10 Jan 2022
Professor Ryan Sullivan has been named the 2022 Access to Justice Award recipient by the Association of American Law Schools. The award, presented by the Section on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities, honors those who manage pro bono programs and who have removed barriers to justice and/or improved legal services to individuals unable to pay for such services.
Sullivan is receiving this Access to Justice Award for his dedication to pro bono and public interest work, and specifically for this timely and transformational work with the Tenant Assistance Project.
Sullivan was set to pilot a tenants’ rights project with Nebraska Law students in spring 2020, and although the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold, Sullivan still saw an immediate need in the community.
“It was a time when we were asked to social distance and stay home. Nearly all court proceedings had been put on pause, but evictions were still happening,” Sullivan said. “I checked the eviction docket one morning and decided to go to the courthouse and represent any tenant who appeared for their eviction hearing.”
The Tenant Assistance Project officially launched in April 2020, as the state’s first moratorium on eviction was set to expire.
Prior to the Tenant Assistance Project, tenants would arrive at court unrepresented and often agree to an immediate eviction because they couldn’t navigate the legal process themselves. Now, when tenants arrive for their hearing, they are greeted by a team of volunteers ready to help, and in nearly 98% of the cases, the tenant is able to avoid immediate eviction.
“More than half of the Tenant Assistance Project volunteers in Lancaster County are law students,” said Sullivan. “They are creating eviction defense packets for cases, notifying tenants of hearings and resources available and of course, representing tenants during hearings. They are making a difference in our community and in the lives of families facing eviction.”
Since its inception, the program has helped keep more than 700 families in their homes, a number that continues to grow. The program also connects Lancaster County tenants to resources available to them, including over $9 million in federal aid for rental assistance.
“Ryan’s leadership in developing the Tenant Assistance Project has been incredible,” said dean Richard Moberly. “Every day he represents the College and our mission, and this project specifically gives our students opportunities to become leaders themselves, representing clients and advancing justice in the community.”
In addition to the day-to-day work of representing tenants, Sullivan also works with senators in the Nebraska Legislature to address this access to justice issue systemically by advancing legislation that would ensure tenants receive legal representation in eviction hearings.
The Association of American Law Schools 2022 Access to Justice Award is not the first time Sullivan and the Tenant Assistance Project have been recognized for their important work. The Nebraska State Bar Association recognizes Tenant Assistance Project Outstanding Student Advocates each semester, the Clinical Legal Education Association recognized a group of students for their work with the Tenant Assistance Project in 2021, Legal Aid of Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed both honored the Tenant Assistance Project during their 2021 awards programs, and Sullivan was presented with the 2021 Robert M. Spire Pro Bono Award by the Nebraska State Bar Association.