Were You Evicted or Abused by a Landlord? Check Out This Class Action Suit
One of the most alarming concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people were evicted, legally or otherwise, because they couldn't pay due to circumstances out of their control. You can check out a map located here that shows state-level eviction moratoriums. However, keep in mind that some states used to have a moratorium that expired, and there's a good chance you're covered under new federal law and President Trump's executive orders regardless.
What's It About?
This particular class action lawsuit is against a large law firm in Virginia who is being accused of taking advantage of vulnerable people during a crisis. Senex Law has contracts with many landlords across the state. Many of its contracts are in some of the hardest-hit regions of the state, such as northern Virginia, where housing costs remained sky-high even as many involuntarily lost their jobs.
The suit is formally brought to federal court by the Legal Aid Justice Center, located in Hampton, VA. Given that most members of the class affected cannot afford lawyers of their own, this case is pro bono for members. The case alleges, with what appears to be fairly solid evidence, that tenants were abused by landlords even if they weren't evicted.
Remember, even if you aren't eligible to join this particular suit, this is just one of several very similar suits across the country.
What Are the Allegations?
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) alleges that tenants of many apartment buildings received letters on their landlords' official letterheads, written as though they came from their landlords. Because these letters contained content that wouldn't be legal for a landlord to state, they were actually sent by Senex Law. However, tenants say there was little to no indication that Senex Law was actually sending these letters.
They essentially sent "threat letters" to tenants, the suit alleges. The LAJC stated that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants received letters demanding the following if it looked like they'd be late on rent payments:
- A $30 "non-compliance fee" simply for receiving the letter
- A $100 "late fee" that appeared to be mandatory
- A notice stating that the tenant had five days to cough up the rent money
- A notice that tenants would owe an additional $100 if they were evicted
Scared at the prospect of becoming homeless almost overnight, many tenants paid it out of fear.
What Are the Prospects of the Suit?
This is not the first time that Senex Law has been taken to court for exactly the same thing. However, the last time it was taken to court, it was not during a novel pandemic.
Since it affected people in multiple states, it's being brought to federal court this time. Chances are that neither a judge nor jury would be able to find much sympathy for a law firm who allegedly pocketed most of the "fees" that were questionable to begin with and allegedly mislead tenants already in bad circumstances.
It's unclear what defense Senex Law intends to use, or if it will even attempt defense. Many cases like these are settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. This is a case to watch, because it could very well end up being one where a judge or jury decides to "make an example out of" this case to discourage other lawyers and landlords from doing the exact same thing. Even if federal law and executive orders didn't cover the class in question, there is always the possibility of so-called "jury nullification".
If the case does go to trial and goes to a jury, a jury can rule in favor of the plaintiffs out of pity, out of anger against the law firm, or essentially whatever factors it decides are relevant. The likelihood of this is significant enough that Senex Law will most likely try to settle out of court. Though those behind the suit went through a huge amount of stress before, it may very well pay off when they get their day in court.
Looking for Help?
If you were abused or evicted by a landlord, try contacting legal aid in your area and searching online for potential class action suits in your state or in your city. It's much easier to "jump aboard" an existing class action suit, but plenty of lawyers are offering services to affected tenants for free due to this unique situation.
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