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Law Groups Celebrate Expanded Access to Justice for Tenants in Alabama

Contact:

William M. Logan, Associate Attorney

Winston & Strawn, LLP

713-651-2766

 

Yuri R. Linetsky, Director of Clinical Programs and the Civil Law Clinic

School of Law, The University of Alabama

205-348-1736

 

Michael Forton, Director of Advocacy         

Legal Services Alabama                                 

(256) 536-9645, ext. 3319     

 

Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

334-263-0086             

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 30, 2018

Law Groups Celebrate Expanded Access to Justice for Tenants in Alabama

Montgomery, AL –

 

Low-income tenants throughout Alabama will enjoy greater access to justice due to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal’s recent ruling in Morrow v. Pake.

In a decision that will affect thousands of tenants, the court reversed the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, ruling that tenants who are evicted have a right under state law to later file a lawsuit related to a landlord’s illegal actions that occurred while they were a resident of the property. That ruling is now controlling precedent for trial courts statewide.

Bridgette Morrow, the tenant in the case, repeatedly reported unsafe living conditions in the house she rented. Her landlord not only failed to make the requested repairs, but evicted her. The Civil Law Clinic at The University of Alabama School of Law recognized the injustice faced by Ms. Morrow, and represented her in the trial courts for free to ensure she received quality legal representation.

On appeal, two attorneys from the Houston office of international law firm Winston & Strawn LLP joined Ms. Morrow’s legal team pro bono. Partner Paula Hinton and associate William Logan—both UA Law alumni—wanted to help protect the rights of individuals like Ms. Morrow throughout Alabama.

The main question in the case was whether a tenant facing eviction is legally required to raise any claims he or she has against the landlord during the eviction proceedings, or if they can bring those claims at a later date. During eviction proceedings, most tenants are likely distracted by the prospect of imminent homelessness.

Preservation of the right to bring a claim at a later date is essential to ensuring tenants have access to justice when a landlord subjects them to substandard living conditions and fails to provide basic services as prescribed in the terms of the lease.

The court unequivocally agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument that under the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA), a tenant’s right to challenge their landlord’s illegal actions does not expire with eviction.

“I worked on this case as an intern in the Civil Law Clinic,” said Mr. Logan. “After I graduated, it bothered me that tenants like Ms. Morrow still had no real access to the courts. When I joined Winston & Strawn, the firm and Paula were excited to take on Ms. Morrow’s appeal, so I knew we had a strong chance to change things for the better.”

Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama (LSA), filed an amici curiae brief in support of Ms. Morrow and individuals like her in the state.

“Legal Services Alabama was proud to partner with all of the lawyers involved in this appeal. Since the Alabama Landlord and Tenant Act was passed in 2007, there have been on-going attempts to roll back or diminish the rights it provides to tenants,” said, Michael Forton, Director of Advocacy at LSA. “The Court of Appeal’s decision in this case reinforces the fact that every Alabamian deserves a decent place to live and there should be consequences when a landlord violates the law."

“Alabama Appleseed is committed to ensuring equal access to justice for all Alabamians. This decision is a step in the right direction by protecting the rights of tenants and leveling the playing field between tenants and landlords,” said Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel at Appleseed.

The court underscored the point made by Ms. Morrow’s legal team and amici, that if the Alabama Legislature wanted to require such claims, they would have done so in the URLTA.

The court also agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument and analysis that the purpose of an eviction proceeding is to focus on the issue of possession of the property, and not necessarily address the conditions and other wrongs the tenant encountered while living there.

As a result of upholding this right, tenants will have more time to find a lawyer and challenge the illegal acts of their landlord, instead of being forced to do so under the stressful and time-constrained conditions of an eviction proceeding.

“This is a terrific victory for Alabama tenants,” said Ms. Hinton. “This unfair practice should never have become the common way the state’s courts treated tenants.”

“The team effort in securing this precedent-setting decision shows the value of clinical legal education in not only providing free quality legal services to low income clients, but also instilling the desire to continue providing pro bono representation to deserving clients after law school,” said Yuri Linetsky, Director of Clinical Programs and the Civil Law Clinic at UA Law.

While Ms. Morrow’s team is pleased with the court’s ruling, there remains much work to be done to create a level playing field in our courtrooms. A vast majority of tenants enter the courtroom without legal representation, while the vast majority of landlords have ready access to quality counsel. As a result, the deck is stacked against low-income tenants from the start.

Only with expanded access to counsel will tenants and other low-income Alabamians be more likely to receive access to fair justice in the courts.

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Winston & Strawn LLP is an international law firm with 16 offices located throughout North America, Asia, and Europe. More information about the firm is available at www.winston.com.

The University of Alabama School of Law is located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. For more information, please visit https://www.law.ua.edu.

Legal Services Alabama is a 501(c)3 nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to the poor in every county in Alabama. For more information, visit legalservicesalabama.org.


Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to work to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City. For more information, visit www.alabamaappleseed.org.

  • LSC

    LSA is a grantee of the Legal Services Corporation.