A team of CCLS General Practice Clinic students represented a tenant in his claim against the landlord for substantial housing code violations. The violations included: (1) water damage throughout the rooming house caused from a previously leaking roof; (2) mold growing on the walls and floor; (3) consistent flooding in the washer and dryer room and throughout the basement when it rained; (4) feces in the shower due to a back-up in the plumbing; (5) an overflowing toilet when the washing machine was used; (6) electrical problems; (7) inadequate lighting in the stairwells; (8) an inoperable stove; (9) a rodent and roach infestation; (10) an outside door that could not be closed properly; (11) loose floorboards that could cause a tripping hazard; (12) water damage from a leaking shower and sink; (13) cracked and falling down ceilings; and (14) inadequate floor coverings in the bathrooms.
As a defense, the landlord claimed that he was underwater with his mortgage and did not have the funds to repair the housing code violations. The judge allowed the case to be continued several times in order to facilitate the short sale of the property; as a result, the tenant continued to live in the poor housing conditions while the landlord attempted to sell the property. As soon as CCLS agreed to represent the tenant, the students successfully argued a rent reduction from $550 a month to $250 a month. Eventually, the landlord announced that a buyer was found.
The new buyer indicated that he wanted to buy out the tenant’s lease. The District of Columbia’s landlord-tenant statute makes it difficult to evict tenants who are current in their rent. However, D.C. regulations provide several ways that owners can force tenants out of a property, one of which includes the landlord’s intention to substantially rehabilitate the property in order to comply with the rental housing codes. In this case, the buyer indicated that he was going to evict the tenant under this statute unless the tenant agreed to a buyout price. Thus, began a negotiation process that occurred over a three-week period. Legal research indicated that the landlord’s eviction plans would take a minimum of 120 days to be carried out and could drag out even longer considering the paperwork and the difficulties in filing a substantial rehabilitation petition. After conferring with other legal service providers, the students learned that the average buyout price for a tenant living in a rooming house in the District of Columbia was around $10,000. Meanwhile, the tenant expressed a desire to stay in his current neighborhood with enough space to store his photographic equipment.
The team of students negotiated an agreement with the buyer where: (1) the buyer would provide a new rooming house in the tenant’s current neighborhood with a room larger than the tenant’s old room, (2) the new property would include a washer and dryer, and (3) the buyer would compensate the tenant with a $14,000 buyout. In return, the tenant would leave the premises by the end of the month. Not only did the tenant receive new and better accommodations, the tenant also received a cash settlement of $14,000, a full $4,000 above the typical buyout price. The additional money brought the tenant one step closer to meeting his goals by enabling him to buy equipment for his own part-time business as a wedding videographer, which he hopes will become a full-time business.
A team of CCLS Consumer Protection Project students had the opportunity this semester to help a client return to gainful employment. The student team represented the client in filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The client first came to CCLS desperate for help, as he needed his license renewed in order to perform contract work. The client had been unemployed for almost three years, and he had a judgment against him from an auto insurance company.
Additionally the client suffered from a head trauma, which left him with many medical bills, and loss of some short-term memory. Because he was unemployed, the client was not able to pay his numerous debts, a sum exceeding $50,000, and the city refused to renew his occupational license until he had proof that he was filing for bankruptcy or had paid the amount owed to the auto insurance company.
After a couple weeks of gathering information from the client, calling all the creditors to update their addresses in order to send notice, and entering all the data into the Best Case bankruptcy software, the student team completed the bankruptcy petition, and got the fee waived by the court. The client was able to bring proof of filing for bankruptcy to the city, and he has since that time, had his occupational license restored.
Although the majority of students enroll in a CCLS clinic for only one semester, most of the office’s cases do not neatly start and end in one semester. For the cases that continue into subsequent semesters, each team of students seeks to build on the work of their predecessors, while maintaining a consistency of vision of the client’s interests within a framework of the office’s professional obligations.
