Legal Services Alabama Files Amicus Brief in Support of Tenants’ Rights
On December 18, 2017, Legal Services Alabama along with Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, filed an amicus brief in support of tenants' rights with the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. The tenant in this case was represented by attorneys and students from the Civil Legal Clinic at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tuscaloosa Staff Attorney Joseph Abrams, a member of LSA’s High Impact Litigation team, and Director of Advocacy Michael Forton, authored the brief for LSA.
In this case, Morrow v. Pake, a low-income tenant chose to leave her home because it was unlivable and had been cited by the city for numerous code violations. Her landlord had refused to make repairs over an extended period. Her landlord filed an eviction while she was moving, which he later dismissed once she finally finished moving. The underlying issue on appeal was whether Alabama’s Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act required tenants to assert their rights during an eviction or lose those claims for any subsequent litigation. With an estimated 90 percent of tenants across the country unable to afford legal representation in evictions, LSA’s brief discussed the real-world, practical implications that “mandatory counterclaims” would have on pro se, low-income tenants. In Alabama, eviction actions are some of the most expedited proceedings allowed by law. In as few as 28 days, Alabama courts can remove tenants (and their families) from their homes. Evictions in Alabama are so short, due largely to the reduction of all major procedural time requirements for tenants to take action.
Under the Act, tenants have shorter periods to file answers, to file post-judgment motions, to file appeals, etc., than they would normally have during most other civil proceedings. LSA argued that it was legally inappropriate to require routinely unrepresented tenants that lack the legal know-how, time, and money to assert claims under these circumstances. Moreover, when factoring in the uncertainty, worry, and fear that always accompany the loss of housing, tenants are uniquely ill-positioned to assert claims within the original eviction action. And as a result, the Court’s complete barring of those claims from future litigation would be extremely harmful and prejudicial to tenants statewide.
In support for their contentions, LSA cited the plain language of the Landlord and Tenant Act itself. Under the Act, the Legislature carefully used the term “may” when discussing a tenant’s decision to file a counterclaim. LSA argued that by using “may” instead of terms like “must” or “shall,” it was clear the Legislature intended tenants to have the choice to file counterclaims during eviction actions, or the option to file those claims at a later time.
Phillip Ensler, who authored the brief for Alabama Appleseed, said: “The case will establish important rights for tenants in the State of Alabama. Appleseed is dedicated to ensuring all Alabamians receive equal access to justice. We were honored to work with LSA and UA on this important issue.”