In this economy, the fear of being down and out weighs heavily on those around us but for some that fear is a reality.
A local man became involved in a City of Jacksonville program that offered to provide him with a rent-free apartment while his Social Security benefits were being determined. This important and beneficial emergency housing service turned ugly when a mix-up between the program, the man and the landlord resulted in a possible eviction.
The man became a client of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid through a referral from the Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership. Pro bono attorney Phillip Hughes stepped in to help.
Hughes provided the legal resources needed to help the man increase his ability to find affordable housing. Being only somewhat familiar with landlord/tenant law, Hughes turned to a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, Rob Hornstein, for guidance. Hughes’ work and Hornstein’s counsel produced a positive outcome.
The City program had offered to pay rent for the man while his Social Security benefits were being evaluated. If he was awarded benefits, the program would be reimbursed directly from those payments; if he was not approved, he would owe nothing toward the rent paid directly to the landlord selected and contracted by the program on his behalf.
During his stay and before a determination was made about his benefits, the program put the landlord on notice that this apartment was no longer part of the emergency housing program and that rent payments would stop. However, the housing program failed to inform the tenant of this change. Eventually the landlord brought an action and received a default judgment for eviction against the unknowing tenant.
“The client’s No. 1 goal was to have the eviction removed from his name so in the future, when applying for housing or a new job, he would not have to list the eviction on his application,” said Hughes. “His second goal was to not have the legal responsibility for the $250 court cost associated with the default judgment.”
Hughes was able to show that his client never had a contractual obligation to the landlord, thus the eviction should be nullified. By utilizing informal mediation and bringing both parties together to agree on the final result, Hughes was able to provide his client with relief from both the eviction and the $250 court cost.
When looking back on the case, Hughes reflects that the end result “gave his client the satisfaction that someone was listening to him,” which not only provided the client with peace, but also made Hughes proud to be involved in such pro bono work. By not having an eviction on his record, he was able to negotiate affordable and stable housing.
“I learned about City programs that can help people in need,” said Hughes. “I learned that any dispute can be mediated, and I felt great about helping someone who knew they had a valid argument about what had happened to them, but had no idea about how to solve it.”
Every pro bono case can be a learning experience and a fulfilling one. Hughes and his most recent pro bono victory exemplify the need to help those struggling in these hard economic times. Attorneys have the unique skills, training and resources to assist low-income people who otherwise would be unrepresented.
Attorneys interested in pro bono opportunities throughout the Fourth Judicial Circuit are encouraged to contact Kathy Para, chairperson, The JBA Pro Bono Committee, [email protected], 356-8371, ext. 363.