Calfee Attorney and Private Tenant-Landlord Program Stop Unfair Eviction

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Stoping Unfair Evictions

Bonita Witherspoon loved her home, a roomy top floor unit in a Shaker Heights house. The apartment was outfitted with a full kitchen and laundry, and Ms. Witherspoon was able to use the garage. After two years as a tenant – and never missing a rent payment – Ms. Witherspoon was annoyed to find the hot water turned off. This continued intermittently; in one instance, she was without hot water for an entire week and had to shower at a friend’s house. Ms. Witherspoon’s heat was connected to the first floor apartment and when that tenant moved out, the landlord turned off her radiator.

Once, the lights went off for a full day. Ms. Witherspoon brought these issues to her landlord’s attention. When he was unresponsive to her requests, Ms. Witherspoon contacted the City of Shaker Heights. City officials arrived to inspect the property and discovered multiple code violations, including the fact Ms. Witherspoon’s residence was not meant to be rented as an apartment.

For years, the landlord had signed affidavits to affirm he was not renting out the top floor. Ms. Witherspoon needed to move out, and, as she made preparations to find a new home, she faced another surprise –
the landlord sued her for eviction, alleging that she had neglected to pay rent. Ms. Witherspoon brought her issue to a neighborhood Brief Advice and Referral Clinic, sponsored by Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program, and the case was referred to the Private Tenant-Landlord Program, which enables pro bono attorneys to help low-income renters with landlord disputes.

Enthusiastic to try something different from her role as a litigator in tort, accident and products liability cases, Calfee, Halter & Griswold attorney Deneen LaMonica took the case. “I had never done anything in housing court before,” said Ms. LaMonica.

Ms. Witherspoon was “very impressed” with her attorney, adding, “we clicked right away.”

Ms. Witherspoon had filed a case in small claims court, which Ms. LaMonica advised her to drop in favor of a counter-claim against the eviction. They attended mediation, and Ms. Witherspoon (who refers to herself as the “receipt queen”) produced careful records of all rent payments. A decision was made in her favor, and the landlord was told to pay $625 to Ms. Witherspoon, which covered moving expenses to her new home.

Ms. LaMonica, for her part, was “very pleased” with the outcome, citing this case as a moment when the parties came together and “the process worked.”

Lauren Gilbride, staff attorney for the Volunteer Lawyers Program, praises the attorneys from Calfee, Jones Day, Hahn Loeser + Parks, and Thompson Hine who participate in the Private Tenant-Landlord Project. “Legal Aid receives an overwhelming number of requests for eviction assistance every year and without the volunteer attorneys’ time and effort, many people would be turned away,” says Ms. Gilbride.

The Private Tenant-Landlord Program is funded by the Charter One Foundation, the Eva L. and Joseph M. Bruening Foundation, the Murphy Family Foundation, the Sisters of Charity Foundation and United Way of Greater Cleveland. For more information about the Private Tenant-Landlord Program, contact Ann McGowan Porath, Managing Attorney Volunteer Lawyers Program/Intake, at 216-861-5332 or amporath@lasclev.org.

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