Defending Evictions During COVID-19: My Semester in the Tenants’ Rights Clinic

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Michael Weitzner, Certified Legal Intern

Michael Weitzner, Certified Legal Intern

More than midway into the semester, work becomes routine. Most days as a certified legal intern in the Tenants’ Rights Clinic were similar: arrive at Legal Services of Greater Miami, check emails and phone calls, review case files, and begin the specific tasks of the day. The perfect illustration of this schedule was a Friday in early March.

I was waiting for an email from the opposing counsel in one of my cases where I was representing a disabled client facing eviction from his public housing unit. The attorney was supposed to provide deposition dates for potential witnesses for an April jury trial. But, by the time to leave the office for the day, the email had not come.

“It will probably be reviewed on Monday, and I’ll hear back then. If not, I’ll have to call,” I told myself. At least that what I thought as I walked to my car so I could start my weekend. Unfortunately, that Friday was the last time, I would come back to Legal Services for the remainder of my time with the clinic. Just a few days later, the entire office began working remotely. As everyone in Florida shifted to working remotely, several challenges came with the change.

The first difficulty was the inescapable fact that everyone was apart from their offices. Before the outbreak, I attended a hearing to argue a motion to dismiss for a client facing eviction. In preparation, attorneys working at Legal Services volunteered their time, simulated the hearing, and assisted me in developing further arguments. In the early stages of the outbreak, another client had a similar motion scheduled for review. For this hearing, the preparation happened in my living room, instead of at Legal Services, and it was impossible to pop into an attorney’s office to bounce around ideas. As such, coordinating schedules and nailing down meetings began a necessary part of preparing.

In mid-March, the chief judge in Miami issued an administrative order closing the courts for non-essential matters like evictions, canceling all court proceedings, and postponing all court deadlines. Due to these orders, my upcoming hearing, depositions, and jury trial in the public housing eviction were no longer happening. My case, like many others, was effectively put on hold, and the uncertainty surrounding my client’s future extended.

With the courts closing, my clients could shift their focuses to other concerns, like employment. While some of us had the option of working remotely, so many more people, including many of our clients, could no longer work or had their working hours drastically changed in the wake of COVID-19. One client relied on family members to help pay her rent, but that became impossible when a few of her family members were out of work themselves. At that point in March, all of the students in the clinic provided advice to our clients and information about community resources.

Luckily for some, Congress passed the CARES Act in late March. The act protects tenants living in a property where the landlord has a federally-backed mortgage loan or living in any type of federally subsidized housing. It protects from eviction for non-payment for 120 days and prohibits a landlord from charging late fees or sending notices to vacate for 120 days. After the 120 days, the landlord must provide a 30-day notice to the tenant. In early April, Florida's governor issued an executive order suspending evictions for non-payment of rent due to COVID-19 for 45 days.

Over several weeks, clients had questions about their rights and concerns about their housing when they could not pay rent. But as a student, the Tenants’ Rights Clinic, reading and gathering as much information as possible was crucial for me. Having the ability to answer my clients’ questions comforted them. Likewise, being open with clients about the uncertainty surrounding the changing legal landscape for evictions during COVID-19 was also crucial.

Representing tenants during the COVID-19 outbreak showed me there are many things you cannot learn from a textbook, like how to adapt to new complications and unexpected obstacles. And, when you take on a tenant as a client, you must be there for them whenever they call, not just when it is convenient. These tenants come to Legal Services because there is a risk they will be evicted, lose their home, and become homeless. While challenging, working with my clients at is the clinic has been very rewarding and taught me the real responsibilities of being someone’s counsel.

Read more about the Tenants' Rights Clinic