Why Pro Bono Makes a Difference: A Real-Life Eviction Defense Case

Mark S. VanderBroek, Special to the Daily Report (Reprinted with permission)

Imagine this scenario: A young couple struggling to make ends meet falls behind in paying the water bill for the townhouse they are renting. They eventually make payments to bring the account current, but shortly after that the water is shut off. The water account is in the landlord’s name, and he refuses to do anything to get the water turned back on.

Two weeks later the couple is a week late in paying their rent. While they are away from the townhouse, the landlord changes the locks, locking the couple out with all of their furniture, clothing and belongings inside. The landlord proceeds to hold the couple’s property hostage for 30 days in an attempt to extort additional rent payments (despite a letter and phone call from Atlanta Legal Aid and Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation staff attorneys explaining that self-help eviction is illegal).

The landlord eventually files a dispossessory action, and at the first hearing the Magistrate Court judge orders the landlord to let the couple into the unit to retrieve their belongings. When the couple enters the townhouse, they discover that the landlord has ransacked the place and taken or damaged numerous items of their property.

This sounds like a bad dream, but for this young couple—my pro bono clients—it was a real-life nightmare in which they were deprived of essential utilities, a place to live, and all of their worldly possessions. When the landlord filed his dispossessory action, I was retained to represent the couple through AVLF’s Eviction Defense Program.

We filed counterclaims for wrongful eviction, trespass, conversion and breach of the lease agreement. We tried those claims, along with the landlord’s claim for rent, to the Magistrate Court. The landlord did himself no favors in his testimony, as he was caught in several obvious lies. The Magistrate Court granted judgment to my clients, and awarded $28,786.50—nearly $15,000 in actual damages, $10,000 in punitive damages and $4,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Sure that he was wronged, the landlord retained an attorney and filed a de novo appeal to the Fulton County Superior Court. We retried the case in a 1½-day bench trial before Judge Jackson Bedford. The landlord’s testimony again proved to be less than credible. The court again ruled in favor of my client on their counterclaims, and this time awarded a judgment of $43,061.81 – which again included actual and punitive damages but with a substantially larger fee award. Fees were awarded under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 for the landlord’s bad faith and stubborn litigiousness, and under a “prevailing party” clause in the lease.

We garnished $8,000 from the landlord’s bank account, which I was able to pay to my clients to reimburse them for some of their losses. You would think this would have been the end of the legal proceedings. However, the landlord filed an application for discretionary appeal challenging the award of attorney’s fees, arguing that we had not adequately pled the request for fees. The Court of Appeals granted the application, and the parties briefed the issue. On May 1, 2015, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

But that wasn’t the only good news. In lieu of a supersedeas bond, the Superior Court had required the landlord to pledge as security another rental property he owned, giving my clients a lien on that property. The same week we received the ruling from the Court of Appeals, I was contacted by a paralegal advising that the landlord was selling the pledged property and requesting that I provide the payoff amount for our judgment lien. I did, and now have those funds sitting in my firm’s trust account waiting to be disbursed if the Georgia Supreme Court denies the landlord’s pending petition for writ of certiorari.

Real people. With real life problems. In need of real remedies and solutions that only a lawyer can provide. That is why I do pro bono work. And it is among the most satisfying work I have done as a lawyer.

Whether it is the Eviction Defense Program or one of the many other great Atlanta area pro bono programs operated by organizations like AVLF, Atlanta Legal Aid, and Pro Bono Partnership (among others), pro bono work helps people and nonprofit entities in times of need, when they have no other place to turn to help them navigate the complexities of court proceedings or of compliance with laws and regulations.

Not all pro bono eviction defense cases involve slumlords or the type of outrageous conduct that my case did, and not all of them go to trial or end up with home run results. But all of these cases involve lawyers helping people in one of their greatest times of need – when they and their families are at risk of losing a place to live.

Having a lawyer involved almost always helps these clients obtain better results—whether that involves arranging for the landlord to makes needed apartment repairs, reducing rent that is owed, or merely arranging for a tenant to have an extra two weeks to find a new place for her family to live.

Get involved—in this or one of the many other quality local pro bono programs available. You won’t regret it, and you will make a difference in someone’s life!

Back to the young couple I represented. This experience caused them a tremendous amount of stress, which unfortunately contributed to the breakup of their relationship. But, with the help of monies recovered from the judgment, they have both gotten back on their feet. The young lady moved back to her hometown of Chicago, where she is working in the real estate industry. The young man lives in the Atlanta area and works in the clerk’s office of a local court.

They have been very grateful and appreciative of the legal help I was able to provide. And that is reward enough in itself.

Read the original article here.