For this month’s Q&A, we sat down for a conversation with Noah Magaram, an LCBH staff attorney who focuses much of his work on eviction defense. A graduate of DePaul University College of Law, Noah came to LCBH in Fall 2011 as a volunteer, and has been a staff attorney since September 2012.
Q: What made you choose to work at a legal aid agency?
I resolved when applying to law school to enter a practice area that was oriented toward the public interest. I became interested in housing law specifically after writing a legislative history of the Fair Housing Act in undergrad.
Q: What program(s) do you work on at LCBH?
My time is spent mostly in the Tenant Advocacy Program. Most of my caseload is composed of eviction defense, with a minority of cases relating to affirmative lawsuits for illegal lockouts and Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) violation cases.
Q: How many cases are you working on at a time? How do you manage?
I usually have 30-40 open cases at any given time. I use our case management system and my calendar to schedule and document as many details of the cases as possible so that my mind is free to deal with the client in front of me.
Q: What impact does a housing legal aid agency have on the community?
A housing legal aid agency plays an important role in affording equal access to justice for indigent tenants in a community. By preventing tenants in a community from becoming homeless, legal aid often means the difference between hunger and food on the table, entering a homeless shelter and being stably housed, and the provision of safety and security from exploitation and abuse. On a larger scale, this can reduce strain on community resources, and improve the stability and housing stock of a given neighborhood.
Q: What was your most difficult case? And why?
I’ve had so many difficult cases. A recent case that I had was a senior citizen, Richard, who lived in CHA housing and was being evicted. Recently, he has had trouble accepting that he needs to live in assisted living. Richard’s family lives out of state and lacks the resources to come and assist him. His health caused him some issues with taking care of his bills and staying on budget, and he fell behind on his rent. On the trial date, Richard showed up in court being pushed in a wheelchair by a Cook County Sheriff, after he had collapsed in the lobby of the courthouse. I immediately requested a continuance so that Richard could get some medical attention, but the judge denied my request and evicted Richard after a bench trial. Eviction court can be a cruel process with harsh outcomes. Richard will now be forced to move to assisted living. Difficult cases like this can often be resolved when renters have an attorney in eviction court, but as this story illustrates, even with an attorney, the judges in eviction court can be unpredictable.
Q: Why is it so important for clients to have an advocate in court?
A layperson is at a tremendous disadvantage in court when opposed by an attorney. In forcible (eviction) court rooms, having a skilled advocate in court can often be the only way to ensure that a tenant’s most basic due process rights are respected – meaning that both sides have meaningful access to the court to present their case. This is because judges often fail to ensure some level of due process is afforded to tenants. I see a few reasons for this. First, judicial turnover in eviction courtrooms is high, which means the judges are often unfamiliar with landlord-tenant law and unwilling to challenge the landlord’s bar. Second, judges operate with little fear of appeal because the proceedings are not transcribed (no court reporters) and execution of an Order of Possession (eviction order) can usually be completed before a substantive or procedural error can be presented to the eviction court for reconsideration or to the appellate court. With representation, a tenant at least has a chance of receiving due process, presenting a defense, or settling on fair terms.
Q: How have eviction court and the landscape of affordable housing changed since you have worked at LCBH?
There have been two major changes. First, tenants who file jury demands (cases heard in front of a jury) are no longer sent to a single courtroom for case management and eventual trial. In this setting, cases were litigated before a judge with extensive landlord-tenant law knowledge who employed standard procedures with respect to motion practice and discovery. The above-mentioned difficulties in making a record and appealing errors still existed, but at least one could learn the judge’s legal positions and manage cases with some level of predictability. Now, jury demands are farmed out to 8-10 courtrooms inhabited by judges with differing levels of familiarity with landlord-tenant law. This makes charting a litigation and settlement strategy more difficult.
Second, now more attorneys in private practice offer low-cost representation for tenants. The business model is based upon high volume, rapid settlement, and no meaningful motion practice or trial preparation. As a result, more tenants are represented now than when I entered the practice area, but the services they receive tend to be minimal and most tenants walk away with an eviction on their record making it very difficult to rent in the future. This has had a negative impact on the representation LCBH can provide clients because judges have come to expect tenant’s attorneys to show up to court once or twice, do no meaningful work on the case, then vanish or settle. The effect is to normalize a mass-process approach in which judges and attorneys for tenants and landlords alike pay short shrift to the rights of the tenant. This makes my job more difficult because judges are more resistant to grant my requests to set briefing schedules for dispositive motions or afford a reasonable time for discovery, because they assume I am simply there to agree to a move out date for a flat fee, whereas at LCBH I work on many cases with issues that need to be litigated.