By Nino Monea ’17
Every Thursday, the decadent Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston turns ugly. That’s the day of the week for the summary process docket, a euphemism for eviction cases. The building is named after the man who co-authored the Fair Housing Act, but there’s precious little about the modern housing court that could be described as fair. Each week, the tenants facing eviction, typically one hundred or more, are crowded into an undersized courtroom at nine in the morning as the clerk starts taking the roll call. Should you miss your name—perhaps you’re late because you had trouble finding childcare or someone to cover your shift at work—you’ll automatically lose, no questions asked. Ninety percent of tenants do not have a lawyer; nearly ninety percent of landlords do. The vast majority of tenants will end the day by signing one-sided settlements that absolve the landlord of any wrongdoing, waive all rights to appeal, and demand the tenant vacate within a matter of months, weeks, or even days. Those who are evicted suffer from long stretches of homelessness, decreased educational outcomes, and elevated rates of depression and suicide.
These problems are particularly acute for survivors of domestic violence. Over one-third of women in the United States have experienced domestic violence. Its effects are grave and far-reaching. Domestic violence is the leading cause of female homicides, and children who witness it experience similar trauma to those subjected to physical abuse. Cruelly, those who experience domestic violence are often victimized twice: once by the abuser, and again by the legal system. For it is not uncommon for the victim to be evicted because they are blamed for a “disturbance” on the property or even because they simply called the police.
In my final semester of law school, I had the privilege to represent some of these tenants through the Legal Services Center’s Housing Justice for Survivors Project. No class taught me as much. I learned about the practicalities of representing clients, whether it was negotiating with opposing counsel or responding to woefully incomplete discovery productions. I learned how important it is to work with community organizers like City Life/Viva Urbana or social workers to properly represent clients. And I learned that, despite all of the challenges that low-income, unrepresented people face, justice can be done in the most inspiring ways.
This happens in large ways and small. It can be helping a tenant who is illegally charged pet fees for her service animal receive a refund. It can be advocating for a survivor of domestic violence whose landlord refused to allow her exercise her right to terminate a lease early to escape her abuser. It can even mean helping on a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).
I, along with Tara Knoll ’17 and Michael Zhang ’18, had the opportunity to write an amicus brief in the SJC under the supervision of Julia Devanthéry. We wrote in support of a tenant whose situation is all too common. She is an immigrant, a mother, and a fighter. Unfortunately, she was also in an abusive relationship. Her husband refused to add her to the lease on their apartment as part of the abuse, which impaired her ability to exercise certain legal rights, most pertinently, the right to contest an eviction. She eventually got a restraining order against her abuser, removing him from the home and her awarding full custody of the children. But, almost immediately after she did so, the landlord served an eviction notice after alleging that she was an “unauthorized individual” despite the fact that she lived in the apartment and was raising her children there. Because her husband had refused to add her to the lease, the landlord claimed she did not have the power to defend herself against the eviction. The housing court agreed and ruled she was not entitled to intervene in the eviction proceedings.
Our argument had three main parts (1) domestic violence is a severe and pervasive problem and driving force of family eviction and homelessness, (2) the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was designed to protect tenants in just such a situation, and (3) the tenant should be allowed to contest the eviction even if she was not on the lease.
The Supreme Judicial Court not only ruled in favor of the tenant, it did so decisively. It interpreted the rule that allows parties to join a lawsuit broadly. All a person needs to do to join a lawsuit is to claim an interest in the outcome of the eviction. This means that even if a survivor is kept off the lease, they can still challenge an eviction if the practical consequence is losing one’s home. Furthermore, the Court held that a mother can act to challenge the eviction on behalf of her children, who also stood to lose their home.
Although the Court’s ruling does not guarantee that the tenant will ultimately get to stay in her home—it only held she had the power to challenge the eviction—it is nonetheless a meaningful victory. It opens the courtroom door to victims of domestic violence and parents to stand up and exercise their rights. I’m proud of the small role I played in the case. For the work of the clinic is the highest embodiment of Harvard Law School’s mission: to contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.