Pro Bono
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A Mother Finds Her Voice

Broken DoorPhoto of broken and battered door. Courtesy Jenner & Block LLP.As Vicky Greathouse tried to sleep, drops of rain fell on her face. She felt drizzle on her arm. She recalled the rainy nights more than 10 years ago when she and her four children were homeless—exposed to the wind, the rain, and the sun—but she wasn’t living on the streets anymore. The water was leaking through the ceiling in the master bedroom of her house.

Since 2009, Greathouse had been living in the Southeast Washington, D.C., row house provided through the D.C. Housing Authority’s (DCHA)Housing Choice Voucher Program. The once white walls were now an ashy gray. The stairs were narrow and the kitchen dim, but she wasn’t a picky woman. At 42, she was surviving on her monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check of less than $700, and her only goal was to have a safe home for her kids. Shortly after moving in, however, the house began falling apart.

“It started running down and all, like the sink leaking, the tub leaking, the door broke, the ceiling leaks,” she recalls. After weeks of unanswered calls to her landlord, Greathouse finally got word that someone would be out to fix the problems in the house. The repairperson never came.

By the summer of 2010, Greathouse was at a breaking point. The kitchen plumbing was a disaster. The refrigerator was broken. The ceiling in the master bedroom leaked with every rainstorm that came through the area; the one in the living room started caving in because of a plumbing problem in the upstairs bathroom.

Greathouse decided to file a pro se case against her landlord in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia’s housing conditions court. While the judge ordered injunctive relief, what Greathouse received was a lawsuit instead of repairs. Her landlord had moved to evict Greathouse, stating that she owed more than $10,500 in back rent.

“I didn’t owe her that. I was worried I had to pay … and be on the street with my kids,” Greathouse says. She initially tried to continue representing herself, but during a hearing the judge ordered a continuance of the landlord’s case against Greathouse and advised her to obtain an attorney through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic.

Learning the Ropes

As one of the largest legal services providers in the District, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Advocacy & Justice Clinic has provided thousands of individuals and families with much needed legal representation in cases involving housing, family law, public benefits, and consumer issues. The clinic was created in 1992 as a partnership among the Pro Bono Program, other legal services providers, and many of the District’s largest law firms and government agencies. Last year more than 300 cases were placed through the clinic.

Greathouse’s case was among those referred to Jenner & Block LLP through the clinic. Michael B. DeSanctis, a partner at the firm, volunteered to work on the case with associate Melissa A. Cox, who took the lead.

There was little time to waste. The case came to the firm in October 2011. The first hearing, which would determine how much rent Greathouse had to pay each month throughout the litigation process, was just one week away. Already, she had paid $900 into the court registry.

After a quick review of the facts, the nonpayment of rent case against Greathouse seemed absurd to Cox. “There’s no conceivable way the back rent would have equaled $10,500,” says Cox, adding that at most, Greathouse’s obligation was a total of about $550. Under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the government had been sending rent money to the landlord since Greathouse moved in.

With support provided by the Pro Bono Program—including volunteer mentor Marc Borbely, a staff attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program—the Jenner & Block team learned how to handle these types of cases, including how much relief they should seek and what they should consider a victory. “Marc was really extraordinary. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program paired us up together,” DeSanctis says. “Neither of us [DeSanctis or Cox] had ever done the particular kind of proceeding that this started out as. He walked us through the process. It was really invaluable help.”

Beyond a Broken Door

While Jenner & Block’s Cox began interviewing family members and preparing Greathouse for her testimony, Keianna Dixon, the firm’s project assistant, went to Greathouse’s home to take photos for evidence at trial. Dixon was shocked by what she saw. Before even entering the home, she noticed that the front door wouldn’t close. The frame was broken, leaving a gaping hole near the doorknob. Every time the wind blew, the door would fly open. “It was scary,” Greathouse says. “Anybody could come into my house.” To keep it closed, she and her kids had to prop the top of a sledgehammer against the door.

