Impact cases are those that have significant implications or consequences for the legal system, society, or specific individuals. These cases often set precedents or establish legal principles that influence future decisions, thereby helping a broader set of people and communities. Impact cases are important as they bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, showcasing the tangible benefits of legal decisions in the real world and how they affect Marylanders. Maryland Legal Aid has a long tradition of impact work, including in the Supreme Courts of Maryland and the United States. Here are some of our recently filed impact cases:
Maryland Legal Aid Files Amicus Brief to Protect Tenants Against Unreasonable Lease Provisions and Eviction
On August 25, Maryland Legal Aid (“MLA”) and a coalition of dedicated non-profit organizations* across the state filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of Maryland on behalf of vulnerable low-income tenants facing eviction. The case is Westminster Management, LLC, v. Tenae Smith.
Our brief comes in response to Westminster’s argument that “rent” can mean anything a landlord wishes it to be—including the cost of evicting the tenant. So even if the tenant is current on their monthly rent payments, they can be hauled into Maryland’s high-speed eviction courts for these extra sums and threatened with homelessness. These practices are both socially destructive and illegal. The coalition on the brief comprises esteemed organizations like Maryland Legal Aid that have made it their mission to provide vital civil legal services and advocacy to low-income and vulnerable Marylanders.
The landlords in this case want to overturn the appellate court’s commonsense definition that “rent” in a residential proceeding means “the periodic charge for the use of occupancy of the premises.” Prior courts have endorsed this view, yet landlords continue to try to skirt the law by forcing vulnerable potential tenants to agree to a different definition in their leases. Because the supply of low-income housing is far lower than demand—a problem that needs immediate fixing—tenants have little ability to negotiate these kinds of coercive terms. Therefore, the Supreme Court must step in.
The amici curiae firmly believe that a landlord’s own costs, such as liability insurance, trash removal, routine pest control, and especially the costs to evict our clients, are too expansive. Allowing Westminster and other landlords to include non-rent expenses as “rent” will lead to homelessness, housing insecurity, and additional difficulties like mental and physical health issues, losing employment, and custody challenges. MLA and its partners serve low-income people in all these areas and brought these consequences to the Court’s attention in this brief.
MLA Advocacy Director for Appellate and Impact Litigation, Lee Ogburn says, “Rent means rent, plain and simple. MLA represents thousands of low-income clients who have no power to negotiate different definitions, illegally included by landlords, to make it easier to evict them. This brief, backed by a powerful coalition of non-profit organizations, gives voice to our clients. We hope the Supreme Court hears them.”
For a copy of the amicus brief, please click here.
*The Coalition is comprised of the following dedicated nonprofits and attorneys across Maryland: The Pro Bono Resource Center, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Civil Justice, Inc., Economic Action Maryland, The Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc., and Daniel L. Rosenberg.
Veteran and Disabled Senior Tenants File Lawsuit Against Landlords Running Unlicensed, Dangerous Properties in Baltimore City, Maryland
Maryland Legal Aid (MLA) filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of senior citizens, many of whom are disabled and one who is a veteran, who lives in unlicensed properties with numerous housing code violations owned and/or managed by the Defendants, Reginald, and Marguerite Daniels Housing for the Elderly, Bellevue-Manchester Limited Partnership, and The Towner Management Company, Inc.
The complaint alleges that the Defendants, who own and manage subsidized rental properties in Baltimore City, do not have valid rental licenses for their rental properties as required by local law and that they have been illegally collecting rent.
Further, the rental properties have numerous safety and housing code violations including rodent infestation, water damage, dry rotted bathrooms, mold, defective appliances, peeling paint, and dangerous fire hazards. The Defendants knew and have known about these unsafe and unhealthy conditions, but they have not taken action to fix the problems. This has left vulnerable, low-income senior residents to endure sleepless nights and ongoing worries. The complaint also alleges the Defendants violated the Maryland A state or federal law designed to protect consumers against improperly described, damaged, faulty, and dangerous goods and services as well as from unfair trade and credit practices. Including Legal Issues like: bankruptcy, collections, garnishment and repossession. More Protection Act as well as the Maryland Fair To collect a debt or obtain payment; To recover goods sold on credit or in installments when the buyer fails to pay for them. More Act by seeking and collecting rent on their unlicensed properties to which they were not entitled by law.
As a result of the Defendants’ conduct, the senior citizens, many of whom are disabled, who live in Defendants’ properties, have suffered depression, anxiety, panic attacks, loss of appetite, medical expenses, fear of being in the home, and hypertension. The awful living conditions these residents, the plaintiffs in this case, have had to deal with on a daily basis have exacerbated the residents’ health issues including one plaintiff who has cancer and has experienced heightened stress, depression, anxiety, and other emotional and mental distress.
Attorney for Maryland Legal Aid’s Baltimore City Office Kyle Coleman says, “Our clients look forward to holding these landlords accountable for ignoring the local rental license law and for not providing the decent and safe housing every Baltimore resident is entitled to.”
All Defendants are aware that – due to the income limitations under which all of the low-income residents live, they have few if any options. The low-income residents are highly unlikely to secure alternative safe, decent, and licensed housing in the private rental market. Consequently, all of the Plaintiffs have been and continue to be held captive to the Defendants’ dangerous and illegal practices and forced to live in substandard housing.
Read the Complaint here.
Maryland Legal Aid, Texas Advocacy Project and Allies File Amicus Brief to Safeguard Domestic Violence Survivors from Lethal Firearms Access
On Monday, August 21, 2023, Maryland Legal Aid (“MLA”) joined the Texas Advocacy Project (“TAP”) and a coalition of dedicated non-profit organizations* across the nation in proudly filing an amicus brief in US v. Rahimi to ensure the safety and protection of domestic violence survivors through appropriate firearm regulations.
