Posted July 9, 20208:18 am
The Cleveland Housing Court ordered the eviction of a man from his St. Clair-Superior apartment after neither he nor his attorney showed up for their online hearing. The attorney insists she never received the link from court staff to appear.
Frank Reda and his lawyer Alisa Boles were required to appear for a June 26 hearing held on video chat service Zoom. Reda’s landlord on March 10 filed to have his tenant evicted after he said Reda didn’t pay his $385-a-month rent since January for his apartment on East 72nd Street.
Boles, a Euclid lawyer who started representing Reda in April after the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland referred the case to her, said she previously emailed the court about another matter in her client’s case. However, she said she received nothing on how to access the Zoom conference.
A magistrate held the hearing without them and ordered Reda evicted. Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott later signed off.
Court records show the eviction is scheduled for July 13. Reda, 58, found out about the order from his lawyer on Monday. She had not yet received anything in the mail about the decision and said she only found out because she checked the online docket.
Reda and Boles’ troubles highlight the difficulties parties face in eviction cases as the Housing Court, which is the largest in Cuyahoga County, continues to hear cases while also making accommodations to protect people from the coronavirus. Housing advocates have feared a flood of eviction cases will come because people lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and that technical problems will hamper hearings and result in people wrongly losing their homes.
In eviction cases in the county, a large number of tenants often defend themselves with no lawyers. Boles wondered how the average tenant facing eviction, who is often poor and may not have adequate access to technology, would handle a similar situation.
“If this happened to a lawyer who is reasonably tech-savvy, I mean, how is this affecting the average person?” Boles asked.
“Who doesn’t have a lawyer,” Reda said, finishing his attorneys’ sentence as he spoke with her Tuesday outside his apartment.
A disabled construction worker, he said he doesn’t know where he’s going to go if he has to leave.
“It makes me feel like I’ve gotten beat up with my hands tied up,” Reda said. He said he was hospitalized several times in recent months for problems associated with a brain injury and other ailments. He wears a brace on his left leg and is missing part of a finger.
He has said he has defenses he wants to present to the court. He acknowledged, though, that the eviction order may have resulted from a misunderstanding. Boles filed motions on Tuesday to put the eviction on hold, and they await a ruling.
Scott’s bailiff Belinda Gest said in an email Wednesday the court could not provide details about a pending case but noted that Reda filed motions to halt the eviction and re-open the case and that the judge will review them.
The Cleveland Housing Court stopped accepting and hearing most eviction cases in March as more businesses and government offices closed down because of the coronavirus. It resumed its operations June 15 and holds most eviction hearings via Zoom, something many other courts are doing across the country.
However, local advocates such as the Legal Aid Society have expressed concern about the hearings, both in terms of ensuring that tenants can access them to defend themselves and because holding them via Zoom doesn’t guarantee the public can watch the hearings.
Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer previously wrote about how the Housing Court magistrates are effectively conducting hearings in private because they’re set up as closed meetings. While the court’s website mentions the ability for individual reporters and members of the public to watch, Scott said last month that staff was working on a way for the public to more easily view the proceedings.
Legal Aid Development and Communications Director Melanie Shakarian said the organization heard from two other people ordered evicted after they had technical difficulties and could not appear for a hearing.
Legal Aid Managing Attorney Abigail Staudt said in an email that summonses sent to tenants facing eviction say that they must provide an email address and phone number in an email to the Housing Court. The email must include a full name and case number in the subject line. Staff will then send instructions on how to participate in the virtual hearing.
However, the online docket does not include any information about Zoom. It also doesn’t always reflect that a hearing will be “virtual” or that court officials sent login information to the landlord and tenant, Staudt noted. There also isn’t a lot of information on the Housing Court’s website to help parties navigate virtual hearings, she said.
Reda’s summons sent on March 11 for a hearing, then set for March 31, had no such instructions because the hearing was set before the coronavirus-motivated shutdown. It ordered him to appear in person. Still, the docket indicates that the summons never reached Reda, as the envelope went undelivered.
A June 4 magistrate’s order resetting his hearing for June 19, this time to be held virtually, said the parties must contact the clerk of court’s housing division at least a week prior and provide an email or phone number.
“Failure to call/log in on time pursuant to this Order, is a failure to appear, and may result in dismissal of the failing party’s claims, immediate hearing of the opposing party’s claims, default judgment or other appropriate sanctions,” the order stated.
Reda said he was a “dinosaur” with his phone and made clear he was relying on his lawyer’s technological knowledge to attend the hearing.
Boles – who took Reda’s case pro bono, or free of charge – said she sent an email on June 5 with a motion asking the court to postpone the June 19 hearing because of a planned vacation. The subject line had Reda’s name and the case number, as well as the words “MOTION FOR CONTINUANCE.”
She also wrote in the email that “regarding yesterday’s order requesting an email address, you can use this email, which is the email on file with this case.”
A staff member responded 11 days later and said Boles needed to come to the Justice Center to file the motion in person. She did, and the court pushed the hearing back a week.
She made sure she was by a computer at 10 a.m. June 26, so she could still show up to the virtual hearing. She was still on vacation with her son and in a Conestoga wagon fashioned into a hotel room in Torrey, Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park. It was 8 a.m. there and she said she had a Wi-Fi connection.
She said she never received an email with a Zoom link before that day and figured it must arrive around the time of the hearing. There was another complication, too: her client, who was going to appear by phone, was in the hospital. She planned to ask the magistrate during the hearing to push the proceedings back.
At 10:03 a.m. eastern time that day, Boles sent an email to the court staff that said, “standing by for Zoom link. I don’t think I have phone reception. At any rate, Mr. Reda is in hospital and cannot attend.”
She waited for more than an hour. At 11:27 a.m., she wrote to the Housing Court email and said, “I stood by an hour and a half. I will have spotty phone reception and internet at best the rest of the day. Please reschedule for after the holiday.”
Ten minutes later, staff members responded to both emails saying they were forwarded to the magistrate, David Roberts, and he would decide how to proceed.
Meanwhile, the hearing went forward with the landlord, Kodjo Tino Adognravi, present. Roberts said there was enough evidence to order Reda evicted.
Adognravi, reached Wednesday, confirmed he attended the hearing. When asked to clarify how he obtained access, he told a reporter that “at this point, I’m going to stop this communication. Thank you.” He then hung up.
Roberts referred a reporter to Scott’s bailiff.
Helping the helpless
Looking back, Boles felt like “I’m trying to help somebody, and this is not happening,” she said.
Shakarian, of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, acknowledged that the pandemic had caused many issues and that virtual hearings are new territory.
She and Boles, however, said the court should find ways to make sure that tenants have access before the eviction hearing, such as through pre-trial proceedings that could present opportunities for them to apply for rental assistance or to enter mediation.
“We know that the court is aware of the difficulties of this right now, and we want to offer some constructive possible solutions,” Shakarian said.
To Reda, though, it’s just the latest in a string of bad luck.
“I seem to have a target on my back,” he said.