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Friday, August 30, 2019

Connecticut Supreme Court Cites Housing Clinic Brief in Win for Tenants

The Connecticut Supreme Court cited a brief written by Yale Law School’s Housing Clinic when it ruled that landlords may not include “extraneous and irrelevant charges” in eviction paperwork, affirming that tenants of subsidized housing have a right to know how much they must pay to keep their homes.

In Presidential Village, LLC v. Perkins, the court ruled that landlords seeking to evict tenants of subsidized housing for nonpayment of rent can only list the amount of back rent owed, not legal or other fees, in notices to tenants. Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, which includes the Housing Clinic, led five other legal services organizations to file an amicus brief in support of the tenant.

The decision, issued in June, notes that landlords failing to specify the amount of unpaid rent inhibit tenants from preparing a defense against eviction. “It is not the tenant’s obligation to ferret out the particulars. The regulations place that obligation squarely and exclusively on the landlord,” Justice Andrew J. McDonald wrote.

“Subsidized housing is critically important to the stability of low-income families,” said Amy Eppler-Epstein ’86, a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and the Staff Attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance who represented the defendant. “So, if they get behind on their rent, such families really need to know how much they owe and what they have to do to prevent an eviction. We’re glad the Supreme Court recognized how important it is to low-income families to be able to preserve their low-income housing, and that the court has improved the legal tools such families have available to do so.”

The ruling underscores that federal law must be followed in evictions from federally subsidized housing, said J. L. Pottenger Jr. ’75, Nathan Baker Clinical Professor of Law. He added that the clinic has already applied the decision to win dismissal of another public housing eviction in New Haven.

The defendant was a month-to-month renter in a New Haven subsidized apartment complex in 2015 when she fell two months behind on rent, a total of $2,804 at the market rate. As required by federal law for such housing, the landlord sent the tenant a pre-termination notice. These notices are intended to tell renters how they are in violation of a lease and how they can resolve the issue, giving them a chance to avoid eviction and loss of their housing subsidy. In this case, the notice stated she was in violation of her lease for nonpayment and owed a “total rental obligation” of $6,189.56 — an amount that included the past-due rent, late fees, utilities, legal fees, and court costs from an earlier, unsuccessful eviction case. That total and how it was described in the notice are at the crux of the case.

When the tenant did not respond to the notice, according to court documents, the landlord brought her to court. Eppler-Epstein filed a motion to dismiss the action. According to the motion, the notice “inaccurately — and misleadingly” stated that the tenant would be evicted unless she promptly paid the full amount of $6,189.56 when, under state law, she would have avoided eviction for nonpayment of rent by paying only the recently overdue rent, or $2,804. Lumping together rent and non-rent charges, the defense argued, made the notice defective. The plaintiff argued that including the non-rent charges did not make the notice defective, only that it contained “more information than strictly necessary.” The additional charges were listed with “enough specificity” for the tenant to mount a defense against eviction, the plaintiff argued.

The Housing Clinic’s amicus brief for the defendant cited psychological research on how information overload can be overwhelming in consumer disclosures. According to the research, renters with low incomes face particular difficulties deciphering pre-termination notices for reasons directly caused by poverty such as low literacy, lack of legal representation, and “less mental bandwidth to attend to other matters.” According to the brief filed by Pottenger and his clinic students, “quantity is not quality when a notice drowns the grounds for an eviction in erroneous, irrelevant charges and a confusing format.” In addition, “the sufficiency of notice cannot be measured by the amount of ink on the page.”

Students contributing to the brief were Mark Andriola ’19, Colin Antaya ’19, Bethany Hill ’18, James Horner ’19, Nathan Leys ’20, and Jesse Williams ’20.

“Connecticut has many organizations doing great work to protect the tenants' rights,” Williams said. “We were able to help channel their combined expertise into a brief that spoke powerfully not only to what the law required in this instance, but what would happen if the state deprived its residents of the basic right at stake here — the right to know how much rent they actually owe."

A trial court agreed with the tenant and dismissed the case, citing the legal definition of “rent,” which is limited to the charge to occupy a rental unit. “It is no secret among most landlords (nor even, perhaps, sophisticated tenants) that the term ‘rent’ is a term of art in housing law,” the decision stated. The court also noted that the landlord acknowledged that the listed total owed included legal fees for which the tenant was not responsible and that some charges were not accounted for.

The landlord, however, won on intermediate appeal when a court ruled that the notice complied with federal law, which did not require that the notice also comply with Connecticut law. Including the non-rent charges in the notice was a “minor deviation from language of federal regulations,” the court wrote.

Ultimately, the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with the tenant, overturning the appellate court decision. The court noted its agreement with the amicus brief, adding that “the exclusion of superfluous charges that a tenant would not need to defend against to avoid eviction is especially important in light of the lack of legal sophistication of many recipients of these notices.”

The court did not, however, address whether landlords may include back rent from earlier leases in pre-termination notices.

“In light of this conclusion, we need not reach the defendant's claim that the notice also was jurisdictionally defective because it misleadingly included rent charges for leases that are no longer in effect and that could not be used to support a summary process action under Connecticut law,” the court wrote. “While prudent landlords would be well served by limiting their pre-termination notices to the rent charges that lawfully may support the summary process action, we have no occasion to determine that question in this case.”

Pottenger said that although the court did not rule on whether pre-termination notices could include charges from previous leases, the decision signaled the court’s concern with that common practice.

Students in Yale Law School’s Housing Clinic focus one one of three tracks: foreclosures, evictions, or fair housing policy. Housing Clinic students study ethics and policy issues, including the role discrimination has played in the government’s and industry’s treatment of homeowners and renters. They also attend skills-training sessions and sessions of the court handling cases in their respective tracks. Working through the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, Housing Clinic students represent clients and handle cases seeking affirmative relief. Student teams also tackle legislative remedies arising from the clinic’s clients’ cases.