From the far west and east corners of the state of Tennessee, law professors worked through the last few weeks of the spring semester to bring their students together virtually and aid attorneys and clients facing eviction procedures.
When the threat of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of in-person classes, legal clinic professors at the University of Tennessee College of Law and the University of Memphis School of Law began scrambling to reinvent their curriculum.
Professor Wendy Bach’s legal practice history with eviction defense in New York City had given her firsthand knowledge of how economic crises can lead to homelessness.
“I was looking for something meaningful for our students to take on that was a direct response to this crisis,” Bach said. “Legal services attorneys are facing a wave of eviction-related work. There is a moratorium on eviction proceedings now. But when that’s lifted, the number people dealing with these situations will skyrocket. And the proceedings will move very fast.”
Bach reached out to legal services organizations throughout the state to determine whether students could assist in some way related to eviction law. Her queries led Bach to Professor Katy Ramsey at the University of Memphis who also had eviction law experience.
“Wendy and I have known each other through national organizations and scholastic circles for a number of years,” Ramsey said. “When we began talking with each other about the projects we were considering, we realized that we both had the same boss in New York.”
Bach and Ramsey began brainstorming and about how they could collaborate. They realized their clinic classes were scheduled to meet at the same time and that they could bring their students together – via classroom Zoom sessions – to partner and find solutions for Tennessee’s COVID-related eviction issues.
“Tennessee does not have strong tenant protection laws so evictions are always a problem and tenants don’t have lot of recourse,” Ramsey said.
When landlords are hindered from evicting tenants, it’s not unusual to see those landlords change locks, cut off utilities or even remove front doors from their tenants’ dwellings, Ramsey said, “and that’s absolutely illegal.”
The students drafted model pleadings that attorneys can use as templates to request emergency hearings.
“It was very satisfying that prior to the end of the semester, a couple of attorneys said they had been able to use those documents and had positive outcomes,” Bach said.
In partnership with Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, students in the two classes also took on the task of surveying counties and sheriff’s departments throughout the state to learn how they were handling evictions.
County courts have discretion about whether they will accept eviction filings during this time, and sheriffs can interpret how they want to proceed with executing writs that were issued prior to court closures throughout the state.
“The information was important for TALS to have when they receive calls their helpline,” Bach said. “They wanted to be able to accurately answer questions for clients about how to best deal with situations in their home counties.”
The students also gathered information about Tennessee eviction laws in relation to public health emergencies then crafted opinion pieces to share with Tennessee newspapers.
“We looked into what happened during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, and if what happened then carries over to today, we’re about to have a significant housing crisis,” Tennessee College of Law student Allen Heaston said.
Heaston, who will work in family, civil and criminal law through Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem after graduation, said learning about housing law through the Legal Clinic was a worthwhile experience.
“It was just a very different area of study for me,” he said. “Just the vast amount of knowledge we were able to absorb in a short period of time has been incredible.”
Bach, Ramsey and Heaston agree there were significant benefits to the collaboration that allowed students to gain new experiences while helping people throughout Tennessee.
“This is definitely a collaboration I hope the College of Law will continue,” Heaston said.