Their brief, submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States, comes in response to the Fifth Circuit’s recent ruling that has potential life-threatening implications for survivors of domestic violence, their families, and the broader community.
The amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” coalition comprises esteemed organizations like TAP that have made it their mission to provide vital civil legal services and advocacy to survivors of domestic violence.
Collectively, these organizations work tirelessly to increase access to justice, especially for underrepresented and underserved communities. Through direct representation of survivors and support for those representing them, the amicus seeks to create a world where every survivor can live free from abuse.
The amicus brief addresses the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, which misapplied the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen. Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, Section 922(g)(8) does not impose a broad prohibition on firearm possession or carry; rather, it focuses on preventing individuals who have committed or threatened family violence from accessing firearms during the period they are under a protective order.
The brief also underscores the evolution of domestic violence over the centuries, emphasizing how the nature of these cases has transformed from 1791 to the present day.
The amicus asserts that the Fifth Circuit’s misconceptions about domestic violence protective orders (“DVPOs”) led to an invalidation of Section 922(g)(8) based on outdated anecdotes and hypothetical concerns. As a direct consequence of this ruling, the safety of domestic partners, children, first responders, bystanders, and the public is jeopardized, placing them at risk of serious or even fatal harm.
The amici curiae firmly believe that safeguarding survivors from firearm access during the duration of protective orders is paramount to their safety and the broader well-being of communities.
MLA Director of Advocacy for Family Law Amee Vora shared, “Maryland Legal Aid is proud to stand with our fellow legal services organizations across the county in imploring the Supreme Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit’s dangerous decision to prioritize guns over the lives of domestic violence survivors. Having represented countless low-income clients – who are disproportionately at risk for both domestic violence and gun violence – in civil protection order cases, we know firsthand the vital role that mandatory firearm removal laws play in preventing further violence in our clients’ homes and communities. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear the many voices of those with lived, personal, and professional experience with these issues.”
TAP CEO Heather Bellino says, “We live in Texas, where now, since the Rahimi decision, survivors in our state do not have the same protections as those in other states. While it is vitally important that everyone understands why someone with a protective order against them shouldn’t possess a firearm, this brief is also about the law. We are hopeful the Court will agree that Rahimi was a misapplication of the Court’s guidance in Bruen. It is important for the Court to hear from practitioners on the ground, from all states, who are engaging in this work. We are grateful to all of our partner agencies who stand shoulder to shoulder with us in serving survivors.”
By joining forces to submit this critical amicus brief, these organizations aim to correct the misinterpretation of the law and advocate for the continued protection of domestic violence survivors.
For a copy of the amicus brief, please click here.
*The Coalition is comprised of the following dedicated nonprofits across the country: Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc., Bay Area Legal Aid, Central California Legal Services, Community Legal Aid SoCal, Eastside Legal Assistance Program, Georgia Legal Services Program, Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Indiana Health Advocacy Coalition, Indiana Legal Services, Inc., Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, Legal Aid of Arkansas, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Los Angeles Center of Law and Justice, Maryland Legal Aid, New Haven Legal Assistance Association, OneJustice, SAFE Alliance, Southwest Louisiana Legal Services Corporation, Southern Arizona Legal Aid, Inc., Texas Advocacy Project, Texas Legal Services Center, University of Texas School of Law Domestic Violence Clinic, Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Tenants File Lawsuit Against Landlord Running Unlicensed, Dangerous Properties in Somerset County, Maryland
Maryland Legal Aid (MLA) filed a lawsuit in Somerset County Circuit Court against Eric Sessoms and Mt. Vernon Group, LLC, who owns roughly 40 rental properties in Somerset, Worcester, and Wicomico Counties. The case stems from Mr. Sessoms and Mt. Vernon Group’s renting out properties in Princess Anne and Crisfield without a rental license. The two properties each have dozens of safety and code violations. One family lives in an insect-infested home, plagued by bedbugs and roaches, while the other family lives in fear of an electrical fire, due to the severe and dangerous electrical problems in the home. The conditions in both homes fail to meet housing code standards and Mr. Sessoms has failed to address these fundamental issues as required by law.
Mt. Vernon Group and Mr. Sessoms advertised a $2,500 security deposit for each property, but then later increased the security deposit to more than two times the monthly rent – which is illegal. The Defendants violated the Maryland A state or federal law designed to protect consumers against improperly described, damaged, faulty, and dangerous goods and services as well as from unfair trade and credit practices. Including Legal Issues like: bankruptcy, collections, garnishment and repossession. More Protection Act and the Maryland Fair To collect a debt or obtain payment; To recover goods sold on credit or in installments when the buyer fails to pay for them. More Act by seeking rent on their unlicensed properties. Lastly, Mr. Sessoms and Mt Vernon Group retaliated against both tenants by trying to evict them after they complained about the dangerous conditions which they have a right to do. The Defendants’ retaliation is illegal.
Due to Mt. Vernon Group, LLC and Eric Sessoms’ conduct, the Truitt and Vance families have suffered extreme emotional distress, enduring sleepless nights worried about unsafe and unhealthy conditions in their own homes.
Supervising Attorney for Maryland Legal Aid’s Lower Eastern Shore Office Jamie Miliman said, “MLA warns tenants in Somerset County to be wary of these illegal and predatory tactics by landlords, particularly those families who are struggling to find affordable housing. It is important to do your research to make sure the property you are renting is licensed and does not have serious health and safety violations. If you are living in a rental property that you believe is unsafe or unhealthy, please reach out to Maryland Legal Aid or other legal resources to find out about your rights and get help.”