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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Nov. 5, 202005:00 AM EST

Volunteer attorney helps a family facing dangerous conditions

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Latoya Williams Shelton says she finds gratitude in helping others.

By Missy Davenport, JBA Pro Bono Committee chair

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Self Help Project assists families living in rental properties owned by private landlords who are facing an eviction or are dealing with unsafe and poor conditions.

The project is made possible for a second year through a Pro Bono Innovation Grant from The Florida Bar Foundation and the support and participation of many volunteer attorneys.

Eviction Defense Self Help Project pro bono attorney Latoya Williams Shelton describes a recent case: 

What were the basic facts of your case?

The client was having conditions issues at the town house she lived in with her mother and her children. There were leaks and holes in the roof. The leak was running into one of the minor children’s bedrooms and she was in fear of health issues. She explained that she’d requested assistance several times and was unable to contact the landlord and would get the runaround from the office manager. 

What were you able to accomplish for your client?

I assisted her with a conditions letter to serve on her landlord and provided information as it relates to her rights as a tenant. 

Why was the outcome important to your client?

It was important to my client to have a safe place for her family and be heard. She was able to receive two months of free rent and moved to an upgraded unit. 

What did you gain from the experience?  

I have always found gratitude in helping others. There is a different feeling when the person has not paid anything and you are literally assisting them because you want to.

The sad truth is most people do not have funds to hire an attorney and if they are not represented or assisted, they are looked over and mistreated.

It meant the entire world when this client emailed and called to explain the good news that she received and how she was finally getting the changes that she needed as it relates to her living arrangements. 

What is the name of your firm?  In what areas do you practice?

Latoya Williams Shelton P.A. – family, personal injury, criminal defense and guardianship.   

What advice do you have for attorneys considering pro bono involvement?

Remember your oath. I know most attorneys consider the time requirement and their need to make money and I thoroughly understand. However, some opportunities may only require a few hours or a lunch break. Contact your local legal aid to inquire about pro bono opportunities. 

The Eviction Defense Self Help Project is a resource available 1-4 p.m. every Wednesday at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. 

To protect everyone’s safety during COVID, appointments are conducted by telephone or virtual platform.

Tenants of private landlords who receive an eviction summons and who may have defenses meet with an attorney to complete their answer using Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s online Pro Se Eviction Defense Answer (FloridaEvictionHelp.org).

Tenants are directed where and how to file their answers that day. Tenants with conditions issues also may meet with a volunteer attorney to receive assistance.

The Eviction Defense Self Help Project needs a few good law firms and willing pro bono attorneys.

The goal is to have four law firms commit to staffing the project once a month. The firm will need no more than three attorneys one Wednesday afternoon each month to help tenants in private rental properties create answers to their eviction summons or rental conditions letters. 

Attorneys are encouraged to consider representing clients in either a full or limited capacity, especially those that may be harder hit by eviction such as people with disabilities, single parents and senior citizens.

Through participation in the project, new associates get excellent client interviewing, representation and litigation experience with short-term matters. 

The participating firm attorneys will build a core of expertise and can collaborate on cases.

Training webinars with CLE credit will be provided. In addition, Suzanne Garrow, project coordinator, is available to assist as needed and guide the process.

This project has been piloted for the past two years by Smith Gambrell & Russell, which will continue to participate on the second Wednesday each month.

Landlord/tenant cases move quickly, making it difficult to provide meaningful assistance to tenants facing eviction.  Because the Eviction Defense Self Help Clinic is offered weekly, qualifying tenants will have greater opportunity to file effective answers and defend against wrongful evictions.  

Law firms and pro bono attorneys may contact Missy Davenport, chair of the JBA Pro Bono Committee, for more information about the Eviction Defense Self Help Project and other opportunities for volunteer involvement int the 4th Judicial Circuit at [email protected].

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