Hip Hop, Housing Court, and More: Updates from the Hale Dorr Legal Services Center

BY KAREN TENENBAUM

Byron McLain, 3L, reported no major successes this week.
Bethany Lobo, 3L, reviews a document.

Alexandra Chirinos (2L, Community Enterprise Project) is working for a client who started a hip hop dance troupe and is seeking to get non-profit tax status. The client is starting a program of classes for kids, ages 10-21, to teach skills like turntabling, beatboxing and breakdancing. The Boston-born client’s goal, Chirinos said, was to teach the best of what hip hop culture had to offer without its negative aspects. His own experience with hip hop in his youth is what kept him off the streets and out of gangs, Chirinos related. Similarly, one of the group’s goals is to keep kids off the street and involved in the community. Chirinos’ work focuses on filling out the lengthy 1023 application for recognition of exemption. Basically, she said, “I translate [this hip hop] movement into terms that make sense to the IRS.”

Has Chirinos seen the kids in action? The client invited her to a class. “It was a beatboxing class. You know what I mean?” Chirinos asked. “I think that’s what it’s called. It’s kind of a spoken thing, [like] hip hop boxing. They rhyme against each other.”

Chirinos has enjoyed her work so far. “At HLS, I don’t really run into a lot of breakdancing,” she said.

Recently in Boston Housing Court, Colleen Guilford (3L, Housing) argued and won a case against a landlord seeking permission to evict a tenant who had fallen behind on rent and a previous agreement to repay rent. The client lost her job in June, and her landlord soon attempted to evict her for nonpayment. In August, she came to an agreement with him for a timetable to repay the back rent, but the agreement was harsh, since the client was then unrepresented and the landlord’s attorneys drafted it.

Guilford picked up the case when she was manning the Attorney-for-the-Day table at the Boston Housing Court. This table is a last-stop advice center for tenants, and this tenant was back at court for failure to repay the unpaid rent. Tenants almost always lose when they fall behind on such agreements, and eviction was imminent. Guilford asked the client how much of the back rent she could pay up front — how much money could she get together immediately? If a tenant is able to make a serious payment right then, a judge is less likely to scrap an agreement to repay. “She literally took my cell phone and started calling everyone she knew to try to get this money…when she handed it back to me, it was wet with tears,” Guilford said.

Guilford was despondent. “I just sat there looking at [supervisor Dave] Grossman and said, ‘What can we do? This woman’s going to lose her house.'” Then Guilford asked the client why she had been late on the rent. It was because her aunt had been evacuated during Katrina. A tree fell on the aunt’s house and the client “had to make the decision to help her family.” Would the landlord cut the client a break? “[The attorneys] were sympathetic,” Guilford said, but the landlord refused to enter into a second agreement.

The wheels in Guilford’s head began turning and she formulated a defense for the judge. “It was tough finding a balance,” Guilford remembered. She certainly did not want to be “too melodramatic.” Guilford decided to propose an amount that the client would be able to pay out of her unemployment benefits.

The defense worked, and the judge put the client on a new, albeit tough, payment schedule, which Guilford says she can follow, if she scrimps and saves. As Guilford turned to leave, the judge called out, “‘Counselor!'” Guilford stopped, her heart pounding with the thrill of victory and new trepidation. “‘Yes, your honor?'” Guilford, ever modest, claims to be unable to remember exactly what he said next, “but it was something like “‘Good job today. That was a great argument.'”

Luke Nikas (3L, Community Enterprise Project) is helping his client get a website up and running. The idea is this: to create an E-bay-like website for people who want to rent goods and services. People would enter their zipcodes to find things in their areas. Nikas gave the example of someone being able to rent a lawnmower from someone else who lives nearby.

The client intends the project to be a community-building enterprise and is seeking non-profit status. “He’s a really nice guy,” Nikas explained, and “he has so many ideas.”

But it is clear that this creativity has also been the source of some of the client’s troubles with this endeavor. Nikas has gained some “interesting insights on how a client’s personality affects what goes on in legal representation,” he said. For example, the two would begin a meeting discussing the technicalities of what kind of corporation the client had created, or what kind of corporation he wanted it to be, “and the conversation would end up with, ‘Well, you might not even own the corporation.'” Nikas is helping the client sort out the corporation’s liabilities and with drafting contracts that will go on the website – contracts like the rental agreement for the site users and its “terms of use” agreement.

Nikas is also charged with “figuring out who owns the corporation,” and, as Chirinos is, with “translating this unique thing into a 1023 form.” Is Nikas interested in corporate law? “No, actually. Not at all.”

Karen Tenenbaum, 2L:

Since I am writing this column, I feel entitled to report on my own successes. Recently, I filed an affidavit of indigency, a document affirming that a client does not have enough money to pay for the administrative aspects of a suit herself – things like serving the summons, filing the complaint, contributing to the Court’s doughnut fund.

All I had to do, according to my supervisor Rafael Mares, was go to the clerk’s office and hand them this affidavit. They would approve it and give me a summons, which I would take to the Sheriff’s office nearby. I asked, “Do I have to wear a suit?” “Yes,” replied Rafael. “What if I pretend to be a bike courier?” “No, you may not do that.”

The next morning, I went downtown, which was my first solo trip to Boston Housing Court. “The first rule of Housing Court is that you do not piss off the clerks,” Dave Grossman had said. Alright. I saw a young and cute clerk. My strategy would be to admit that this was my first time at Housing Court alone, and give him the opportunity to be chivalrous.

He peered at the affidavit. “What’s this? You want the summons, complaint, and photocopying fees? That’s a lot of money.” “Well, that’s just for the occasional paper in the file– I’m not going to need the whole file or anything.” “I can’t approve all this copying. You’re going to argue it before the judge.” “Ok, ok. I’ll just cross off the copying then.” “It’s too late. You have to go before a judge now since I already submitted the affidavit. ” “But you just submitted it to that clerk over there! I can see her! Could you please just get it back and I’ll cross out copying?” “Nope, it’s too late. It’s going up to the judge. Sorry.” Clerk #2 rises, starts moving to the courtroom door. “Can we just intercept her? She’s not even at the door yet!” “It is too late.” 15 minutes and 3 frantic phone calls to Dave and Rafael later, I become the third student in LSC history to go before a judge unsupervised.

Judge: What is this about?

Karen: It’s an affida-

Judge: I know what it’s about.

Karen: …

Judge: So your client is indigent?

Karen: That is correct.

The judge granted everything, except the $5 summons fee and the photocopying.

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