Penfield Town Court Judge James Mulley has seen suburban tenants facing eviction without legal representation, and recognized how markedly different the outcomes might have been if the playing field had been more even.
“Most landlords have lawyers, most tenants do not,” Judge Mulley observed, catching the ear of Volunteer Legal Services Project Executive Director Sheila Gaddis.
How might the appellate division attorneys help VLSP address tenant evictions in town and village courts? he wondered.
As Executive Assistant to the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, Judge Mulley manages court activity across 22 counties in his day job, and sees opportunities to improve the administration of justice. Working in the public sector for over 30 years, he doesn’t just talk about change, he makes it happen.
Discussions of the need for legal representation of tenants outside the city of Rochester ultimately led to the formation of the Tenant Town and Village Court program, a partnership between the attorneys at the Appellate Division, Fourth Dept. and VLSP.
“It is a great opportunity for us to make a difference,” Judge Mulley noted. “In one night we already have.”
On Jan. 4, the first outreach under this new program took place in the Irondequoit Town Court, and three tenants avoided immediate eviction with the help of volunteer attorneys who negotiated anywhere from two weeks to two months reprieve.
Seven volunteer attorneys gathered at the Titus Avenue Justice Court on Monday evening to launch what is hopefully the pilot in a series of future programs throughout the county. Three tenants with eviction notices on the docket were able to negotiate a delay or avoid eviction with experienced attorneys on hand to review the facts and offer compromises.
“Someone gaining 10 days or two weeks to find alternate housing has a better chance of bouncing back from a financial crisis than the person who is on the street in three days,” explained Alan Ross, Deputy Clerk of the Appellate Division, Fourth Dept. “Plus this type of one-on-one client contact reminds me why I do what I do.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Lisa Paine, Deputy Chief Attorney at Mental Hygiene Legal Services. And with Paine’s 20-plus years of experience, she was a great mentor to have on hand for appellate division law assistants Brittany Jones and Christopher Larrabee as they navigated their first eviction case face-to-face with a client.
VLSP staff attorney Karen Chung is heading up the Tenant Town and Village Court Program. Assisting her Monday evening was VLSP staff paralegal Pauline Smith who is very experienced with client intake forms and procedures.
Chung was delighted at the volunteer turn-out for the implementation of this new program.
“We have young attorneys gaining client experience that could make a difference when they seek future employment,” noted Gaddis. “And we have the experience of attorneys like Craig Peterson, Lisa Paine, and Judge Mulley to serve as checks and balances.”
Of four eviction cases on the town court docket in which the tenants appeared, three of the tenants opted for representation and seemed grateful to have an attorney negotiate with the landlords’ attorneys.
The town justices were among those present at a November CLE on evictions, so it was gratifying to have Irondequoit Town Court Judge Patrick Russi allow the tenant cases with resolutions to be presented mid-evening while a full criminal docket was briefly recessed.