Landlord jailed for contempt of court in lawsuit over alleged failure to maintain safe living conditions
This article was first published by DCist.
A landlord currently embroiled in litigation over allegations that he neglected to keep his properties up to code has been arrested for contempt of court.
Mehrdad Valibeigi failed to make court-ordered payments for a third party to make repairs, a judge found on Monday. He was taken into custody and will remain there until a hearing on Friday, according to court records and the office of the attorney general.
The arrest comes amid D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s ongoing crackdown on landlords that he says keep tenants living in unacceptable conditions. While his office has filed more than 10 cases asking the court to step in to address chronic health and safety issues at D.C. rental properties, this is the first time a landlord has gone to jail in one of Racine’s suits.
Racine sued Valibeigi and his company, The Bennington Corporation, in October 2018 for allegedly failing to maintain safe living conditions at three properties in Ward 7. The buildings on Benning Road and C Street SE contained a total of 35 units, almost all of them being rented out by low-income residents.
In his initial complaint, Racine named multiple tenants who alleged that nails fell out of their ceilings and that mice, bedbugs, and roaches infested the apartments. One tenant said that she went for two months without water in her apartment, and the suit also claimed that mold growth and fire hazards were persistent issues at the properties.
Valibeigi has denied that he is a negligent landlord, telling DCist in October 2018 that there were no mold problems in his buildings and blaming persistent vermin infestations on his tenants. “There are two things to this,” he said at the time. “One is whether these landlords are the victim of certain tenants who know how to maneuver the legal system to avoid rent, or we are talking about the neglect by the D.C. government.”
The office of the attorney general had petitioned the court to place Valibeigi’s properties into receivership, meaning they would be appointed to the care of a neutral third-party who would be charged with making repairs. After more than a year of back-and-forth litigation, the court did so in November of 2019.
As part of the agreement, Valibeigi was required to place $25,000 into an account for the receiver to use to make repairs. According to court filings, Valibeigi provided only $5,000 and had allegedly been seen at the properties making repairs himself, against the orders of the court.
The court also determined that Valibeigi failed to prove that he had a present inability to pay the $25,000, per the court order. The landlord was given until Monday, Feb. 24 to make the remaining payment, or else he faced incarceration at the D.C. Jail.
Valibeigi was arrested Monday and remained in custody until another hearing was held Friday, Feb. 28. At that point, the judge determined Valibeigi had adequately proved he is unable to make the payments and was released from contempt, according to court records. The lawsuit over failing to maintain safe living conditions is ongoing, with another hearing scheduled for March 5.
The landlord is also involved in other suits with the OAG, including for his management of the Westwood Apartments in Ivy City. A lawyer for Valibeigi did not respond to a request for comment.