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Rafael Romeu and Larissa Leony just wanted to build a deck. The couple purchased their home in the Dupont neighborhood in 2012 knowing it could stand some fixing up. There was no back door, for one thing, and the roof needed repairs.
Romeu, the CEO of DevTech Systems Inc., an international consulting firm, was willing to invest in sprucing up the place.
But what was supposed to be a relatively simple home construction project bled into a hellish and expensive six-year spat between neighbors.
On one side are Romeu and Leony along with their former neighbors Dave Liedman and Darren Binder. On the other are James Hill, the couple’s next door neighbor, and Edward Hanlon, a bankruptcy lawyer, advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, and, neighbors say, a notoriously litigious individual who spared no personal expense in opposing the decks both couples sought to build on their homes.
Contained in hundreds of pages of court documents spread out over three separate cases in D.C. Superior Court are accusations of lying, stalking, and harassment. There’s an alleged conspiracy to sabotage an election, details about a four-day courtroom battle over the opacity of a kitchen window, and, apparently, a laser pointer beamed across the street from one home, into another, and smack dab onto Hanlon’s forehead.
None of the main characters named in these lawsuits were willing to speak with LL on the record, and Hanlon ignored repeated attempts to contact him. In court documents, lawyers call out Hanlon’s tactic of “papering” a case with rambling motions and relentless appeals. And in court, D.C. Superior Court Judge Fern Flanagan Saddler said he and his attorney were being “dilatory” and “dragged this case out intentionally” (though another judge disagreed with her).
What follows is detailed in those three court cases, which first culminated in a judge ordering Hill and Hanlon to stay way from Leony, and then a $30,000 judgement against the two men. On May 15, D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony C. Epstein ordered Hanlon and Hill to pay attorneys’ fees under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law, which protects against frivolous lawsuits based on First Amendment rights.
But residential decks in relative proximity to his home aren’t Hanlon’s only targets. As an advisory neighborhood commissioner, he’s earned a reputation among his colleagues on the locally elected panel as well.
“Hanlon? Oh he’s crazy,” says Mike Silverstein, a fellow advisory neighborhood commissioner, who is not involved in the litigation. “He has been suing the pants off everybody for everything. He just sues everybody.”
In July of 2013, Romeu secured a permit from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to build a deck on the back of his home. The planned structure would be elevated off the ground with space to park a car underneath. It would also extend over a 3-foot easement in the back of Romeu’s property with enough space for a person to walk underneath. Hill and other neighbors use the easement to access the alley on the side of their homes.
Construction began later that September, and just a few days after, around 10 p.m., according to court records, Hill came knocking.
Leony answered the door, and he greeted her with a cease and desist letter. In court records she describes Hill as “forcefully intimidating” her at the door, refusing to leave, and says he demanded they stop construction. Later in courtroom testimony, she claimed he was intoxicated.
Hanlon and Hill appealed Romeu’s building permit to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), arguing in part that the deck would cause neighbors to store their trash cans in front of their homes, creating “an eyesore in this historic bloc, reducing the market value and market attractiveness.”
They also argued that, because of the deck’s height, a “6 foot 3 inch man wearing shoes will not be able to walk thru the easement without bowing his head,” and a “Sikh or religious Jew over 6 feet wearing a head covering will not be able to access the rear yards … without bowing his head,” according to Hanlon and Hill’s BZA appeal.
Hanlon’s home, which is on Swann Street NW, shares an alley with Romeu’s and Hill’s homes, and is about 200 feet away from the deck, according to Google Maps.
In a separate court filing from 2015, Hanlon also appears concerned that the deck will give the couple a vantage point into his yard.
“[The couple] would be able to look over to my driveway and see if I was home from work yet, because I drive to work each day,” he writes. “I drive a Hummer H2 which is tall enough for Ms. Leony and her husband to be able to see from their deck when it is parked in my driveway.”
The BZA initially revoked Romeu’s building permit, which was then reissued in July 2014. Construction began again, but the legal tussle was only getting started.
In September Leony filed for a civil protection order against Hanlon and Hill, laying out seven instances of alleged stalking and harassment. On Feb. 3, 2014, for example, around 9 p.m., she says she watched Hanlon and Hill climb her fence.
On April 6, 2014, Leony says in court documents that she was gardening in her front yard when Hanlon wandered by while walking his dogs. “[Hanlon] stopped in front of the property and proceeded to glare at her for approximately 5-10 minutes in a menacing manner,” according to court documents.
And on May 17, 2014, around 10:30 a.m., Leony says, Hanlon and Hill stood on Hill’s deck and peered into her kitchen through a rear window. She says the men continued to stare at her and take pictures of her property until Romeu came downstairs.
Hanlon and Hill denied any wrongdoing, and claim in court records that the photos were necessary for their case opposing construction of the couple’s deck.
The ensuing legal battle dragged on for another five years, including a nine-day trial held over a period of nearly 10 months, multiple attempts by Hanlon to have the judge thrown off the case, and an appeal to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Court records show that the case cost Romeu and Leony at least $140,000 in legal expenses. Hanlon retained a lawyer for some of the litigation but eventually represented himself.
Even after the judge granted the protection order requiring Hanlon to stay away from Leony, he kept fighting.Throughout Hanlon’s motions to dismiss the case, he presented several pieces of evidence trying to poke holes in Leony’s claims.
He writes in one motion, for example, that the mean temperature on April 6, the day he allegedly stared menacingly at her while walking his dogs, was 43.4 degrees, with a low of 30.9 degrees.
“It seems unlikely that [she] was ‘gardening’ in her north facing front yard on the afternoon of April 6, 2014, a day with a mean temperature not much above freezing and a minimum temperature below freezing,” he writes. “April 6, 2014 was just too cold to do ‘gardening.’”
