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Attorneys representing Steptoe and Johnson, the international law firm seeking relief from rampant burger fumes at Rogue States, called four witnesses to the stand in D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Mott‘s courtroom this morning, laying out the headaches, the nausea, and the sheer annoyance of trying to work amid the smell.
“When the odor was really bad, like overwhelmingly bad,” testified Steven Davidson, a Steptoe partner in the commercial litigation group, “it will drive you out of your office.”
Davidson said that some days are worse than others when you’re trying to get legal work done while situated so close to a burger joint and its juicy fumes. He complained of headaches and a general annoyance. The “accumulation is such,” Davidson testified, “that you’d want to get some fresh air.”
Rogue States is on trial in Mott’s courtroom after Steptoe & Johnson, located at 1330 Connecticut Ave. NW, sued its next door neighbor, Rogue States, over grill fumes that are vented from the Dupont burger joint and apparently enter the law firm via intake vents. Rogue owner Raynold Mendizabal, wearing a T-shirt embossed with his burger joint’s name and logo, witnessed the morning proceedings, along with his mother Carelia Betancourt and son, Liam Mendizabal Betancourt.
They listened as Steptoe employee Leny Carrascotestified that things have not changed that much at the law firm since Rogue States installed a scrubbing system to keep his vents clean of grease and build-up. “The smell has not abated,” Carrasco said. “The smoke is not as bad but the burger smell is still there.”
The April installation date is one of the flashpoints of the trial. Rogue’s attorney Gary Adler argued during his opening statement that his client has spent tens of thousands of dollars to appease Steptoe, not only installing the scrubber but also upgrading the maintenance package to the tune of $50,000-plus. The scrubber, Adler noted, “is doing exactly what it’s supposed to…We believe we have solved this problem at great expense.”
Steptoe partner Thomas M. Barba thought so, too. But, Barba testified, “the smells seemed to come back with greater frequency.”
Adler’s approach this morning was to point out the ham-fisted approach that Steptoe has taken to “solving” the problem. The firm, Adler noted, managed to get the D.C. Department of Health, the D.C. Fire Department, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and even the Environmental Protection Agency to pay visits to the small burger joint. Adler repeatedly pointed out a campaign within Steptoe to appoint people on each floor of the law firm to report smell complaints to a central person; Adler seemed to be pointing out a coordinated effort to plot against the burger joint, possibly to the point of forcing it out of business.
And what harm has Rogue States done?, Adler and fellow attorney Sarah C. Reimers, kept asking witnesses. The burger joint has done almost everything within its power, to solve this issue. Nothing but venting the exhaust to the roof will appease the plaintiffs, but Rogue’s landlord, TRT, which is also a defendant, has so far refused that option.
As a result of headaches and general annoyance, the law firm seems willing to kill a business that employs nearly 30 and has been a good neighbor in Dupont. Despite all this, “Here they are in the fight for their lives with heavyweight opponents,” Adler said.