By Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel
Low-income tenants throughout Alabama will enjoy greater access to justice due to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal’s ruling last week in Morrow v. Pake.
In a decision that will affect thousands of tenants, the court reversed the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, and ruled that tenants who are evicted have a right under state law to later file a lawsuit for a landlord’s illegal actions while they were a resident of the property.
The tenant in the case, Bridgette Morrow, was evicted after the landlord failed to repair the unsafe living conditions she repeatedly reported about the house she rented. The law firm Winston & Straw, LLP and the Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law recognized the injustice faced by Ms. Morrow endured and represented her for free to ensure she received quality legal representation. They also took on this case to protect the rights of individuals like Ms. Morrow throughout Alabama.
Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama (LSA) filed an amici curiae brief in support of Ms. Morrow and individuals like her in our state. We felt compelled to speak up for the rights of tenants like Ms. Morrow, who too often face eviction proceedings without any legal representation.
The main question in the case was whether a tenant who is facing eviction is legally required to raise any claims he or she has against the landlord during the eviction proceedings, during which they are likely distracted by the prospect of imminent homelessness, or if they can bring those claims at a later date.
Preserving the right to bring a claim at a later date is essential to ensuring tenants are able to receive justice in situations where a landlord subjected them to substandard living conditions and failed to provide basic services as prescribed in the terms of the lease.
The court unequivocally agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument that under the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) a tenant’s right to challenge their landlord’s illegal actions does not end with their eviction.
The court underscored the point made in the appeal and in Alabama Appleseed and LSA’s brief that if the Alabama Legislature wanted to require such claims, they would have done so in the URLTA.
The court also agreed with our analysis that the purpose of an eviction proceeding is to focus on the issue of possession of the property, and not necessarily address the conditions and other wrongs the tenant encountered while living there.
As a result of upholding this right, tenants will have more time to find a lawyer and challenge the illegal acts of their landlord, instead of being forced to do so under the stressful and time-constrained conditions of an eviction proceedings.
While Alabama Appleseed is pleased with the court’s ruling, there is still much work to be done to create a level playing field our courtrooms. A vast majority of tenants enter the courtroom without legal representation, while the vast majority of landlords have ready access to quality counsel. As a result, the deck is already stacked against low-income tenants.
To create a more fair justice system, the State of Alabama must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including many tenants, with vital access to legal representation. Only with such access to counsel will tenants and other low-income Alabamians be more likely to receive access to fair justice in the courts.