In November, two HLS students landed a $54,000 verdict against the Bank of New York for cutting off the water and heat of a man it was trying to force out of the home he rented. The landlord had failed to make mortgage payments.
The verdict—which was reached by the 12-person jury in Boston Housing Court after four hours of deliberation—may yet be doubled or tripled under the state’s consumer protection law.
The case was tried by 3Ls David Haller and Eli Schlam of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, under the supervision of Verner Moore, and the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, with Eric Levine ’08.
“Students are hopeful that the size of the award will encourage banks to improve treatment of tenants in the properties they acquire through foreclosure and to consider maintaining properties instead of evicting people,” said Haller.
HLS clinics are involved in 50 to 100 similar cases, now pending, he added. Haller co-founded No One Leaves, an organization that advises tenants to remain in foreclosed dwellings until the legal process has been exhausted.
William Allen had lived in his Dorchester apartment for four years. In December 2007, he learned that the owner had lost the property in a bank foreclosure a month earlier. The city turned the water off, cutting off heat to Allen’s home.
After Allen turned to Legal Services, Levine contacted the Bank of New York, which owned the property, to notify them that Allen was living in the apartment. The bank responded by changing the locks and reporting Allen to the police as a squatter.
Allen, who is on Social Security disability, lived without water or heat for four months. Students filed a restraining order with the Boston Housing Court to force the bank to turn on the water. The court ordered the bank to pay for Allen to live in a hotel until the water problem was resolved.
When the bank filed an eviction claim, Allen counterclaimed, alleging that the shut-off of his water and heat amounted to a forced eviction.
The jury returned a verdict of $4,000 in actual damages plus $50,000 for emotional distress.