Washington Lawyer

Pro Bono Effect: For One D.C. Family, Home Is Finally Sweet

From Washington Lawyer, September 2014

By Thai Phi Le

Tenants graphicThere it was again: the smell of leaking gas. Every day, the Lazo family noticed the distinct odor emanating throughout their Washington, D.C., apartment. Frequent complaints to the building manager and landlord yielded zero results. Even after a city inspector ordered the stove’s gas leak fixed, nothing happened. 

To be safe, the Lazos propped open their windows, but then winter came. It was a bitterly cold one. While gas wafted outside, cold air came inside. All five of them—mother, father, two daughters, and a son—huddled in one of their beds, bundled in layers of clothing, trying to stay warm as they slept.

Less than a year after moving into the apartment, the Lazos began encountering problems with the unit. The pipes in the bathroom would leak and water would come through the ceiling. The power outlets in the bathroom were useless. As time passed, the conditions worsened despite numerous talks with their landlord. The air conditioning stopped running. The shower had no hot water. Rats and cockroaches crawled through gaping holes in the wall and into their food. In any given week, the family caught at least six rats in traps.

For Juan and Ana Lazo, perhaps the last straw was the bedbugs. To be cold was one thing. To see their 7-year-old daughter struggle as her arms and legs swelled with itchy welts from bedbug bites was entirely different. The Lazos tried everything from buying insect poison to throwing out some of their furniture. The problem remained.

Fed up with no response from the landlord, the Lazos stopped paying rent, hoping it would force some change. It didn’t. They then visited the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), a community-based organization that provides immigration, housing, and citizenship services to the Latino community. Representatives at CARECEN told the Lazos about their rights as tenants and pointed them toward the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Landlord Tenant Resource Center at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Representing the Unrepresented
The Landlord Tenant Resource Center launched in January 2004, with the help of Arnold & Porter LLP, as a pilot project of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. Located at D.C. Superior Court, the center provides free legal information to both unrepresented landlords and tenants who have residential housing disputes in the District of Columbia. At the time it opened, more than 40,000 cases were being filed annually in Superior Court. Ninety-nine percent of tenants and 86 percent of landlords were unrepresented, increasing their chances of losing despite the merits of a case.

Ten years later, the Landlord Tenant Resource Center is open every weekday to assist members of the community with their landlord–tenant issues. The center is staffed by volunteers from 15 of the area’s top law firms who assist more than 5,000 individuals each year. Volunteers provide a range of services, including drafting pro se pleadings, providing informational materials that explain both landlord–tenant law and court procedures, and providing referrals to legal and nonlegal services organizations.

Ana stopped by the resource center in December 2010. After speaking with the attorney volunteers, they referred her to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy and Justice Clinic for full representation. After the intake and screening process, the Pro Bono Program placed her with Williams & Connolly LLP.

Vindicating Their Rights
Williams & Connolly associates Elizabeth Henneke and Jessica Pahl originally were assigned to the Lazo case. When Henneke moved, associate Greg Hillson joined the team. Days after bringing a case against the landlord, the landlord turned around and sued to evict the Lazos for nonpayment of rent. According to court documents, the Lazos claimed that the “housing conditions excused [the family’s] obligation to pay rent starting in December 2010 and entitled [them] to a refund of the rent paid from May 2008 to November 2010.”

There were now two parallel cases happening. “Here they are trying to vindicate their rights. Then they get sued to get kicked out of their apartment,” Hillson said.

The case felt especially personal to Hillson. “This case hit home to me because I was raised by a single mother who barely made minimum wage, and my family occasionally lived in similar conditions in Florida when I was growing up . . . I remember what a toll it took on her,” Hillson added.

Hillson and Pahl devoted many hours to helping the Lazo family. They saw the housing conditions firsthand when they visited the apartment and met Juan and Ana’s three children. The oldest daughter is 14, their son is 13, and the youngest girl is 7. Seeing the kids “brought home how important this case was,” Hillson said.

Support from Williams & Connolly was key, Hillson said. As with all pro bono cases taken on by the firm, Hillson and Pahl had a partner assigned to the case to act as an advisor, offering tips and guidance.

“The firm brought to bear all its resources in terms of paralegal support and translation support. They allowed us to hire experts…,” said Hillson, who worked with a Spanish interpreter to speak with the Lazos. “They said any client of the firm is just as important, whether it’s a landlord–tenant client or a big corporation. We treat them equally in terms of how passionate we are in . . . advocating for them.”

Armed with that passion, the team built its case, documenting every issue over the next year. There were definite victories. The judge in the case the Lazos filed against the landlord in the Housing Conditions Court ordered the landlord to make repairs to the apartment. During the work, the Lazos moved into another unit within the building for five weeks.

“It was hard living here when you’re fighting with your landlord,” said Juan through an interpreter. But the apartment was in a quiet, safe neighborhood close to a really good school, so they chose to stay and fight for it.

“I was extremely nervous because we made a deliberate decision not to settle the case, but to go not only to a trial but to a jury trial. There is a tremendous amount of pressure because although you try to temper the client’s expectations and let him know anything can happen at a jury trial, you obviously want to win for him,” Hillson said.

On September 6, 2012, the verdict in the case the landlord filed against the Lazos for nonpayment of rent came down. The Lazos won.

“When the jury announced its verdict, I tried to keep my face calm, but inside I was cheering,” Pahl said. “In the nearly two years that I worked on the case, I became quite close with the family and it was just such a relief to see their rights vindicated. I think it meant a lot to them to know that if the landlord wouldn’t do something about the conditions they lived in, the court system would.”

The jury awarded the Lazos more than $22,000 in back rent, and over $6,700 was returned to them from the Court Registry, a court-monitored account set aside for tenants to make rental payments.

Hillson recalled how the family’s faces lit up when they heard the news.

“It was a lot of happiness for the family,” Juan said. The landlord tried to appeal the decision, but he lost in October 2013. All appeals have been exhausted.

“Williams & Connolly did a superb job handling the Lazos’ cases. Jessica, Elizabeth, Greg, and the entire legal team truly changed the Lazos’ lives, giving the family access to the safe and decent housing they deserve,” said Leah Myers, managing attorney for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. “It’s an outstanding example of the importance of pro bono legal services for low-income D.C. residents, from the brief services and legal information the Lazos received at our Landlord Tenant Resource Center to the firm’s skillful representation of the family in court.”

Since the ruling, Ana said that the landlord is more receptive to requests for changes. With the help of lawyers, they brought a change to the building, she noted.

“It was really gratifying for me when I heard about this [case] to use what I learned in law school to represent these folks who are having similar problems [as my mom and me],” Hillson said. “You have certain landlords who are acting a certain way, and I felt the impact of that. It was an opportunity for me to get justice for people who experienced something similar.”

Reach Thai Phi Le at tle@dcbar.org.