In another motion Hanlon argues that Leony was lying when she claimed to be frightened by Hanlon and Hill peering into her kitchen window. Hanlon asserted, among other things, that the window’s tint prevented him from seeing inside the house, so he couldn’t have known Leony was standing in the kitchen. (That was the subject of the four-day hearing: whether Leony’s rear kitchen window was tinted to the point that it prevented the men from seeing inside the house.)
On the final day of trial for the civil protection order, Leony’s lawyers presented a photo of the window to dispute Hanlon’s assertion. Hanlon objected to the photo being introduced in the final hour. He also argued that it was intended to mislead the judge.
To help support his claim, Hanlon turned to his security camera footage. In court records, Hanlon writes that he has multiple wide-lens cameras with night vision positioned around his home that run 24/7.
“I have personally reviewed all the recordings made by this security system,” he writes. “I normally review the recordings each day for the previous day.”
In the footage, Hanlon spotted Romeu, Leony, and another man in a red shirt removing the window screen and then taking photos of the screenless window to show in court.
Judge J. Michael Ryan rejected Hanlon’s argument and upheld the civil protection order on Sept. 12, 2018—two years after it had expired.
But Hanlon wasn’t done.
While the protection order issue inched through the court system, Hanlon filed to run for a seat on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B in 2014. He ran again in 2016, and lost both races by large margins. (In 2018 Hanlon ran unopposed, and now sits on the commission.)
In August 2017, Hanlon and Hill sued Romeu and Leony, their neighbors Binder and Liedman (who have since moved out of D.C.), and the attorneys who represented Leony for the civil protection order.
Hanlon and Hill accuse the group of abusing the court system and defaming the two men as part of a conspiracy to torpedo Hanlon’s campaign for advisory neighborhood commissioner and intimidate Hill into dropping his opposition to the construction of the deck. They asked for a total of $5 million in damages.
Binder and Liedman, who campaigned against Hanlon, were named in the case because in 2012 Hanlon also tried (unsuccessfully) to stop them from building a rooftop deck on their Swann Street NW home with an appeal to the BZA. Ironically, Hanlon has a massive rooftop deck on his own house, which neighbors have described to LL as a “barn.”
To support their case, Hanlon and Hill filed a 41-page complaint (and later a 69-page amended complaint), writing that the group “came up with a malicious, ugly, reprehensible and perverted plan to attack and attempt to destroy Hill and Hanlon.”
Hanlon claims that the group cooked up the allegations in the civil protection order to produce campaign literature in the 2014 and ’16 elections. He says Binder and Liedman posted the order on neighborhood blogs, delivered copies door to door, taped a copy to their own front door, and stood outside the polling place on election day handing the order to voters.
And late one night in October 2014, Hanlon claims, Binder and Liedman “used laser equipment to repeatedly place a laser target on Hanlon’s head, Hanlon’s chest, between Hanlon’s eyes and on Hanlon’s forehead,” according to the lawsuit.
The laser also allegedly landed on Hanlon’s dogs, “causing the dogs to attack each other as the dogs tried to attack the laser target.”
In 2017, the group asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law. Judge Epstein agreed, ruling in part that another judge had already ruled that Hanlon and Hill stalked Leony and issued the protection order, so the allegations could not have been manufactured to sabotage Hanlon’s election.
Epstein also ordered Hanlon and Hill to pay a total of about $30,000 in attorneys’ fees for Romeu, Leony, Binder, and Liedman.
Hanlon’s appetite for legal tussles appears to date back to at least the 1970s and ’80s when he worked as a statistician and demographer in the Census Bureau, according to court records.
During that time, he was active in union organizing, and in a span of three-and-a-half years filed 55 unfair labor practice charges on his own behalf—four of which were decided in his favor. Hanlon also filed six lawsuits against the bureau and filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests according to a 1992 opinion from the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The bureau tried to fire him because he “lodged an excessive number of administrative and judicial employment actions against the Bureau,” records show.
Leading up to the 2016 election, Hanlon filed a challenge to his opponent’s voter registration. For Scott Davies, who is a military veteran, the tactic was particularly offensive.
“He challenged my voter registration, my right to vote,” Davies says. “He lost, but I had to go through all kinds of paperwork, and processes to prove that I live where I live. It was very disturbing, and his litigious nature, it was pretty awful.”
Fast forward to this year, and Hanlon has focused his energy on the proposed housing development on the lot behind the Masonic temple on 16th Street NW, a community battle with vocal detractors and supporters.
In a recent thread on a Dupont Circle neighborhood forum, Hanlon objects to the plans that include two levels of basement apartments and an underground parking garage.
“Imagine having to descend 25 steps below ground just to get to your apartment door,” Hanlon writes, “No sun. No light. Living like sightless moles.” He adds: “Any BZA decision is likely to be challenged in the Court of Appeals.” A gofundme campaign to fund the inevitable legal challenge has raised about $3,000 as of this week.
In the same message, Hanlon suggests that two of his fellow commissioners, Daniel Warwick, and Aaron Landry, are “in bed with the Masons and its Executive Director Admiral Bill Sizemore.” Hanlon has taken to filing somewhat regular FOIA requests for Warwick’s text messages and emails.
Randy Downs, another of Hanlon’s colleagues on the commission, says the dynamic is strained at times.
“If he were to work together with stakeholders, he might be able to get something accomplished. However, it’s been very apparent that the way he functions is one of just divisiveness and fear and misinformation,” Downs says. “It’s hard to navigate this situation when we’re always looking behind our back to see what Ed might be working on.”