- Caleb Kenna
- Judge Helen Toor presiding over an eviction case in Rutland
An hour before his court hearing last month, Henry Condo pulled out a wallet as if to make a deal. "I can pay something now, and I can pay the rest when I get my tax returns," the twentysomething man told lawyers in a conference room inside the courthouse on Rutland's Center Street. Maggie Frye, an attorney for the legal services nonprofit Law Line of Vermont, was privy to the conversation that was off limits to a reporter observing from the hallway outside.
Condo and his fiancée, Norma Adams, were facing eviction for nonpayment of rent. They had racked up $4,344 in bills — back rent on their West Rutland apartment, plus their landlord's legal fees, Frye said.
Both in blue jeans, they had arrived in court without a lawyer, thoroughly unprepared for a formal process laden with dense legalese. Frye said Condo was worried that the couple and their young children would be out on the street that afternoon. She assured him that they would not be evicted immediately, and no one was going to shake him down for cash.
"They had a hard time understanding what the heck was going on," Frye said later.
Coincidentally, Law Line of Vermont was hosting its first biweekly legal clinic in Rutland, providing volunteer attorneys for tenants. Danby attorney Herb Ogden was selected to guide the tight-lipped Condo and Adams through the convoluted courtroom process.
The program is an expansion of one that has been up and running for more than two years in Chittenden County — the brainchild of Judge Helen Toor, who has presided over a steady stream of tenants who have little to no idea how to defend themselves.
"I see people in court all the time; they don't know what to do," Toor said in her Rutland chambers, surrounded by potted plants and legal tomes. "They're scared, confused."
In an effort to make proceedings in her courtroom more equitable, Toor teamed up with the local Law Line to provide free legal assistance to those facing complicated eviction cases.
Now a $250,000 grant from Legal Services Corporation, a national nonprofit that provides legal aid, is financing its duplication in Rutland, where Toor has been working since last August. Addison and Washington counties are next.
There's nothing like it anywhere in the country, said Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, who selected the project from a pool of national applicants. It's a "creative initiative," he said, which could be "scalable and replicable" in other states.
Across Vermont, about 90 percent of tenants facing eviction do so without an attorney. Compare that to landlords, more than three-quarters of whom have legal representation when they go to court. It's worse in Chittenden County, where roughly 20 tenant defendants had lawyers in 365 eviction cases filed last year, according to court documents. That's 5 percent.
Toor said she sees a "large number of pro se parties" — people who represent themselves — and at least in Vermont, it's the trend. As a judge, she can't advocate for defendants, but "I try to explain," she said. With a shrug, she added, "The system was made for people with lawyers."
So in the spring of 2014, Toor emailed Law Line proposing a clinic that would allow volunteer attorneys to provide one-time legal representation for tenants facing eviction. She gathered nearly a dozen attorneys on both sides of the issue to discuss the possibility.
Toor proposed that the project would give tenants representation during the initial step in a legal eviction: a rent escrow hearing. After that, the tenant pays rent to the court, sometimes for months, while the process continues. The hearing determines how much is paid, when and for how long.
"There's a lot at stake at that point," said Angele Court, who is the director of Law Line's clinic in Chittenden County. Often a tenant without representation won't show up, and the landlord's attorney does, resulting in a default judgment that is disadvantageous to the defendant. Or a tenant may agree to a figure that he or she can't pay. A lawyer, Court added, is key "to make sure the tenants are getting all the information [they] need."
The pro bono attorneys represent only tenants who are being evicted for nonpayment of rent. As a one-time affair, it keeps lawyers from being dragged into an interminable legal process without pay.
- Caleb Kenna
- Judge Helen Toor
When the bar offered its support in fall 2014, Toor emailed law firms requesting that they send their young attorneys to volunteer. Kevin Lumpkin, who now works for Sheehey, Furlong & Behm in Burlington, signed up.
"To the bar, a letter from the judge means something," he said. Toor's not just the catalyst for the program, Lumpkin said: "She's the entire thing." When the training rolled around, she baked brownies for the volunteer attorneys.
