Tenants’ Rights Clinic Helps Client Avoid Eviction

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Brenda West and Jason Hepperly

Evictions are complicated and confusing for tenants without lawyers. Such was the case of Brenda West and Jason Hepperly, a 3L Certified Legal Intern in Miami Law’s Tenants’ Rights Clinic who recently represented West in an eviction proceeding.

West, a single mother who works at a day care center, fell behind on her December rent because of a large utility bill. To rent her home, West uses a Section 8 voucher - a federal program that partially subsidizes the rent for participating low-income tenants. With a Section 8 voucher, West only pays 30% of her income as rent; the remaining rent is paid by the local housing authority.

Just before Christmas, her landlord sent West a three-day notice to pay rent or move out of her home for lack of payment. She managed to collect the money to pay her rent and sent the landlord a check for the full balance of the rent. But, rather than cash the check, the building's owner filed an eviction lawsuit against West for non-payment of rent in the County Court just three days after Christmas.

On her own, West filed an answer to the eviction with the court and deposited her rent into the court registry.

Under Florida law, when a landlord files an eviction against a tenant, the tenant must deposit all of the rent with the court that the owner claims is due. If the tenant does not do this, the landlord is entitled to a final judgment to evict the tenant.

“Florida’s rent deposit statute is designed to keep tenants from having their day in court,” said Clinic Director Jeffrey M. Hearne. “Tenants losing by default is the norm in evictions. Some landlords abuse this statute and use it improperly evict tenants.” West’s story is an unfortunate example.

Even though West followed the law and deposited her rent with the court, the landlord filed a motion with the court falsely claiming that there was no money in the court registry. The judge granted the landlord’s motion and entered a final judgment to evict West and her family.

The judgment meant the Sheriff would soon be at West’s home to remove her family, and she would also lose her rental assistance.  If West lost her Section 8 voucher, she would lose her affordable rent and it would be difficult for her to get it back. The waiting list for Miami-Dade’s Section 8 voucher program is currently closed. It last opened in 2008 and more than 60,000 people applied.  

Upon learning of the imminent eviction, West contacted the Tenants’ Rights Clinic, and the case was assigned to Hepperly. West filed an emergency hearing and the judge sent the parties to mediation. Hepperly represented West during the mediation, arguing that West had valid defenses to the eviction. West refused to move out or pay the landlord’s costs of the removal. The parties could not reach an agreement at mediation.

After Hepperly scheduled the landlord’s deposition, the landlord finally agreed to settle the eviction. Hepperly negotiated a settlement allowing West to continue living at the property without having to pay any court costs to the landlord. The judgment would be vacated and West would not lose her Section 8 voucher.

“You guys did the best job," West said. "Everything happened so fast; I would have been totally lost without your help. I felt like I was going to have to pack up and move, but instead, I was able to stay in my home. The Clinic did a great job keeping me updated, informed, and made a difficult process seem easy.”

“This was an interesting case because Ms. West was facing an eviction although she did everything the law required," Hepperly said. "If Ms. West had never reached out to the Clinic, she likely would have been evicted, and potentially homeless. The case is a prime example of how the outcome of a case could be different without the help of legal counsel. I am glad I was able to help Ms. West through this difficult process and help her stay in her home.”

The Tenants' Rights Clinic has assisted many clients to remain in subsidized housing. It is offered each Spring semester and works out of the Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. offices. The Clinic gives students the opportunity to represent low-income clients in landlord-tenant disputes and develop litigation and negotiation skills.