In August of 2020, Shaunie* broke her lease and moved her family to safety. With the help of a domestic violence advocate, she provided her landlord with the complete documentation that entitles a domestic violence victim to legally break a lease without penalty.

Rather than supporting a vulnerable tenant, the landlord held her accountable for rent payment and penalties. Despite Shaunie showing homicidal text threats and police reports to the property manager, he accused her of filing a fake form. He charged her nearly $12,000 and threatened to send her outstanding balance to collections.

“I felt like I was being railroaded for thousands of dollars for protecting myself,” Shaunie explains. “I followed all the rules and did the right thing, and they wanted me to pay $12,000 within two weeks. I pay rent by myself. I can’t afford collections taking a percentage out of my check.”

Shaunie contacted Legal Aid for help, and her case went to Wells Fargo Attorney Abigail Cerra and Legal Assistant Lashandra Marcellus-Swayzer of the Wells Fargo Eviction Prevention Project. The Project is part of Legal Aid’s pro bono program, managed by Pro Bono Coordinator Colleen Daly.

New Pro Bono Project

“Our capacity is dependent on the number of volunteer attorneys willing to take cases rather than specific funding,” Daly says. “This gives us flexibility. Throughout the pandemic, my goal has been to figure out what help people need right now, and how to get that help to them.”

Stable housing is always a critical concern, exacerbated by COVID-19. It’s difficult for an unrepresented tenant to successfully negotiate with landlords or to prevail in housing court. Legal Aid’s Housing unit takes many cases but doesn’t have the resources to help everyone who qualifies. In 2020, the Wells Fargo Eviction Prevention Project was created to help fill that gap.

Cerra, a former Legal Aid employee, worked with Daly and the housing attorneys to develop the partnership. The goal of the Project is to negotiate settlements with landlords or find legal defenses the client can use to substantially reduce the amount owed. Shaunie’s case was a perfect fit.

“Shaunie had all the documentation in place,” says Marcellus-Swayzer. “In Minnesota, tenants in domestic violence situations don’t have to be victimized and stay in an unsafe place. She did the right thing by removing herself from the situation.”

Applying a Racial Equity Lens

Daly, who formerly worked as a housing attorney, has seen that a majority of Legal Aid’s housing clients are people of color who end up in substandard housing. A strong racial equity lens is a critical component of the pro bono program’s approach to advocacy, and Shaunie’s predicament speaks to the need for community collaboration, education, and a strong support structure for volunteers.

“I started to feel like the landlord thought I was just another Black person trying to get out of paying money,” Shaunie says. “That’s how I felt they looked at me when they realized I was breaking my lease.”

Resolving the Injustice

In a typical pattern, the landlord did not back off until Cerra and Marcellus-Swayzer stepped in to support Shaunie’s defense. Building off the research and self-advocacy Shaunie had done on her own, they were able to intervene with the landlord and keep the matter out of collections. Shaunie only had to pay a small, legitimate fee, and she avoided a hit to her credit score. That was essential for her ability to rent in the future.

“I want lawyers and community members to know that a person could be following the law, doing everything right and still have a problem that requires a lawyer’s help,” Cerra says, “This case is a perfect example. Shaunie was very strong. She was protecting her child, she was following the law, and still she was having problems.”

The Wells Fargo volunteers, trained in housing law by the Legal Aid housing team, took five cases in 2020, and continue their work in 2021. Daly coordinates the intake of clients and provides support as needed.

“I’m thankful for Legal Aid and for the team that worked on my case,” Shaunie says. “If we feel in danger, that’s what the law is here for. They stood behind the law and I appreciate it. I also appreciate the patience, the time, and the act of listening. That was key for me, and I’m so grateful.”

*Name changed to protect client identity

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