The Public Interest Law Center (www.pubintlaw.org) uses high-impact legal strategies to advance the civil, social, and economic rights of communities in the Philadelphia region facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty. We use litigation, community education, advocacy, and organizing to secure access to fundamental resources and services for large numbers of people. Founded in 1969 as an affiliate of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Law Center’s work brings about lasting, systemic change, breaking down barriers to housing, public education, environmental justice, healthcare, employment, and voting.
THE CASE: With funding from the Barbara McDowell and Gerald S. Hartman Foundation, we will upend the unfair, uneven power dynamic in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court by bringing one or more federal class actions that combine federal consumer law and existing, but often unenforced, Philadelphia rental protections.
Our legal theory is that landlords--through their lawyers--routinely make false statements in eviction complaints; namely, the complaints allege that the landlord is entitled to rent and possession of the premises. In large numbers of cases, this allegation is not true because, under the Philadelphia Code, a landlord that fails to comply with housing quality laws is not entitled to either rent or possession. For example, the Philadelphia Code requires that, in order to collect rent, a landlord must not only be licensed, but also must provide each tenant with a Certificate of Rental Suitability, which, among other things, requires a landlord to verify under penalty of perjury that a rental property is fit, habitable, and has no outstanding code violations.
This clear statutory requirement has not, to date, stopped landlords and their lawyers from filing thousands of eviction cases a year in which there was no certificate of rental suitability, the tenants lived in uninhabitable dwellings and, therefore, technically no rent was due and the landlord was not entitled to possession. Because most tenants are not represented to make this argument, these landlords have succeeded in forcing tenants to pay rent, they have recovered possession of premises, and they have secured money judgments against tenants.
The lawsuits supported by the Barbara McDowell Foundation are based on the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) which prohibits the making of false statements in the collection of a debt. On September 26, 2017, we filed our first case, Baker v. Glen M. Ross, PC, a federal class action that alleges that the defendant law firm routinely sues tenants on behalf of landlords for back rent and/or possession when Philadelphia law says that no money or possession was owed. As the group of lawyers who represent landlords in Philadelphia is small and relatively tightly-knit, we expect that one or more of these cases will cause that legal community to pressure their clients—the landlords—to comply with housing quality standards in order to secure legal representation.
Jennifer R. Clarke, Executive Director, Public Interest Law Center, firstname.lastname@example.org, 267-546-1302
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, Staff Attorney, Public Interest Law Center, email@example.com, 267-546-1316