It was Friday morning in Judge William Scully’s courtroom in Fairhope, and like nearly every Friday, the rather routine district court and small claims docket featured contract disputes, minor debt collections and unlawful detainers, the legal remedy afforded to landlords permitting the eviction of tenants for breaching the terms of a lease.
One case included that of a Foley couple, named in a complaint filed a month ago, for $1,050 in unpaid rent, unauthorized and unlicensed repairs, unauthorized items outside and unauthorized or broken down vehicles on the property.
According to Alabama’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act of 2006, tenants served with unlawful detainer claims — eviction notices — have seven days to file an answer to the complaint in court and a trial date will be set. Otherwise, it’s likely a default judgment will be awarded in the landlord’s favor.
In the case of the Foley couple, they answered the complaint and contested the eviction. In a handwritten letter, one of the defendants wrote he was a paraplegic, and the “unauthorized construction” noted was for a wheelchair ramp he built himself on the property.
“Received eviction notice due to ramp,” the answer stated, and it included a second claim they were “unable to get maintenance to repair [air conditioning], which leaked water and damaged personal belongings.”
“We have [October] rent but was advised by legal aid to not send due to eviction already been served. Also I have had two surgeries and [I’m] on IV antibiotics at home since July and am not well enough to make a move. Still have an open wound from scooting upstairs,” the answer continued.
The couple did not respond to a reporter’s request for an interview to verify their claims, but according to the Residential Landlord Tenant Act, the admission they withheld rent was a fatal flaw in their defense. The day before their trial was scheduled, the couple agreed to enter into a consent order with the landlord, vacating the premises by Dec. 6 in lieu of paying $1,800 in rent owed plus court costs.
In fulfillment of a public records request filed over the summer, the Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery provided more than five years of data on unlawful detainers in Baldwin County. Since 2014, more than 4,400 individuals have been subject to eviction orders here, the vast majority of which are awarded in favor of the plaintiff, leading to tenants being displaced.
Only around 4 percent of unlawful detainers during that time resulted in consent orders, according to the data, while nearly half are disposed with a default judgment, usually signed by a judge after a tenant fails to answer the complaint. In those cases, tenants are subject to the monetary damages sought by the landlord and may be forced off the property by law enforcement officers if they don’t leave willingly.
Another 30 percent of cases are simply dismissed, usually when the tenant voluntarily vacates the property after receiving the complaint.
Since he was appointed to the bench in February 2017, Scully has presided over unlawful detainer cases nearly every Friday. Last week, he told Lagniappe the Residential Landlord Tenant Act is fairly straightforward and there’s not much, if any, room for interpretation, but the law provides certain protections for both parties. Yet tenants don’t often know how to take advantage of those protections, or may hesitate to pursue their legal options.
“It’s very seldom a tenant will have counsel,” Scully said. “[Most] cases are resolved because tenants don’t show up … but one of the problems I see often is when there is a dispute, such as the tenant believes that the landlord has not properly maintained the property, they’ll quit paying rent. They can do that, but they are going to get evicted. There are remedies for a landlord who fails to maintain a property in a livable condition, but holding back on the rent is not one.”
According to the law, remedies for tenants include, but are not limited to, noncompliance by a landlord to the terms of a lease; failure to deliver possession of a property within the terms of a lease agreement; failure to deliver essential services and utilities; damage from fires or casualties; or “unlawful ouster, exclusion or diminution of service.”
The latter provision states: “If a landlord unlawfully removes or excludes the tenant from the premises or willfully diminishes services to the tenant by interrupting or causing the interruption of heat, running water, hot water, electric, gas or other essential service, the tenant may recover possession or terminate the rental agreement and, in either case, recover an amount equal to not more than three months’ periodic rent or the actual damages sustained by the tenant, whichever is greater, and reasonable attorney’s fees.”
Scully said while larger apartment complexes and other commercial rental properties typically retain legal counsel to ensure constant compliance with the law and economic viability of each unit, smaller “mom-and-pop” landlords — those who may rent a room in their house or a mobile home on their property — are more likely to be unfamiliar with their own legal obligations.
“Landlords generally will run into trouble because they haven’t given proper notice of eviction,” he said. “It’s not brain surgery to get an eviction, but there are some things to do right and sometimes they mess it up.”
Scully has seen both landlords and tenants try to take advantage of one another, but he believes the law doesn’t particularly favor one party over the other.
“There are landlords with pretty rough properties they rent for a lot of money. I’m always astonished with how much money they get for rent around here without many amenities,” he said. “I’ve seen landlords cut off power or won’t fix the AC as a means to get people out and they can’t do that. They open themselves up to liability, and more importantly, you just don’t treat people that way. The flip side is there are tenants who know how to game the system and if they get hooked into a vulnerable landlord, they can make it very difficult … But there are just as many bad landlords as tenants taking advantage of the system.”
