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Philadelphia Family Fights to Gain Power for Renters in Landlord-Tenant Court

Lawsuit alleges collection lawyer violated federal law by making misstatements in eviction proceedings

Philadelphia, Pa. – A Philadelphia family filed a federal lawsuit today against their landlord’s collection lawyer for engaging in abusive debt collection practices in order to evict them and force them to pay rent, even though their house was deemed unfit for human habitation and was not appropriately licensed or certified, as required by Philadelphia law.

More than 24,000 Philadelphians are sued in Landlord-Tenant Court each year. While 81% of landlords have lawyers, most tenants—over 90%—do not. This results in a dramatic power imbalance, leaving low-income families afraid of complaining about the conditions of their homes, lest they risk facing an eviction lawsuit, where they will likely have to fend for themselves. Gerrell Martin and her family, represented by attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center, are trying to turn this dynamic on its head, arguing that the collection lawyer representing her landlord violated federal law.

Ms. Martin and her husband, Curtis Sampson, are parents to six children, including a two-year old with cerebral palsy. Their rental home was unhealthy, having been terribly neglected by subsequent landlords. At various times the heat did not work, the roof leaked, the bathroom sink would not drain, and there were faulty electrical outlets. The Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) issued multiple violations on the property, and at one point, deemed it unfit for human habitation.

“I was getting worried that the nurses who care for my son were going to call DHS on me because the landlord still hadn’t fixed the heater and winter was coming,” said Ms. Martin. “I stood up for my family, and asked them to make the house safe for us. But instead of fixing the problems, they tried to evict us. I couldn’t believe it.”

Under the Philadelphia Code, a landlord must be licensed, and must provide tenants with a Certificate of Rental Suitability, each of which is issued by L&I so long as the property has no code violations. The property was long unlicensed, and Ms. Martin and Mr. Sampson were never provided a Certificate. Under the law, when a landlord fails to comply with these requirements, renters do not owe rent. However, without a lawyer many tenants are not aware of this provision, not equipped to enforce it, and sued in spite of it.

Ms. Martin and Mr. Sampson’s federal lawsuit alleges that the landlord’s collection lawyer violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), because he used false, misleading, and deceptive practices in the eviction case he filed, misstating the conditions at the property, demanding money when the law says none was owed, and seeking to turn out a family, when the law says he could not.

Unlike most tenants, Ms. Martin secured a lawyer to help her stand up for her rights. With assistance from the Public Interest Law Center, she took her case before the Fair Housing Commission, and won a decision stating that she owed no rent. Her landlord and the landlord’s collection lawyer, however, continued to pursue the eviction case for another six weeks.

“They wouldn’t withdraw the eviction case against us, even though the Fair Housing Commission ruled in my favor,” Ms. Martin said. “That even meant that on the morning of our wedding, rather than getting ready, I had to go back to Landlord-Tenant Court to fight the case. But I was one of the lucky ones. I had a lawyer, so eventually they withdrew the case, and I won.”

After that win in landlord-tenant court, Ms. Martin and Mr. Sampson brought this federal suit.

“What this federal case will make clear is that misleading statements made in eviction complaints can have consequences for the people who make them,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “The facts here are not unique to one tenant or to one collection lawyer. If things don’t change, more cases will follow.”

“The FDCPA is a powerful legal tool, designed to protect consumers like Ms. Martin and Mr. Sampson,” Urevick-Ackelsberg continued. “Sometimes it takes a lawsuit to make people understand just how powerful.”

In addition to this suit, Gerrell Martin will join other tenants and advocates to present testimony about evictions and unhealthy housing at a City Council hearing on Monday, March 20 from 1 – 4 p.m. In a city where thousands of people are living in housing that is making them sick and the eviction rate is four times higher than the foreclosure rate, advocates will call on the City to commit to ensure low-income tenants have access to free legal representation to support them in Landlord-Tenant Court.

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The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to safeguard civil, social, and economic rights for communities in the Philadelphia region facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty. We use litigation, community education, advocacy, and organizing to secure their access to fundamental resources and services. For more information visit www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

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