Charleston Housing Court

In 2016, North Charleston experienced the highest rate of eviction (16.5 out of 100 renters) of any area in the United States.  The national  average was 6.53 per 100.  In that same timeframe, 10.03 households per day were evicted.  Low income tenants spent upwards of 70% of their monthly income on housing costs.  Eviction is closely linked to homelessness.  Up to 70% of tenants facing eviction have no access to legal knowledge or representation.  The numbers are shocking. 

 These factors prompted the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission to petition the S.C. Supreme Court to form the first ever housing court in South Carolina.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) and other local providers of legal and social services came together to seek the Commission’s support in submitting the petition to the Supreme Court in order to set up a viable experiment.  On May 24, 2019, that proposal took one step closer to becoming a reality when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court issued an order approving the Commission’s proposal [MF1] and creating what is officially called the Charleston Housing Court Pilot Project (Pilot Project). 

Under the Pilot Project, three Charleston County magistrates have been appointed to serve as judges of the housing court.  Besides SCLS, other partners in the project include One80 Place Legal Services, Charleston Legal Access, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, Charleston County Magistrate Courts, the Charleston School of Law, Trident Urban League, 2-1-1 Hotline, the City of Charleston and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. 

The magistrate courts and the project partners will draw up criteria to determine who is eligible to participate in the Pilot Project.  Under the Commission’s proposal, the process for connecting potential eligible tenants with attorneys is two-fold.  For tenants who contact the magistrate courts to request an eviction hearing, one will be scheduled for a designated housing court day.  The tenant will then call 2-1-1, which can screen the tenant for income eligibility and connect the tenant with a local legal services provider such as SCLS to meet with the tenant and determine whether representation will be provided. 

For tenants who do not call 2-1-1 ahead of their scheduled hearing, One80 Place will coordinate with the Charleston School of Law and other pro bono attorneys to place someone at the relevant magistrate courts on the days designated for housing court.  For tenants that desire representation, they will meet with the legal counsel and, depending on the facts of the tenant’s case, the attorney will try the case or attempt to mediate it or otherwise resolve the matter with the landlord outside of trial. 

The Chief Justice’s order delineates several data points that must be kept in order to track the Pilot Project’s effectiveness.  These include the  

  1.   number of tenants represented and by whom
  2.   number of evictions filed
  3.   number of hearings requested
  4.   number of evictions that were settled or dismissed
  5.  number of tenants provided financial support
  6. number of evictions averted by mediation, hearing, or financial support
  7. number of evictions with writs of ejectment issued; and
  8. a comparison of number of evictions filed and the number of writs of ejectment in the three pilot project Magistrate Courts with the number of evictions of the other Magistrate Courts in Charleston County.

There is no official start date for the Pilot Project, which may take time to set up.  However, the May 29th order was a necessary and powerful signal that evictions in Charleston County will start getting the attention they deserve while tenants get the legal services they need.


 [MF1]Can we turn this phrase into a hyperlink to the order at https://www.sccourts.org/whatsnew/displayWhatsNew.cfm?indexId=2391

Helping Victims of Stalking

I watched the episode below of the television series, Stalked, several years ago and it forever changed my understanding of stalking.

This episode is based on real life events. The print from the mirror being licked, in particular, helped me better understand the fear and the invasion of privacy that stalking victims experience. The constant fear of being watched and repeated acts of unwanted conduct is psychological torment. Whereas an incident of physical abuse is limited in time to the actual act itself, even if it recurs, stalking, and the anxiety it produces, takes place on a 24 hour, never ending continuum. For example, the opposing party in one of my recent divorce cases was physically abusive towards my client, but his repeated phone calls to her after the separation disturbed her even more than the hitting and shoving. He would repeatedly call and text client, as often as ninety times within a 90-minute period. His contact would occur all throughout the day, as early as 9 a.m. and as late as 2 a.m. He would show up in places where he knew she would visit, like the gym. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to get legal relief as a stalking victim because the harassment is harder to prove than physical abuse. There is usually less evidence and stalkers often use technology to conceal their identity.

I recently participated in a webinar, SPARC: Identifying and Responding to Stalking, presented by the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center. Here are three tips from the webinar that I find helpful when serving our South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) clients who are victims of stalking:

  1. A web-based service that lets you know who is behind an anonymous blocked Caller ID: www.trapcall.com.  When a call is declined, the phone rings back and unmasks the calling number, providing you with information about who is calling and where they live, even before the call is answered. It stops spam callers and automatically blocks spam, telemarketing and robocalls. Stalkers often call victims from apps that assign them different phone numbers. It also allows the person who was called to record incoming calls, which can be used to provide police and attorneys with proof of harassment. Note that this is a paid service.
  2. Stalkers often use apps to change the number shown on the Caller ID to make it appear that it is a friend or family member of the victim that is calling. This is known as spoofing. One way to prove spoofing is to obtain the phone records from the victim, the supposed calling friend or relative, and the suspect. The victim’s record will show the “friend” called, the friend’s records will show that no call was placed. The suspect’s records will show a call to a spoof service. Financial records or a review of the suspect’s app store on a cell phone can reveal the purchase of apps used to stalk victims.
  3. Victims should usually be advised to have no contact at all with the offender. If a stalker calls the victim 59 times, and the victim answers the 59th call, it reinforces to the stalker that they only have to call 59 times the next time and they will be rewarded by the victim’s answering. However, stopping all contact may not be the best advice in all situations. Victims are in the best position to know how to keep themselves safe. It may be safer for them to have limited contact to minimize the threat. Telling a client to change their phone number may escalate the threat of physical harm if the stalker then acts out due to a loss of control or contact. Telling a victim to move or change their number may put them at more risk if they can still be found at their place of employment or a relative or friend’s home.

