Guest Blog for National Pro Bono Week:
That’s what the Chavez family was doing – and it is why I am so thankful I had the privilege of being their pro bono lawyer.
Happy National Pro Bono Week! Created by the American Bar Association, Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year. Here in California we celebrate the work of the law students and attorneys who donate thousands of hours to bring more free, life-saving legal help to Californians in need. At OneJustice, we believe these volunteers are heroes – and we are proud to bring the following guest blog post from our very own hero, Advisory Board member Marley Degner.
Guest Blog: Preventing Homelessness for the Chavez Family – My First Pro Bono Case.
By Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman
I met Mauricio and Sugey Chavez as a new attorney at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. It took seven long months – from November 2007 to May 2008 – to help them stabilize their housing, but doing so was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.
Mauricio and Sugey were a young couple with three young children and a fourth on the way. The Chavez family was seeking help in fighting their landlords’ attempt to evict them from their apartment. Mauricio had grown up in the apartment, lived there for 18 years, and even married Sugey in the living room. They went first to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for help and were referred to my law firm – Pillsbury – for pro bono assistance. Their case was the first pro bono matter, and indeed one of the first cases, that I took on as a new attorney.
Most eviction cases are resolved quickly, but not this one. First, the landlords attempted to evict the family on the basis of trivialities (such as saying that the family set out the garbage in the wrong place) and trumped up allegations – like the family had a dog and set up a satellite dish, even though the landlord had previously agreed to both.
Here is what was really going on. The apartment had a wide array of serious problems – and the Chavez family had finally gotten up the courage to complain. In fact, Sugey called the Department of Building Inspection, and when the Inspector came out he found numerous building code violations, including that the apartment lacked any source of heat, that the walls were damaged and poorly repaired, that one of the doors had a hole that admitted rain, that the ceilings and many of the windows needed to be repaired, and that the flooring was damaged and filthy. And what did the landlords do after being cited for these violations? They filed the paperwork to evict the Chavez family and their children – and they even had the audacity to tell the family they were being evicted for costing them so much money.
And that is why it was so important that the Chavez family had access to representation by an attorney. By demonstrating the eviction was retaliatory and without good cause, I got the case dismissed. I also negotiated a Settlement Agreement that forced the landlords to make all the repairs identified in the inspection, make additional renovations to improve the apartment, and even lower the monthly rent. This was a major win for Mauricio and Sugey – the promise of finally having appropriate living conditions for their children.
Before the repairs could be completed, however, the apartment became infested with mold after the ceiling leaked during a rainstorm. Mauricio and Sugey’s youngest daughter suffered a severe allergy attack. The landlords informed the family that they had to temporarily relocate (so the landlords could make more extensive renovations), but assured me that the family could reoccupy the apartment once the work was completed. But then the landlords tried to back out on the deal – they served the family with a Notice to Vacate that did not allow them to return to their home. Once again, I was able to step in and protect Mauricio and Sugey’s rights, and the landlords rescinded the notice.
But then the landlords announced that they were going to ask the San Francisco Rent Board for a substantial rent increase, despite the Settlement Agreement where they agreed to a reduced rent amount. At this point, Mauricio and Sugey were so tired of dealing with the landlords’ behavior that they were open to negotiating a new agreement to move out of the apartment all together. Consistent with the family’s wishes, I negotiated a buy-out of their tenancy for approximately $25,000. The family used the settlement payment to secure a home loan—and Sugey Chavez gave birth to the family’s fourth child, Giselle.
What I will always remember about the case was how grateful the Chavez family was for Pillsbury’s assistance. Sugey told me that she had never had anybody in her life to fight for her the way that I fought for her family, and she was deeply touched. It made a huge difference that they had attorneys fighting for them – and I am very thankful that I was able to be one of those attorneys. I had always known that I would be involved with pro bono work as an attorney, and working with Mauricio and Sugey Chavez reaffirmed that commitment. I have been active in pro bono cases ever since and it is a vitally important part of my professional life.
I am involved with OneJustice because OneJustice exists to make sure that people like the Chavez family have access to legal representation. I do not know what would have happened to them if they had not been able to secure pro bono help – and quickly – after receiving the first eviction notice. Their landlords were furious at them for calling the Building Inspector and were determined to use the legal system to evict the family or to raise their rent when the health and safety of the family was threatened by their living conditions. People like the Chavez family depend on organizations like OneJustice to survive, and that’s why I’m so proud to serve on the OneJustice Advisory Board.