Charlotte volunteer attorney exceeds client's expectations
When an inspector for the City of Charlotte told a tenant that she and her family should not continue to reside in the home they were renting because it had serious defects she contacted Legal Aid of North Carolina's Charlotte office. Legal Aid of NC (LANC) Attorney Chad Crockford contacted the landlord; the client's demands were minimal, the return of her security deposit and some rent returned to assist with the move. The landlord refused to refund any of the client's rent. At that point volunteer attorney Danielle Walther (Nexsen Pruet, PLLC) joined the case and sued the landlord for "breach of the implied warranty of habitability." When the landlord failed to respond, Danielle had a default entered against the landlord and his company. Facing the possibility of a default judgment, the landlord brought in his counsel and cross motions to set aside the entry of default. Then, facing serious risk of substantial judgment, the landlord settled with the client for a $12,000 lump sum payment to the client. The client was thrilled. "I really liked this case especially the fantastic result for the client," said Walther. "I am already looking forward to taking another pro bono case from LANC. I strongly recommend it, not just because pro bono work is the right thing to do, but also because it is an opportunity to challenge yourself, and it can be such a rewarding experience."
The substantial settlement amount was attributable to there being claims for both breach of implied warranty of habitability under North Carolina's "Residential Rental Agreements Act" and for treble damages under the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
The legal right to an implied warranty of habitability in all rental housing was established by the NC General Assembly's enactment the Residential Rental Agreements Act in 1977 (codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 42-38 et seq.). The sponsor of the legislation was then-representative Henry Frye, who later became the first African American to serve on the N.C. Supreme Court. Ted Fillette (then a staff lawyer with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, LSSP) assisted Rep. Frye with that bill; Fillette is presently the Senior Managing Attorney for the LANC-Charlotte Office.
As for the right for tenants' receiving treble damages under the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (UTPDA) in this context is traced back to a series of successful cases won in the NC Court of Appeals over many years. The first one occurred also in 1977 in a case in which Don Gillespie and Ted Fillette (both then with LSSP) were co-counsel The other two critical decisions came in 1990 in a case handled by Hazel Mack-Hilliard with the Legal Aid Society of NWNC (Mack-Hilliard is presently the Regional Manager in the LANC-Triad Region) and in 1994 in a case handled by C.J. Reilly who was with North State Legal Services in Hillsborough (Reilly is presently a managing attorney in the LANC-Durham Office).
"Clearly the prior legal work by our legal services colleagues gave Danielle and me the tools to bring about this result," noted Crockford, "and, apparently, once the attorney for the landlord understood that there was precedent for that which was being sued, the landlord settled."