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Legal Epiphany Saves the Day

lab students prevail in housing case

Last fall, students at the Law School’s Legal Assistance Bureau (LAB) discovered that the best way to fight bureaucracy is with more bureaucracy. They also managed to make some money.

As part of LAB’s Homelessness Litigation clinic, a semester-long practicum that invites budding attorneys to represent needy families and individuals in housing disputes, the students were assigned to help “Valerie,” a Dorchester mother who faced eviction from her apartment.

Valerie, who lives with her teenaged daughter in an apartment subsidized by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), missed some mandatory meetings and lost the Section 8 vouchers that pay for her entire rent. Her landlord brought eviction proceedings for failure to pay, and the LAB team faced the daunting task of keeping Valerie and her daughter from being thrown out onto the street.

“It was a long shot,” says Paul Tremblay, a clinical professor with LAB since 1982. “We had no defense to the landlord’s claims.”

But then Rachel Velez ’05 had a legal epiphany: Why not go after the source of the funding?

Following that instinct, LAB sued BHA on Valerie’s behalf. LAB lost on its claim that BHA failed to provide reasonable accommodation for Valerie’s prolonged illness in scheduling the meetings. However, Velez and the team had an ace up their sleeves.

Section 1983 of the United States Code on public health and welfare requires that every citizen be afforded the right under due process to a fair hearing. Judge Jeffrey M. Winik, presiding over the two-day trial in Boston Housing Court, decided that BHA had not afforded full credit to Valerie’s explanations for missing the meetings.

The successful claim carried an award of $11,000 in attorney’s fees for LAB, which will help fund the Waltham-based clinic’s other programs.

“It was our saving grace,” Tremblay says. “It was really creative lawyering by the students.

The real-world implications were enormous for Valerie and her daughter. “This woman literally would be in a shelter with no chance at getting subsidized housing again if this went badly,” Tremblay says.

Thanks to some crafty use of procedure by law’s future difference-makers, that will not happen any time soon.

—Michael Henry ’08

 

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