WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife settled with a Washington, D.C., church that sued them for backing out of a lease on a $1.9 million Embassy Row home they claimed was “uninhabitable,” court documents show.
The terms of the settlement, reached in mid-June, remain confidential. “The church maintains that the house was in good condition,” a lawyer for the landlord, Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, told HuffPost.
“If you see it, it’s a beautiful house. It’s in a great neighborhood. We’re just pleased that the parties were able to come to an amicable resolution,” said attorney Valerie J. Edwards.
Stephen M. Ryan, a lawyer for Zinke and his wife, declined to comment on Wednesday. The Interior Department did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Zinke has a history of trying to discourage lawsuits. In June 2015, when he was a congressman from Montana, he introduced a bill to limit what he described as “predatory lawsuits funded by out-of-state special-interest groups” against timber projects on U.S. Forest Service land. The bill would have required a plaintiff to post cash bonds to cover the Forest Service’s defense costs, with the plaintiff getting the money back only if it proved victorious.
About a year after that vote, Zinke found himself the target of a civil lawsuit over the Embassy Row house ― and filed a countersuit himself.
In November 2014, the congressman-elect and his wife were seeking a home in Washington. Lolita Zinke met with a landlord’s representative to tour a seven-bedroom, four-bathroom house in the upscale Embassy Row neighborhood, according to court documents. The house, built in 1923, is owned by Saint Sophia Cathedral, which is located just two doors down. Real estate website Trulia estimates its value at nearly $2 million.
On Dec. 1, 2014, the Zinkes signed a one-year, $5,800-per-month lease. As a copy of the lease filed in the lawsuit shows, they were approved to move in on Jan. 16, 2015, a little over a week after Zinke was sworn in as Montana’s lone congressman.
The couple’s residency didn’t last long. In a complaint filed in October 2016 with the D.C. Superior Court, the church accused Zinke and his wife of breaching their contract in April 2015, just three months after moving in.
The church rejected the couple’s attempt to break the lease and demanded continued payment of rent, the complaint said, but the Zinkes “wrongfully abandoned” the property and ceased paying rent.
The church claimed the Zinkes owed more than $66,000 in unpaid rent and late fees.
The Zinkes responded with a countersuit in mid-November 2016, accusing the church of negligence and seeking damages for physical injuries and emotional distress.
The couple said they realized shortly after moving in that the property was “uninhabitable for a number of reasons,” including “uneven and severely bowed floors,” dangerous staircases, and a slippery front porch and rear entryway, according to court filings.
The Zinkes claimed that they notified the landlord of unsafe conditions starting in January 2015, the month they moved in, but that the church did little to make repairs ― with the exception of placing rubber mats on the front porch, which the Zinkes said did nothing to improve safety.
Ultimately, the Zinkes’ suit said, they decided the property was “too dangerous” for themselves and Lolita’s mother, who lived with the couple. They claimed they all fell “multiple” times, suffering physical injuries and emotional distress. They said the situation contributed to their decision to place Lolita’s mother in a nursing home, at a cost of $7,000 per month. The older woman died in October 2016.
According to their countersuit, the Zinkes returned the house keys and vacated the property in late April 2015, following an inspection of the house with the landlord’s representative. At that time, the unnamed representative “did not give any indication” that the landlord would expect rent beyond April, the Zinkes claimed. Such a demand did not come, they said, until June 2016.
In a subsequent filing in December 2016, the church denied nearly all of the Zinkes’ allegations, argued that it was not liable for any of the claimed injuries, and asked the court to dismiss the countersuit. The judge declined to do so, and both parties subsequently submitted a list of witnesses and expert opinion they intended to offer regarding the structural integrity of the home.
According to court filings, an expert brought in by the church concluded that the Zinkes’ claims were “unfounded” and that “the floors, threshold, and stairs do not pose any threats to safety.” An inspector hired by the Zinkes, however, found “multiple serious defects that pose substantial safety concerns,” including “grossly uneven floors and various severe structural defects in the home,” “twisted, buckled, unstable, and fire-damaged” floor joists, and a “defective” roof drainage system and basement stairs.
In June, both parties agreed to dismiss the case, with each bearing its own costs and fees. A mediation session had been scheduled for Aug. 10.
The lawsuit has received little attention. Zinke disclosed the dispute in a questionnaire leading up to his Jan. 17 confirmation hearing to become interior secretary. But Democrats didn’t press him about it — or about allegations that he had committed fraud related to travel expenses in the late 1990s while a member of Navy SEAL Team 6. (His senior officers chose not to pursue formal punishment, according to The Intercept.)
The Senate confirmed Zinke as the 52nd interior secretary by a 68-31 vote on March 1.