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Indiana Legal Services’ pilot project offers on-the-spot help to small claims defendants

June 28, 2017
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Indiana Legal Services attorney Jamie Devine organizes the room for the Tenant Assistance Project. The goal of the program at Warren Township Small Claims Court is to help people avoid eviction. (IL Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

When the father of three walked into the Warren Township Government Center in Marion County on a dreary Thursday morning, he was two months behind in rent and fully expecting to be evicted.

He had been renting for three years and, working in assembly for a decade, had been meeting his monthly obligations. But having to pay one son’s college tuition, help another son with a new baby and provide for his teenage daughter still living at home, money got stretched.

“I got to do what I got to do for the kids,” the man said, declining to give his name.

He arrived at the government center to appear in Warren Township Small Claims Court, not knowing where he and his family would live. However, before he entered the courtroom, he happened to meet attorney Jamie Devine who listened to his story. She found the landlord and negotiated a plan for the man to pay the back rent in little more than a week.

When the case was called, Devine represented him before the judge, explained the terms of the settlement and got the man a reprieve. “This is a great idea,” the man said of the legal assistance.

The father was one of several tenants Devine and Marcus Bickle, both staff attorneys at Indiana Legal Services Inc., helped that day as part of the legal aid organization’s summer pilot program. Every Thursday from June 1 through Aug. 10, the pair of lawyers, along with their intern Paul Muriello and paralegal Justin Young, run the Tenant Assistance Project at the small claims court.

On the second Thursday of the project, they arrived by 8:30 a.m. and started creating a walk-in clinic in a large room down the hall from the court. The team arranged long tables and metal folding chairs, inserted intake forms onto clipboards, plugged in the laptop, posted the sign advertising their services and made sure they had plenty of pens and notepads.

Then the attorneys pulled on their suit coats — Bickle eventually knotted a tie — and waited to see who would come.

The TAP clinic offers triage services for tenants who have eviction notices and are appearing in court that day. When the client has an income and appears to be able to pay the overdue rent, Devine and Marcus negotiate with the landlord or the opposing attorney to devise a payment plan. In the situations where the client has no ability to satisfy the unpaid rent, the ILS lawyers work to get a voluntary move out date so the tenant can have a few days to find new housing and avoid getting forcibly removed.

“We reach more people this way because they are there and we are there,” Devine said. “They do not have to try to seek us out and go through the intake process (at the ILS office).”

Dose of calm

Indiana Legal Service’s TAP pilot has its roots in the clinic of the same name now housed at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. There, the program stations law students at the Monroe County courthouse every Thursday and Friday morning to interview and advise tenants facing eviction.

Jennifer Prusak, associate professor of clinical law, supervises the students. She sees the clinic as serving a dual role of giving students hands-on experience to apply what they have learned in the classroom and providing clients with some reassurance.

“We give people who come to court peace of mind,” Prusak said. “They feel like they were represented, like they had the opportunity to be heard.”

In Warren Township, the trickle of clients who wandered into the clinic in the morning turned into a flood during the afternoon session. Devine and Bickle scrambled to counsel with each of the clients individually and engaged in a blur of activity, either advising people how to represent themselves in court, talking to property owners’ lawyers in the hallway to work out an arrangement or going into court to represent the client.

Fortunately that afternoon the ILS team had some extra help from Indianapolis Legal Aid Society Inc. attorney Richard Dyar. His first client was a woman carrying a baby in a car seat. He eventually joined her in court where he explained to the judge a family emergency combined with the rent check getting put in the wrong drop box had put her in arrears.

Since the landlord and the woman had worked out an agreement, Judge Garland Graves dismissed the case. He then wished the woman good luck and asked after her baby.

The judge bantered a bit with every defendant who came into court as a way to calm their nerves. Sometimes the individuals are so fearful about what is going to happen, they are not able to present their version of events. He recalled one defendant who nearly hyperventilated.

Graves welcomed the TAP clinic into his court and hopes the program is able to expand to other townships. A court hearing can be especially stressful to tenants with an eviction notice but the legal aid attorneys give a needed dose of calm.

Even if the lawyers are not able to provide full representation, they explain the process, let the clients know their rights and offer advice for how to best resolve the matter. That helps put the pro se defendants on a more even footing with the landlords, who often have attorneys.

“A lot of times, they need information. A lot of times, they know they need to move out but they need information to help them,” Graves said of the defendants. “I believe the more information they have, the better it is for everyone.”

Helping in hard times

The TAP clinic mirrors the recommended changes Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau offered in their 2012 report on the small claims courts in Marion County. The defendants from the TAP clinic are educated about the law which, Baker said, improves the process for both the tenant and the landlord.

“Our system of law assumes people know what the law is,” Baker said. “I want them to know as much as they can know in a relatively short period of time.”

After the pilot ends, Devine and Bickle will review the data collected by Muriello, a student at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, to determine if the TAP clinic was able to improve the outcomes for tenants with eviction notices. Then they will decide what to do next with the program.

A client Devine worked with in the morning was clear about the help he received from the TAP clinic.

He had also found the program when he arrived at the small claims court for his eviction hearing. Hard times came when his wife of 40 years had collapsed on the garage floor from an aneurysm in 2004 and has since been in a nursing home. The medical bills piled up when Medicaid coverage changed and his paycheck from the factory could not cover the expenses.

The man still has to move out, but Devine was able to get him several weeks to pack and find new housing. “It was a like a blessing,” he said of the TAP clinic.•

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