As tenants step off the elevator on the second floor of the Lancaster County Courthouse, a community volunteer greets them and asks whether they’re here for a landlord-tenant case. If so, the individual is offered the services of an attorney from the Tenant Assistance Project (TAP) at no cost. After completing some paperwork, the tenant is introduced to a pro bono attorney who has volunteered for the morning.
Volunteer attorneys have access to a 100-page TAP Handbook prepared by Professor Ryan Sullivan, ’10, as well as Eviction Defense Packets prepared for each case by College of Law students. The attorney quickly gathers information from the tenant and assesses what can be done to help. On some mornings, volunteers outnumber the tenants who are able to appear for their scheduled hearing. It is a sad irony that tenants often must take a morning off of work and lose income to address a situation that arose because they didn’t have enough income. Tenants faced with the choice of missing work or missing their hearing often choose the latter because through past experiences they know they stand very little chance of success at the courthouse without legal representation, even when they have grounds to defend the claim.
TAP arose in part from a belief that the outcomes in this adversarial process are more likely to align with the law if legal assistance is readily available to tenants who come to court. The program was in the planning stages for about three years as part of the Civil Clinic’s Tenants Rights Project and was set to pilot in the spring of 2020. However, when COVID-19 hit, those plans were put on hold.
Then, in mid-April, while Nebraskans were being asked to stay in their homes and self-isolate, Sullivan “happened to check the eviction docket and learned that over 30 people were being summoned to the courthouse at the same time the next morning.” He decided to mask up and head to the courthouse and, following the procedures developed for the pilot, offer assistance to all who appeared.
“I ended up representing seven families and was able to keep all of them from being evicted that day,” Sullivan said. The experience confirmed that the program was not only viable, but was needed more than ever.
Soon thereafter, Nebraska Law alumna Mindy Rush Chipman, ’07, director of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, started volunteering as well. For several weeks, Sullivan and Rush Chipman showed up at the courthouse almost every day to assist tenants. Eventually, the NSBA Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) got involved to facilitate the program and help recruit and manage more volunteers. Since then, more than 40 attorneys have volunteered, in addition to dozens of College of Law students and community volunteers. Laurie Heer Dale, who serves as the director of VLP, said, “many volunteer attorneys are grateful for this meaningful and impactful pro bono opportunity that aligns with their interests.”
Sullivan continues to show up for landlord-tenant hearings at least once a week, and now brings senior-certified clinic students with him as well. The experience has been eye opening for those involved. While Sullivan knew that the laws in Nebraska offered fewer protections for tenants than those in other states, he “didn’t fully grasp the extent of the imbalance until spending the summer at the courthouse assisting tenants facing eviction.”
"[T]he only way to ensure a just and fair outcome in an adversarial process is for there to be legal representation on both sides. Without this, eviction proceedings can hardly be deemed adversarial, but instead an administrative process benefiting only one party.
Sullivan explained that when Nebraska adopted the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act in the 1970s, it removed or altered many of the tenant-favorable provisions. Nebraska’s version of the Act also includes provisions not found anywhere else in the country, such as a virtual prohibition against a tenant obtaining a continuance of the eviction trial, even for good cause. Eviction proceedings are fast-tracked, which means the trial to determine the tenant’s fate typically takes place 7-10 days from when they receive notice of it – not nearly enough time to find legal assistance or prepare a proper defense.
Sullivan noted there is a surprisingly high number of eviction matters where the tenant has a valid defense to assert and needs time to gather the evidence. However, even under those circumstances, the court is often prevented from continuing the matter unless the landlord agrees to it. This makes the job of a volunteer attorney extraordinarily difficult, as he or she may have to go to trial without any time to prepare and having only met the client a few minutes earlier. Alan Dugger, ’22, who worked with the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights this summer with the support of funding from the Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund (NPILF), assisted in preparing Eviction Defense Packets and routinely observed and took notes at court hearings. He described the process as “ruthlessly efficient.”
Despite these barriers, Sullivan said tenant outcomes have improved exponentially in Lancaster County since TAP launched. Prior to TAP, nearly every eviction hearing resulted in the tenant being evicted, and the writ of restitution was most often issued to the landlord that same day. With TAP attorneys available to help the tenant identify and present their defenses, not only are fewer tenants being evicted, but those who are ultimately displaced are often afforded much more time to find alternate housing. Sullivan noted that while eviction filings have skyrocketed in other jurisdictions, the numbers in Lancaster County have remained relatively stable. He speculates that the existence of the program has encouraged landlords to make more of an effort to work with a struggling tenant and look at alternative ways to resolve the matter, such as negotiating a payment plan or utilizing mediation.
For summer Civil Clinic students Lydia Mann, ’21, and Amy Sonnenfeld, ’21, TAP provided practical experience interviewing and counseling clients (and setting realistic expectations for them), drafting legal documents, negotiating with opposing counsel and appearing in court. But, there were other important lessons they took away from the experience. Mann observed that the facts disclosed by the tenant were often drastically different from what was presented in the complaint. Sonnenfeld noted there was frequently a lack of communication between the landlord and the tenant, and if they simply would have talked about the situation, they might have avoided the court system altogether. She added that seeing minority populations disproportionately impacted by evictions is “heart-wrenching.”
When asked whether there were any cases where access to an attorney had an especially significant impact for a tenant, Sullivan said, “There is not enough space to list them all.” However, he did cite examples of volunteer attorneys going to bat for tenants who were exhibiting symptoms of COVID and unable to come to court; tenants who withheld rent because the landlord refused to supply essential services, like heat or adequate plumbing; and tenants facing an eviction that was brought in contravention of the law, either procedurally or substantively. Sullivan added that without TAP or Legal Aid of Nebraska attorneys on hand to help these tenants plead their case and properly assert a defense, all of them would likely have been made homeless that day.
Since its inception, TAP has expanded to include outreach, education and rental assistance components as well. Sullivan is hopeful that the program will continue to grow, not just across Nebraska, but nationally, noting that he has been contacted by other organizations interested in implementing something similar in their jurisdiction.
“[T]he only way to ensure a just and fair outcome in an adversarial process is for there to be legal representation on both sides. Without this, eviction proceedings can hardly be deemed adversarial, but instead an administrative process benefiting only one party," said Sullivan.
As for the students who have been involved in TAP, the impact and gravity of the experience is evident. Sonnenfeld noted, “I am still volunteering at least once a week so that I can be connected to the community and help people who are being overlooked and mistreated, especially during such uncertain times.” Dugger, who continues to work with the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, said,
“[T]he project gave me invaluable experience in a variety of legal matters, and kept me grounded during a very uncertain summer. I’m truly honored to have been given the opportunity to help people in crisis, and I think by doing so, it’s helped me, too.”
Also in this issue:
- Honoring the life and career of Professor Martin Gardner
- Marshfield joins law faculty
- Mulugheta, ’10, builds career representing athletes by building trust
- Plus, a message from Dean Moberly, Faculty Updates, Around the College, Alumni Stories