Students in UVA Law Housing Clinic Help Keep Clients Home for the Holidays

Laura Ingraham

Third-year law students Mariah Thompson (left) and Sharon Casola won two recent Litigation and Housing Law Clinic cases that went to trial, preventing the evictions of their Charlottesville-area clients.

December 16, 2013

UVA Law students in the Litigation and Housing Law Clinic have been on a hot streak during the chilly weeks leading up to exams, winning three cases that went to trial and preventing the evictions of their clients during the holidays.

Third-year law students Sharon Casola and Mariah Thompson argued the winning cases in November and December.

"Getting to be in court and advocate on behalf of real clients, who desperately need our help, has been extremely rewarding," Casola said. "The clients are extremely appreciative, which makes it worth pushing our other work to the side to ensure that they get the best representation we can give them."

The housing clinic provides representation to low-income residents of the Charlottesville region in trial and administrative proceedings not only in eviction cases, but also in cases of rent escrow disputes, substandard building conditions and other potential violations of tenants' rights.

Casola and second-year law student Tugsu Tumen recently helped a low-income tenant in Louisa County. The elderly client faced eviction because of inflammatory comments she allegedly made to young people in her housing community, according to Brenda Castañeda, an attorney in the Civil Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, which oversees the students' efforts.

In Casola and Tumen's first trial they represented an ailing elderly woman who was on a ventilator and would have trouble moving apartments if she were evicted.

She "was so overwhelmed with joy when we won the trial, she gave me a big bear hug and said she wants me to represent her when I get my own law firm," Casola said.

During that trial, Casola said she observed the power of the bench to influence how a case unfolds.

"Since legal issues were dispositive in this case, the judge conducted the entire trial like an oral argument, where he asked questions of both opposing counsel and me about how he should interpret the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act," Casola said. "His in-depth focus on the statutory language caught me off guard, but the back and forth that ensued between the judge and me felt eerily reminiscent of my 1L cold calls and helped put me at ease." 

Ultimately, the judge found the clinic's arguments persuasive and dismissed the case before the opposing counsel could even present evidence.

Thompson said her first trial, a Charlottesville eviction case, helped grow her confidence in the courtroom. She defended a public housing resident who faced eviction due to drug charges, although her client hadn't been tried for the alleged crime yet, she said.

"At first I felt skeptical about whether my strategy was the 'correct' one," Thompson said. "Now, having done a few trials, I recognize that there isn't just one clear answer — that it is a fluid process that requires being prepared to take multiple angles at any given moment depending on what happens in the courtroom."

Thompson won her first trial with support from second-year student Charlie Merritt.

"Leading up to the trial, none of us were sure [the client] could win and I know she was extremely nervous," Merritt said. "After the victory, I will never forget how she just started crying — she was so happy she couldn't even speak."

Thompson and Casola also worked together to help a Charlottesville woman whose landlord was foreclosed upon stay in her home until she could make other arrangements.

As of today, about half of the cases the clinic has taken on this fall have been closed, and all of the cases that have gone to trial have been eviction cases, according to Legal Aid's Castañeda. The outcome of the fourth and most recent case, heard on Dec. 5 in Charlottesville and argued by Casola and another third-year student, Roshan Dhillon, is still pending. 

The attorney added that many other cases this fall were settled out of court, with one going to an administrative hearing.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of negotiating with the landlord or writing them a letter," Castañeda said. "One woman had an issue with how her rent was being calculated, and the judge [at the administrative hearing] granted her a partial credit."

As the year progresses, other students who acquire their third-year practice licenses will be allowed to argue on behalf of clients in cases that go to trial. But Merritt, who doesn't have his license yet, said even though he didn't get to speak in the case he helped prepare, working directly with the client and prepping Thompson for her argument gave him a complete picture of what it takes to win a trial.

"I think the whole experience will help sharpen my law school studies, now that I can see how the end game under which all lawyers operate works," Merritt said.

Thompson said sacrificing her time to dedicate herself to the clinic cases, through the Thanksgiving break and as exams approached, has been worthwhile.

"The fact that there are holidays or exams seems pretty trivial in comparison to the fact that a lot of folks in Charlottesville do not have secure housing," Thompson said.


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