Toor also did the legwork required for implementation: changing the court scheduling system so the volunteer lawyers could handle the maximum number of cases in a single day.
Every other Tuesday for two years, Court stood at the entrance of the austere courtroom in Burlington, answering questions, greeting volunteers and directing tenants to free attorneys.
According to her estimates, around 125 clients — five a session — got representation in 2016. Running on a shoestring budget, Law Line didn't keep track of the long-term outcomes, so Court couldn't quantify the program's impact.
But it did host a party with court staff and volunteers to celebrate its success. Toor arrived with little wooden houses she had made for everyone.
"The gesture was amazing," Court said. It was a reminder that, "You're saving homes for people," she said.
That's precisely what happened in Rutland. Ogden spent nearly an hour scurrying back and forth between conference rooms, discussing a deal to keep Adams and Condo in their home — a low-income housing unit run by Stanislaus Housing.
In the end, the two parties hashed out an agreement. Adams and Condo could wait until they got their tax refunds to pay the first portion of the $4,344 that they owed. Under Ogden's guidance, they agreed to get a case manager with Rutland's Homeless Prevention Center and to attend a life-skills class there called Rental 101.
After that, they'd pay the $670 monthly rent to the court by the first of the month.
If Adams and Condo hadn't had representation, Ogden speculated later, "The landlord would have been less willing to compromise." The negotiation, he added, allows for strategies such as verbal promises to attend tenant trainings — "things no court order can do."
Those were the things that Kathy Dodge, who showed up with a lawyer on behalf of Stanislaus Housing, was looking for in the deal. "We want them to succeed, but they've got to communicate and follow through," she said. Neither Condo nor Adams would speak with Seven Days and didn't respond to repeated requests for comment after their day in court.
Toor oversaw the proceedings, though the actual decision came from her job shadow, recently appointed Judge Elizabeth Mann. Until she donned a black robe, Toor said, "I had no idea how much crisis there is around us." A Pennsylvania native, she came to Vermont in the mid-1970s to study at the University of Vermont. She worked for a decade in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Vermont before former governor Howard Dean appointed her to the bench.
Frequently, "Evictions are about personal crises: sickness, job loss, a divorce or breakup," Toor said. "It's something I feel very strongly about: people are at risk of losing a home." Her goal is to have a legal assistance program for people facing eviction in every county in Vermont.
The new grant moves the state in that direction and will allow Law Line to start tracking its cases. But success can be hard to measure. An attorney might buy a tenant a few more weeks until the next payday, or, in the case of Adams and Condo, until the IRS delivers.
When they negotiate on behalf of defendants, lawyers look for technical errors with the landlord's case. They might work out a "cash for keys" settlement, allowing the tenant to leave the apartment voluntarily, bypassing the court procedure, in exchange for forgiveness of back rent, said Lumpkin. Last year, he won a pro bono award for his work with the program.
There are tricks of the trade, said Samantha Lednicky, an attorney who also volunteers regularly.
In one case, she recalled, she represented a tenant with cancer who had lost her job while she was undergoing treatment.
"I appealed to the landlord's attorney and her emotions," Lednicky said. In the end, the tenant went back to work and got caught up on rent. The judge dismissed the case.
Even if representation doesn't change the outcome of a case, "It humanizes the process," said Law Line interim executive director Sam Abel-Palmer. "The worst thing for our clients is when they feel like they don't get heard."
The problem of people who can't afford counsel isn't limited to Vermont, said Abel-Palmer. Across the U.S., "Legal fees have skyrocketed. The percentages of people who can't afford a lawyer have gone way up," he said. "It's part of a broad conversation about access to justice."
Sandman of Legal Services Corporation said the Vermont program could be a national model.
By early March — two weeks before the March 15 deadline set by Toor — Condo and Adams had received their tax refund and paid back rent and legal fees. Frye said that if they can pay March rent by the end of the month, their case will be dismissed.