “falsified affidavits” in their eviction cases.
The firm reviewed over 1,500 landlord and tenant cases filed between late spring of 2019, and found many instances where Stephens’ affidavits appear to contradict each other, as well as a number of other “obvious irregularities,” according to the complaint.
John O’Connor, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who handled the suit, said he learned about Stephens “by accident” when investigating why D.C.’s landlord and tenant branch has such a high default rate. O’Connor noticed that tenants were twice as likely to have a default judgment if they weren’t served in person. When he dug in further, he realized that Stephens and Buck serve tenants in person far less than their competitors.
O’Connor says the parties have now reached a settlement, where two of the tenants will receive full statutory damages ($2,000 each plus attorney’s fees); he says the third tenant’s settlement is confidential.
While Stephens and Buck controlled the lion’s share of process service in D.C. eviction cases during the period that DCist reviewed, they’re not the only ones who filed contradictory affidavits.
And elsewhere, evidence of sewer service has brought thousands of cases back into question. Adrian Gottshall, a managing attorney at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, thinks this could explain why judges may be reticent to take formal action on evidence of process service fraud.
“If they rule a process server is fraudulent, what is their obligation to the hundreds or thousands of other defendants ‘served’ by that same process server?” she asks. “Do they reopen all of those cases? Who’s going to take responsibility once they open this Pandora’s box?”
In September 2019, an LLC purchased Harvard Hall for more than $46 million; Borger no longer manages the property.
Meanwhile, for more than a year after he was evicted, Joseph Gelletich remained homeless in the D.C area. “I still technically owe Borger money,” he said at the end of 2019, “so [other landlords] are not going to rent anything for me.” (After a year of interviews, DCist has not been able to reach Gelletich since the pandemic started.)
With just a few more days in February 2019, Gelletich says he probably could’ve gotten caught up on his rent with help from a friend and a housing non-profit. But that window closed along with Judge Satterfield’s verdict.
“Sometimes I’ve thought about packing up and leaving town,” Gelletich says, “but I don’t know if that would help with anything.” If he wants to keep renovating homes, as he’s done his entire life, he says that it makes sense for him to stay in Washington, where there’s a lot of work for people with his skills. But even his job search was sabotaged by the eviction. “The first thing [employers] do is check your credit,” Gelletich said last winter. “And obviously my credit is shit right now.”
The aftermath of the eviction wore him down. When he lost his apartment, some of his old friends went AWOL; he learned that he didn’t have the safety net he always thought he did. But one thing about his eviction especially nags at him: the process leading up to it.
“I admit that I was behind on rent and that was on me,” he says. “But I was given false information. Maybe I still would’ve gotten evicted if that hadn’t happened. I don’t know. But at least I wouldn’t feel like I was tricked and that nobody cared.”