Because of the challenges facing the staking victims, it important for those of us who represent and assist them to stay informed on the dynamics of stalking and ever-evolving tactics that stalkers use. If you are a victim of stalking, South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To apply, please call our statewide Intake Office at 1-888-346-5592. You can call between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm, Monday through Thursday. We also have an Apply Online option for a limited number of legal issues: http://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ic7LAW7Dgc&feature=youtu.be

Judgment Proof

NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Veronica Blake thought she needed to file bankruptcy when she was sued by Sunshine Finance.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) clients are often fearful that bankruptcy is the only answer, because debt buyers and finance companies often tell them that. However, when you are on a fixed income and have no assets to protect (such as a house or a car), the creditor has no remedy against you other than to get a judgment that they cannot collect.  We call this the bankruptcy bypass or being judgment proof, because South Carolina law prohibits garnishment of wages for consumer debt. Additionally, if a consumer has a house or a car to protect, the property exemptions found in S.C. Code 15-41-30 usually protect them without the necessity of filing bankruptcy.  You can find our brochure about being judgment proof here.

As for Ms. Blake, SCLS accepted her case and filed an Answer denying the alleged debt.  That kind of Answer is called a general denial.  In response to the general denial, Sunshine Finance voluntarily dismissed its case against Ms. Blake.  It turns out that there was no need for the client to file for bankruptcy. SCLS often has clients who are sued for collection by a debt buyer like Sunshine Finance.  A debt buyer is an entity that is in the business of buying a debt for “pennies on the dollar” and then trying to collect the entire amount from the consumer.  They most often have no way of proving the underlying debt, so, if they sue a consumer, they rely on the consumer not responding.  In that case, the debt buyer gets a default judgment and the requirement of proof is very limited or, in some cases, nonexistent. 

When SCLS represents the consumer, the debt buyer or other creditor is forced to present evidence with a live witness. This usually results in a dismissal, as in the case of this client, or in a settlement. As of the date of this article, SCLS had over 100 pending cases to defend consumers from debt collection and unconscionable collection practices. The S.C. Consumer Protection Code and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act are 2 of the tools we use most often to protect clients from these practices.

Student Loans and You

Over 40 million Americans have an average student loan debt of $30,000.00. Because they are unemployed or have income below the poverty line, 28% of borrowers are unable to make payments on their student loans. It is important to be aware of all the effects, advantages and disadvantages of taking out a student loan.

If you are only thinking about attending college, think carefully about whether your degree is likely to land you a job with a high enough salary to be able to repay your student loans. If you are already in college, having a part-time job may allow you to set some money aside to help pay for the loans after you graduate or pay some of the interest on the loans while in school. Consider other options to save money while in school: cook at home instead of eating out, look for more affordable housing, buy or rent used textbooks. Finally, stay in touch with your financial aid office to see if you qualify for any grants and financial aid.

If you are already out of college and have student loans, here is some important information to keep in mind. Your lenders are ready to collect on the loans as soon as you are out of school, and they will. The Federal government can garnish up to 15% of your weekly pay or 30 times the hourly minimum wage – whatever is less. The government can also capture your tax refund or send your loan to a collection agency.

If you need to delay repayment or temporarily stop making payments on your federal student loans, check here to see if you are eligible for a deferment or forbearance. If you have other loans, contact the lender about income-based repayment programs to help you set up a more appropriate payment plan. They are required to set you up for whichever repayment plan you qualify.

If you are struggling with making regular payments on your student loans, here are some resources to help educate you on your options.

  • Equal Justice Works offers a free informational webinar that explains how you can reduce your monthly student loan payments and qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. You can register for the webinar here. They also offer a free e-book entitled “How to Manage Your Student Loan Debt While Pursuing a Public Interest Career” which can be downloaded here.
  • Visit the Federal Student Aid website for information on how to repay your loans, loan consolidation, forgiveness and discharge, and more.
  • Check out our free resources on student loans, financial education, financial aid scams and more.

Remember, with very few exceptions, both federal and private student loans must be repaid. In many cases, you cannot fully discharge them in bankruptcy. It is important that you make timely payments, and if you are unable to do so, that you seek help. South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To apply, please call our statewide Intake Office at 1-888-346-5592. You can call between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm, Monday through Thursday. We also have an Apply Online option for a limited number of legal issues: http://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.