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Andrew Thompson Co-Authors Article Featured in the Atlanta Bar Association's Atlanta Lawyer Magazine

Article highlights the work of the Housing Court Assistance Center

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Andrew Thompson, along with Cole Thaler of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, wrote an article linked HERE (on page 14) that highlights the work of the Housing Court Assistance Center. Full text of the article is also below:

Mary Christopher could see the paper fluttering on her apartment door from half a block away. Returning home after a long waitressing shift, she came face-to-face with the harsh reality that faces about 40,000 Fulton County residents every year: a dispossessory summons filed by her landlord.

Mary did not know much about Georgia evictions. Although she sometimes heard through the grapevine that one neighbor or another got evicted, she had never gone through it herself. She read the dispossessory summons carefully. It said that she was “commanded and required personally or by attorney” to go to a certain room at the courthouse “on or before the seventh day from the date of service of the within affidavit and summons…to answer the affidavit in writing or orally in person.”

Mary did not understand everything that the dispossessory summons said, but she recognized that she was supposed to go to the courthouse to respond. She had been through many difficulties with her apartment, but she wasn’t sure how much to tell the court. Should she write it all down? Maybe, Mary thought, she should say as little as possible until her hearing date. She wished she could get some legal advice, but she couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. A few days later she would make her way to the courthouse by herself and try her best to figure it out. To any Atlanta landlord-tenant lawyer, the pitfalls facing Mary are obvious. She could fail to raise a particular defense and waive it, or omit a compulsory counterclaim. Her answer could include irrelevant statements or harmful admissions. Worst of all, she could fail to raise any meritorious defense in her answer, even if she had one. In Fulton County dispossessory court, this mistake would land her on the 3:00 p.m. Judgment on the Pleadings calendar, where judgments are automatically granted to landlords, and tenants are not given the benefit of mediations or hearings.

It is because the stakes of filing an inadequate answer are so high that Fulton County houses the Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC). The roots of the HCAC are in a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship held by Attorney Amy Mei Willis and hosted by the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless. From 2014 until the summer of 2016, Willis ran the Answer Clinic, a part-time service based in the Magistrate Court Clerk’s office. Willis and a cadre of attorney volunteers would meet with tenants and assist them with filing their dispossessory answers, identifying and articulating defenses and counterclaims when the facts supported them.

Sometimes Answer Clinic volunteers would determine that the tenants had no viable defenses or counterclaims. In those cases, they would provide information about the eviction process and offer referrals to sources of housing assistance. In other cases, though, they were able to help tenants understand their defenses and raise them on paper, thus avoiding the Judgment on the Pleadings calendar and ensuring a chance to be heard. For example, a tenant might truly be a month behind in rent, but the attorney assisting her might learn that she spent the rent money on a hotel because the apartment conditions were so poor that it was not safe to stay there. Answer Clinic attorneys would advise that tenant to raise a counterclaim for failure to repair.

In its first year, the Answer Clinic served over 600 tenants and family members. About half of the assisted tenants went on to enter consent agreements with their landlords in mediation, or obtained dismissals or judgments in their favor. That year alone, the Answer Clinic helped tenants avoid more than $300,000 in money judgments sought by their landlords–simply by advising them on their strongest defenses and counterclaims.

In 2016, Willis’s Equal Justice Works fellowship concluded. For several months, the Answer Clinic was on hiatus. That’s when several Atlanta entities came together to resurrect the clinic with a new name and model. The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless, Lawyers for Equal Justice, and Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice worked together to create the Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC).HCAC is generously supported by Eversheds Sutherland and RentPath Gives Back, a charitable foundation established by Rent-Path to end homelessness. With that funding, a part-time attorney was hired to supervise and coordinate HCAC on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Under the supervision of the part-time staff attorney, tenants receive limited legal assistance from volunteer lawyers and law student interns.

From the moment tenants sign in to the moment they file their answer, HCAC volunteers aim to treat each tenant with dignity. They greet tenants with a hand-shake and provide a safe space for tenants to tell their story. Some lost their job and are struggling to catch up with their bills. Others live in unimaginable living conditions and decided to withhold rent to get their landlord’s attention. Regardless of the circumstance, HCAC volunteers lend an ear, help tenants file their answers, and provide limited assistance with case preparation.

Tenants with viable defenses or counterclaims often arrive at the HCAC with a sense that something unfair is happening, but without the legal knowledge to identify it as a defense or counterclaim. For example, they might describe how they have been trying to reach their landlord for months about a bug infestation but have not received a response until the rent was late. Or they wonder why they were served with an eviction notice when they made a payment arrangement with the manager at the rental office. Fifteen minutes with a volunteer attorney can help tenants recognize that their concerns are, in fact, a viable defense or counterclaim that should be raised in their answer.

In October 2017, just after the HCAC re-opened, an elderly couple arrived looking for assistance with a dispossessory claim filed against them. The couple lost their home in a flood, then lost the last of their surviving possessions when their storage facility became infested with bedbugs. They were living in a boarding house until they landed on their feet, and they just couldn’t take another setback. They were under the impression that they had to leave the day their dispossessory answer was due, and came to the HCAC prepared for the worst.

After a brief meeting with an HCAC volunteer, the couple learned that they had options– and had enough time to prepare should the worst-case scenario arise. They filed an answer and a hearing was scheduled fifteen days later. On the day of their hearing, they were able to enter into a Consent Agreement that kept them in their rental home. They also avoided a money judgment that would have impacted their credit and kept them from renting or purchasing a permanent home.

Meeting with a volunteer attorney can prevent landlords engaging in illegal activity from escaping with impunity. In November 2017, a tenant came to the HCAC looking for help after her landlord initiated eviction proceedings against her. The tenant was confused because she gave her landlord her checking account number for automatic rent withdrawal, and money left her account, but the landlord still filed a dispossessory claim. A discussion with an HCAC intern and attorney, followed by a thorough review of bank statements the tenant brought with her, showed that the landlord had actually stolen money well in excess of the rent owed. HCAC volunteers assisted her with filing a counterclaim for the amount stolen and, several weeks later, the tenant was awarded a $7,500.00 judgment.

These families were not the only ones to benefit from the HCAC’s rebirth. In the first three months after the HCAC reopened, it helped 119 individuals and their families navigate the dispossessory process. Of those individuals, approximately 43 percent were able to meet with their landlords and reach a mutually beneficial consent agreement, and 31 percent won in court or had the landlord voluntarily dismiss the case. In those three months, the HCAC helped those 119 families avoid $118,405.65 in money judgments.

Numbers aside, the HCAC hopes to inspire law students to engage in pro bono and public interest legal work once they become attorneys, and to help new attorneys discover the benefits of pro bono work. Student interns gain valuable client interviewing skills, learn property and landlord-tenant law, and see civil procedure in action by assisting the HCAC with post-visit case tracking and data collection. Volunteer attorneys get another opportunity to serve their community, sharpen their client interview skills, and learn more about the law.

Tenants like Mary Christopher should not risk losing their homes simply because the dispossessory process is confusing and intimidating. The HCAC and its attorney and law student volunteers help to ensure that guidance is available when it is needed most.

Andrew Thompson