Water from plumbing issues in the upstairs bathroom had dripped down the walls, seeping into the carpet. The landlord still refused to fix anything. To comply with a mandate by the Department of Health and the DCHA, Greathouse and her children had to pull up all the carpet by hand at their own cost. “[They] said the carpet had to go. We couldn’t stand the odor because we were getting sick,” says Greathouse, whose family was dealing with pneumonia and bronchitis from the housing conditions.

“You could see the nails and the staples on the floor. There were a lot of problems with mildew and smell. They also had issues with maggots … and flies due to the carpet,” Dixon recalls.

The stakes were high and Cox felt the pressure. “The client really needed a voice. She needed someone to tell her story,” she says. “These are the cases that keep you up at night. These are real people with real problems that need real solutions.”

Greathouse was facing eviction from her subsidized housing. With a limited income of under $700 for a family of four, it would be extremely difficult to find a new home if she were forced out. “Really, all she wanted to do when she came to us was to be able to lock her door,” Cox says. “When you sit down and you read the complaint and you see the story, it’s just stark.”

Giving a Voice

On the day of the hearing, Cox aimed to get a 40 percent reduction of the rent Greathouse had to pay into the court registry each month until the end of the court proceedings and an order demanding that the landlord fix the conditions of the home.

Cox and DeSanctis were told that a 40 percent abatement was an aggressive stance for this type of case. Greathouse was ready to testify about her deplorable living conditions, but she never had to. Before the hearing, her attorneys negotiated a deal with the landlord. “I think, at that point, the landlord realized her requests for back rent were unreasonable. We were able to lay out the case and explain why she shouldn’t be getting any money from our client,” Cox says.

The results were a huge victory for Greathouse. Instead of a 40 percent abatement, she got 100 percent, which meant she didn’t have to pay any rent into the court registry for the remainder of the hearings; she also got a check for the money she already had paid into the court registry. The repair of the doorframe was the only point of contention argued at this particular hearing, with the landlord stating that she could not afford to fix it. The court ordered the repair, and in just a few weeks, Greathouse finally had a door that could lock, just before the cold of winter set in.

In January 2012 all parties were expected to meet for a scheduling conference to determine the trial date for the eviction hearing and housing conditions cases. The landlord failed to appear, and the case against Greathouse was dismissed without prejudice. The judge then set a court date for March for the proof of damages hearing and to litigate over the housing conditions. Again, the landlord skipped the hearing.

“We were able to provide [Greathouse’s] testimony, and she was able to talk about the pictures and the conditions of her house,” Cox says. At that point, the judge ordered the landlord to make the home repairs that Greathouse needed and pay $226 in damages, and dismissed the eviction case with prejudice. The threat of insurmountable and unjustified back rent was gone for good.

“I felt good about it and proud I did go to court. I had to fight back and get help,” Greathouse says. “Some lawyers, they just go to court and you don’t get a chance to speak. She gave me a chance to speak.” As of July, Greathouse has had most of her home repaired and was only waiting on new carpet and to have her garbage disposal fixed.

“We always feel a sense of triumph when our volunteers are as incensed as we are about the conditions in which many of our clients find themselves living,” says Mark Herzog, associate director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. “Michael and Melissa channeled their outrage to achieve an incredible victory for their client. Vicky and her kids now can live in decent and safe housing, which is a basic human right, but which all too often escapes people living in poverty.”

DeSanctis reiterates the importance of having local lawyers take part in these types of cases. “For me, it’s sort of the highest calling of a lawyer to have an individual client who needs help in a very real and immediate way that’s right here in our community . . . . There is such a horrible shortage of legal services for the underprivileged in D.C. If lawyers don’t step up, a lot of people are going to be denied justice. If they do step up, it’s pretty easy to help,” DeSanctis says.

Cox agrees, saying, “We all want to live in a society where people’s access to justice does not depend on their income or wealth, and this is one small way in which we can help contribute as positively as we can.”

By Thai Phi Le
From Washington Lawyer, September 2012
Reach D.C. Bar staff writer Thai Phi Le at [email protected].