Yet, according to the data, of the 4,421 unlawful detainer cases settled in Baldwin County between Jan. 1, 2014 and July 29, 2019, only 72 ended up with a judgment favoring the defendant, representing a total of just 1.7 percent.
Norman Roman, an attorney with Legal Services Alabama who works eviction cases pro-bono on behalf of qualified low-income clients, said a favorable judgment shouldn’t just be considered one where the defendant “wins” the case.
“There are many things that happen between a landlord and a tenant, but as a kind of foundational matter, people have to pay rent,” he said. “Whatever happens, people generally enter into leases with every intention of paying what they owe each month and carrying through with the lease, but things happen, and if you’re in a situation where you haven’t paid rent, there is very little you can do.”
However, Roman advised that anyone who receives an eviction notice should reach out to an attorney, because whether or not they will ultimately be evicted, the disposition of a case and transition into new housing can be easier with proper legal guidance.
“Certain things have to occur for an eviction and in many cases, [attorneys] make sure those steps have been followed,” he said. “If they are not taken at the right time, the tenants can call a technicality and gives them some time. Or if the landlord did something wrong and we can prove it in court, they can immediately work to correct it. In many cases we try to get the best result possible — it can involve negotiating with a landlord or an attorney for a landlord — and in many cases it may give our clients more time to find alternate housing or waive fees and unpaid rent.”
Whether or not a tenant is subject to an eviction, working with an attorney can also keep the court action off their credit report, where a record of eviction may make it more difficult to enter into leases in the future.
“Many landlords understand things happen in life — we would all like to have perfect credit — but sometimes people can’t pay all their bills,” Roman said. “If that happens, a tenant has to explain an eviction to any potential landlord, even if they didn’t win, perhaps they entered into a consent agreement and left on good terms. But once an unlawful detainer is filed on a credit report it shows up on the record for quite a while.”
In addition to evictions, Legal Services Alabama provides free legal services for low-income clients on civil matters ranging from consumer issues, wage garnishments, wills and estates and property redemption.
When the Residential Landlord Tenant Act was passed by the Legislature in 2006, Legal Services Alabama teamed up with the nonprofit organizations Alabama Appleseed and Arise Citizens’ Policy Project to publish “The Alabama Tenants’ Handbook,” a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the more complex language of the law.
Among other guidelines, the handbook advises that only a court order can force a tenant to leave a property subject to a lease; a landlord cannot change the locks to make a tenant leave; a landlord can’t shut off lights or other utilities; and a landlord cannot put a tenant’s possessions out on the street, but a sheriff or deputy can.
Presenting an annual report to the Baldwin County Commission earlier this year, Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said the sheriff’s office carried out 125 orders for evictions and ejections in 2018, up 25 percent over the year before.
Similarly, the data provided by the Administrative Office of Courts indicates unlawful detainer cases — very few of which are resolved by forcible ejection by law enforcement — have increased by 6.5 percent in the county from 2014 to 2018, from 753 cases to 802.
Eviction orders were most commonly issued in Fairhope — 885 cases during the date range examined — followed by decreasing numbers in Gulf Shores, Foley, Daphne, Orange Beach, Bay Minette, Robertsdale, Loxley and Spanish Fort.
The plaintiff that most frequently filed unlawful detainer cases in the past five years has been The Columns at Orange Beach, an apartment community off the Foley Beach Express that has recently been rebranded as Prosper. There, one- and two-bedroom apartments are listed on its website with rates between $878 and $1,070 per month.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey, the median monthly gross residential rent in Baldwin County was $930. The median household income was $52,562, but the per capita income was only $29,364. In the same survey, Baldwin County showed a poverty rate of just over 10 percent.
Scully acknowledged poverty does play a role in evictions, whether it be tenants who are having a tough time making ends meet or fearing they can’t afford legal advice.
“There’s a practical aspect to it, where if people had money, they would have a place to live,” he said, noting organizations such as Legal Services Alabama and the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program are there to help. The Residential Landlord Tenant Act even provides for appeals of evictions to the circuit court, Scully added, although a bond must be posted first to secure at least a portion of any unpaid rent.
There are further protections in federal law, including housing discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity.
Roman agreed, saying often simply communicating the availability of free services offered by his organization can be a hurdle to helping qualified clients who may need it most.
“It’s a challenge to see people in that situation. I think a lot of people facing eviction go in unrepresented and have no idea what’s going on, but there are things to be done and we do it at no charge,” he said.
For more information about Legal Services Alabama, call 251-433-6560. The data at the source of this report accompanies this article on lagniappemobile.com.
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