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Sirage Mustafa used to live in a rooming house in northwest Washington where drug dealers and hookers filled the sink in the common bathroom with needles and condoms, while raw sewage from the toilet overflowed into the kitchen, according to a D.C. Court of Appeals opinion released last week. Mustafa moved out in 2002, but landlord Diane Oliver kept his $400 security deposit and his few remaining possessions, resulting in Mustafa becoming homeless for three months, the opinion stated. What started as a small-claims case seeking $943 ultimately turned into a jury award of almost $112,000 for Mustafa and a judge’s award of more than $211,000 in attorney fees. Latham & Watkins, which took the pro bono case at the request of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, planned on donating the attorney fees to charity, but there won’t be much to collect in the suit, says Latham partner Scott Ballenger. “Our information is Diane Oliver has fled the country and is now living in Trinidad,” he says. Banks have foreclosed on the rooming house, another D.C. rental property, and Oliver’s former home in Maryland, but Ballenger still hopes to recover some of the awarded damages for Mustafa. Former Latham associate Stephen Spiegelhalter tried the case before a jury on the issue of damages after a default judgment was entered against Oliver for not responding to the suit. Oliver’s attorney, Ferris Bond, argued on appeal that punitive damages shouldn’t have been allowed and that Oliver acted in good faith during the litigation. Neither Oliver nor Bond could be reached for comment late last week. (For the record, Oliver is not the Diane Oliver who is an ombudsman for the D.C. Housing Authority.) Oliver, a retired psychologist with the D.C. schools, was sued more than 20 times by other tenants, but they were too poor to pursue their cases, says Spiegelhalter, who is now an assistant U.S. attorney in the District. “At Latham, you obviously deal with a lot of corporate clients,” he says. “To have an individual who lost everything he owned and lost the little bit of money that would have gotten him into another apartment, this was a big deal for him, so it was a big deal for us.”

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