Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 10, 2020

Legal Aid gears up for virus fallout

Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, says the firm had one lawyer per 9,200 cases in 2018. With the firm expecting a flood of landlord-tenant and wage garnishment cases after courts reopen, its staff is calling for attorneys to enlist now to help. - Photo by David Laprad | The Ledger

For several days after Mayor Andy Berke issued a shelter-in-place order for Chattanooga, Legal Aid of East Tennessee resembled a ghost town. Fewer phone calls than usual interrupted the silence and no attorneys could be heard working or conversing in their offices, even though a skeleton crew was on hand to answer the phones.

“I think everyone assumed we had shut down,” says Linda Hall, a legal aid attorney who represents the elderly.

Now Legal Aid’s phones have begun to ring again as people who can’t afford an attorney begin to face various legal challenges in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“We’re getting a lot of eviction calls,” Halls says.

In most cases, the callers can relax – for now – because the courts have stopped issuing evictions. But that’s going to change in about a month when the courts reopen, Hall acknowledges.

“We’re expecting a flood of evictions and collections lawsuits when the courts reopen,” she says. “Also, as people start to apply for benefits, we’re expecting there will be some denials.”

Legal Aid will be ready to help, Hall says. With respect to the eviction calls the firm is receiving, she says each of its six offices employs an attorney who’s “well-versed” in housing law and handles only those kinds of cases.

The nature of the relief Legal Aid will be able to negotiate varies, Hall adds. “Sometimes, all we can do is buy the client a little more time,” she explains. “We also might be able to work out something for the payment of back rent or to give the client time to move out.”

Legal Aid’s housing attorneys are focusing on cases in which the landlord is resorting to what Hall calls “self-help.”

“We’ve had some people call us about their landlord cutting off their utilities,” she says. “Self help is against the statute. If the landlord helps themselves, the tenant can bring a cause of action against them for not going through the proper process.

“Sometimes, the landlord has to pay damages to the tenant, and sometimes the court simply says, ‘You can’t do that.’ But it’s against Tennessee statute to take matters into your own hands as a landlord.”

Hall explains the courts are currently hearing cases it deems an emergency, including a landlord cutting off a tenant’s utilities.

Once the courts reopen, Hall says there will be a rush of creditors who have gone several months without a payment and are seeking a judgement to garnish wages. Legal Aid will be available to represent indigent clients in these matters, as well.

“A Legal Aid attorney can assist the client in making sure the necessary forms are filled out and filed with the court to protect certain types of income and up to $10,000 worth of the client’s personal property,” Hall explains. “An attorney might also be able to work out a payment arrangement with the creditor in order to avoid a garnishment if the client has income that’s not protected.

“If there’s a dispute regarding the validity of the debt, an attorney can file a sworn denial on behalf of the client and make the creditor prove the validity of the debt.”

For now, however, people already contending with less income do not have to worry about having their remaining wages garnished, Hall says. “The courts are not issuing new garnishments, so if a creditor tries to collect on a judgement, they can’t issue the garnishment because they can’t have a lawsuit heard.”

While beleaguered clients can breathe easy for the moment, Hall is looking ahead to when the courts reopen and these matters will go before judges. With that in mind, she encourages attorneys who will have the time, resources and expertise to help to enlist now.

“We’re not overrun right now because the courts aren’t open, but we’re going to be exceedingly busy when the courts reopen, and that’s when we’re probably going to need some attorneys who are willing to take cases pro bono,” Hall adds.

Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, says the average legal aid client is a white, single mother of two who’s earning no more than $12,940 a year. And she’s just one of 314,500 East Tennesseans who live at or below the federal poverty level.

“Six out of 10 of those low-income households experience one legal problem each year. This means 193,000 of our neighbors qualify for legal aid and need our help,” Fox said last year during Legal Aid’s annual awards event.

“But we have just 21 lawyers at 11 offices helping those people. That’s one lawyer per 9,200 cases.”

Legal Aid staff and volunteer attorneys in Chattanooga worked together in 2018 to address 893 of those legal problems, Fox said. Of those pro bono cases, volunteer attorneys closed 97 cases, she adds.

Hall urges attorneys to at least inquire about taking pro bono cases for Legal Aid. “Our pro bono coordinator is Robin Lopez. Just call 423 756-4013 and ask to speak with her. It would be great to have people in place for when the courts reopen.”