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Appellate Victory for Miami Law Tenant's Rights Clinic

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With crucial help from the Tenants' Rights Clinic at Miami Law, a woman who had been facing eviction from her home won a favorable opinion this week from a panel of appellate judges in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Miami-Dade County.

The tenant, Tracey Kendrick, was ordered evicted in September 2010 by her landlord, Aura M. Corser, allegedly for not paying rent. According to court documents, Corser had "improperly demanded pressure-cleaning fees to clean the property's driveway and late fees," and "claimed these amounts were unpaid rent."

Kendrick, who was unrepresented at the time, "disputed the additional amount charged to her rent for pressure-cleaning the property," and filed a motion in county court asking a judge to determine the amount of rent she needed to deposit in the court registry, as the law requires in such disputes. But, the appellate court concluded, the lower court "failed to rule on the motion and improperly entered a default final judgment of eviction."

The three appellate judges said the record "clearly reflects that the tenant timely filed the answer and motion to determine rent." Nevertheless, they say in their decision, the landlord was able to persuade the county court that Kendrick had "failed to file a motion to determine the rent amount payable into the court registry" and that, without conducting a hearing, the trial judge "entered a default favoring the landlord" on Oct. 1, 2010.

On appeal, Kendrick was represented at oral arguments by Maya Thomas, a certified legal intern with the Tenants' Rights Clinic. In the appellate decision, the document noted that under Florida law "an eligible student may participate in oral argument in appellate courts but only in the presence of the supervising lawyer."

The appellate court reversed the final judgment because the trial court "failed to resolve the rent determination motion before entering default and included an erroneous factual finding." The judges cited precedent to determine that the trial court's conclusion had been based on judgment that was "clearly wrong" and "contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence."

The landlord, according to the appellate judges, "mistakenly alleged that the tenant failed to file a rent-determination motion," and the trial court agreed. "We find this factual finding erroneous, thus meriting reversal," the appeal judges concluded.

The appellate court decided also that the tenant is entitled to attorneys' fees she incurred in the appeal process. The appellate brief was written by former Tenants' Rights Clinic students Javier Lugo, Peter Schoenthal and Scott Edelsberg.