By Stacey Singer DeLoye
When landlords don’t keep up their property, the consequences for low-income tenants can be severe without the help of an attorney. Fortunately for a disabled woman from Duval County, Lanny Russell and Joseph Rogan of Smith Hulsey & Busey accepted her case pro bono, through Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, a Florida Bar Foundation grantee.
The client had qualified for a subsidized housing voucher from the Jacksonville Housing Authority, Russell said. But the rental she was in initially became unlivable due to broken water pipes and mold. When the woman moved elsewhere, she couldn’t get the utilities turned on in her name due to the lingering troubles.
“We saw that this woman was in a bad position and could use our help,” Russell said.
Russell and Rogan managed to sort through the disabled woman’s situation in about 14 hours, without going to court.
A caregiver had stepped in and turned the utilities on temporarily. They discovered that at the previous rental, their client’s landlord had neglected to repair damaged underground pipes, causing her water bill to soar into the thousands. The Jacksonville electric and water utility, JEA, forgave about $1,700 of the bill, but then disconnected her service due to the outstanding balance of about $1,600. In the sweltering summer heat, mold then destroyed many of her possessions. On top of the excessive utility bill in her name, she lost much of what she owned.
“The position we took was that the landlord was responsible for paying the bill, because the landlord failed to timely repair the leak,” Russell said.
While the landlord finally fixed the pipes, she argued that the disabled woman still owed $1,500 in back rent, refused to pay the outstanding JEA bill, and refused to provide any compensation for the destroyed personal property. Russell and Rogan countered that their client had lost thousands in furnishings due to the landlord’s failure to repair the pipes, making her responsible for those losses. Ultimately, the landlord paid the past-due water bill, released the past-due rent claim, and provided compensation for the lost property, Russell said, giving their client the fresh start she needed in her new home.
During the American Bar Association’s Celebrate Pro Bono Week Oct. 23-29, The Florida Bar Foundation is highlighting the importance of volunteerism among attorneys in helping increase access to justice. Russell said giving back to the community has been a core value of Smith Hulsey & Busey since its early days.
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“Mark Hulsey was a former president of The Florida Bar, and he was a great believer in the need to give back to a profession that have given us all a lot,” Russell said. “We have a day job we have to take care of, but that culture of community service is instilled in us.”
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