2018 Grantee Case Update From Public Interest Law Center

The Public Interest Law Center provided an update on their 2018 grant:

"A Philadelphia law requires that a landlord must provide tenants with a Certificate of Rental Suitability when they sign a lease. These Certificates, which are issued by the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I), require landlords to affirmatively verify their properties are suitable to be lived in, and can only be issued when L&I determines there are no outstanding code violations. When a landlord fails to comply with this requirement, renters do not owe rent. In short, landlords must make their properties habitable before they collect rent from tenants.

Landlords, however, often ignored the law. Making matters worse, their attorneys would sue tenants for that rent in Philadelphia’s Municipal Court. The Public Interest Law Center, a 2018 grantee of the foundation, sought to disrupt that business model, and end this practice once and for all. The Law Center filed a 2017 class action complaint, Baker v. Ross, alleging that a landlord attorney’s complaints for this back rent were not just in contravention of Philadelphia law, but were in violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Given the state of the lawyer-defendant’s finances, the parties entered into successful settlement talks before a Magistrate Judge. That eventual settlement included the payment of damages to the tenant class, and lawyer-defendant’s end to the practice of suing for money when his landlord clients had not complied with the Certificate of Suitability law. Moreover, the Board of Judges of the Municipal Court took independent action to solve the problem, enacting court rules to end the practice for all lawyers, not just the defendant here.

In September 2018, the District Court conditionally certified a class. In February 2019, with no objectors and no opt-outs, the District Court found the settlement fair and reasonable, gave final approval to the settlement, and certified the class." (February 2019)