This semester, a team of CCLS Families and the Law Clinic students were able to witness firsthand the benefits of the CCLS collective team effort in one of the clinic’s child support cases. The client had come to CCLS in dire straits, seeking unpaid child support payments from the father for her young daughter. During the tenure of prior students on the case, the client had received a few hundred dollars as a result of her year-old support order, but the client was still owed thousands in arrears.
The prior student team had filed a Motion for Civil Contempt and they were able to uncover the fact that the respondent was gainfully employed during a period in which he was failing to make court-ordered child support payments. The judge in the case ordered a purge amount to be paid for those months in which the students proved the respondent was employed, and the deadline for the payment fell during the spring semester.
The respondent was barely able to make the purge amount payment on the date of his Stay Review Hearing, but he fulfilled the payment obligation and narrowly avoided incarceration. The new student team investigated further into the respondent’s employment status and uncovered his union membership and the fact that his union provided him with job assignments. With information subpoenaed from the respondent’s union, the students were able to attach wage garnishment to his income from his current employer. The client will now be receiving her child support payments on an automatic basis, helping her and her daughter’s financial situation significantly.
Often new clinic students express fear and anxiety about speaking in court, and yet something transformative happens as students begin to listen and learn more about their clients and the situation that led the client to seek legal help. Very shortly after joining CCLS, a team of students from the office’s Advocacy for the Elderly Clinic was given the task of quickly researching and responding to a petition for administrative costs (fee petition) in a Maryland probate matter.
The fee petition requested nearly $10,000 for services that CCLS maintained were either unrelated to the estate or extremely inflated. In fact, the petitioning attorney had recently been suspended by District Bar Counsel for inflating other fee petitions and lying under oath to aid her own defense. And just to make it more interesting, the son (who had recently been convicted of federal mail fraud and whose inheritance from the estate was subject to a $1 million dollar victim compensation lien), and his sister (who previously tried unsuccessfully to be appointed personal representative) were involved. The case facts involved a convoluted mix of family members who died intestate and the people trying to get their hands on the money.
While working with the team to research and prepare an
objection to the fee petition, and days before the statutory time to respond had run, the students received notice that the
court had granted the petition. Interrupted midstream, the
students had to quickly determine what could be done about challenging the court’s ruling and how, if at all, this new
development affected their objections. Eventually, the students filed a timely motion to amend or alter the court’s judgment and requested a hearing which the court granted. Their initial fears of speaking in court have now taken a back seat as they prepare for the court hearing.
Early in the spring semester, a client arrived at CCLS overwhelmed and frustrated by the difficulties she was having with the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. For the last two years, the D.C. tax office had periodically garnished her wages. The client received no notice of when her wages would be garnished, and received conflicting information about the amount she owed. In late 2012, D. C. government had informed the client that her D. C. tax liability was paid off and that she had no outstanding liability. Two months later, however, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue began to garnish her wages again and claimed she owed over three thousand dollars.
The client initially fell behind on her taxes because three close relatives, including her husband, were diagnosed with terminal cancer within a three-year period. All the client wanted was to know her actual liability so she could put that heartbreaking part of her life behind her.
The student team, after the initial client meeting, began to take steps to determine the client’s actual tax liability. They determined the amount of back taxes she had paid to the D.C. government through the garnishment of her wages and federal tax returns. Since the tax office indicated the money from her wages and federal tax returns was used towards the client’s balance owed from two identified fiscal years, the students determined that the client’s only tax liability was from fiscal year 2000. Under the D.C. Code, the students then determined that the applicable statute of limitations had passed and that the D. C. government could no longer garnish the client’s wages. The students informed the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue of this error, and they wrote off her remaining three thousand dollar balance.
The client was delighted with this result. A few weeks later, the client returned to the office to file her federal and local returns through the CCLS-operated VITA site. While doing her returns, one of the client’s former student attorneys was able to inform the client of the Schedule C-EZ deductions that would be available to her since she was claiming income earned as a sole-proprietor. This was a deduction that the client had not been aware of and it greatly reduced the taxes she owed to the IRS.