Maryland Legal Aid recently received a $40,000 attorneys' fee award in a bankruptcy case.
Staff Attorney Theda Saffo of Baltimore City's Housing and Consumer Law Unit represented a client who was a tenant of a large section 8 landlord. The client came to Maryland Legal Aid after filing a bankruptcy case pro se. After the client received her Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge, the landlord filed a district court case against her to collect a debt that had been discharged in the bankruptcy. The client had filed the bankruptcy to stop a wage garnishment that was preventing her from paying her rent and maintaining her family expenses. The client was behind in her rent, but told her landlord that she wanted to pay the arrears and stay in the property. As such, she listed the landlord in her bankruptcy filings. The landlord told her that she could not stay in the property and that he could have no further contact with her. The client believed him, and moved, thereby losing her section 8 voucher.
After discussing the case with Senior Staff Attorney Louise Carwell, Theda was able to quickly retrieve the client's section 8 voucher, as it had been revoked due to the debt owed, but now discharged, to the landlord. Theda also went to the District Court and had the action in that court stayed, and she advised the landlord to dismiss the District Court action. The landlord, however, would not agree and refused to pay the client damages for the loss of her voucher. Theda and Louise then drafted a Staff Attorney Kay Harding, Senior Staff Attorney Louise Carwell and Staff Attorney Theda Saffo from the Consumer and Housing Law Unit Motion to Reopen the now closed bankruptcy case. The motion was granted. They then filed a Complaint for Violation of the Automatic Stay and the Discharge asking for damages for the client and attorneys' fees pursuant to the bankruptcy code.
During Theda's leave of absence, Staff Attorney Kay Harding stepped in to assist Louise with the case. Kay and Louise endured a Motion to Dismiss, two half days of trial, much trial preparation, and a request from the Judge to file post trial memos. At one point, Judge David Rice asked Kay and Louise how Maryland Legal Aid could receive attorneys' fees if the client did not need to pay for services. Kay and Louise were able to educate the Judge about Maryland Legal Aid's right to collect attorneys' fees based on Supreme Court case law and the Code of Federal Regulations.
Weeks after the trial, Judge Rice awarded our client $1,000 in actual damages and $5,000 in punitive damages. Judge Rice also asked Maryland Legal Aid to submit a Petition for Attorneys' fees, which Louise and Kay worked on with pro bono assistance from Andrew Freeman of Brown, Goldstein and Levy. As a result, Judge Rice awarded Maryland Legal Aid $40,000 in attorneys' fees. "This truly was a team effort," said Louise.
Chief Counsel Shawn Boehringer noted, "This case demonstrated the incredible expertise of the housing/consumer team on a sophisticated bankruptcy and landlord/tenant issue. We are fortunate to have such a gifted cadre of experts who can produce great results for clients."
Maryland Legal Aid was pleased to be able to help our client preserve her housing, her income, and to help keep her family together. You can read the full opinion here.