“Helping people helps you.” That’s one of the reasons why Cantey Hanger associate Brian Singleterry helped a low-income Fort Worth woman—who had lost her job due to a disability—facing eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Singleterry had previously taken pro bono cases through the Tarrant Volunteer Attorney Services, or TVAS, and Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, or TLTV, programs of the Tarrant County Bar Association, but he had never handled an eviction case. Singleterry had, however, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, which chronicled the struggles of eight families in Milwaukee as they faced eviction in the aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008. His client could well have been included in Evicted because she had lost her job and had been served with a notice of eviction during the coronavirus pandemic. Singleterry was aware of the serious nationwide eviction crisis, the value of a lawyer, and the tremendous unmet need for lawyers by low-income individuals and families facing eviction.
When Singleterry’s client came to him through a joint “virtual” clinic between TVAS and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, or LANWT, he worked to get up to speed on housing and eviction law. Singleterry viewed a recent eviction webinar by two LANWT housing attorneys, Stuart Campbell and Brent Schellhammer. “I was able to quickly learn the basics of housing law and evictions, and the webinar provided practical tips and the issues to look for in real-world cases. I also was able to speak directly with LANWT attorney Stuart Campbell, who was able to provide information about the assigned justice court judge, what she expected, and how she handled her docket.”
Singleterry had two main arguments: one was defective notice to the client and the other was that the landlord had not pleaded the proper basis for eviction. “From the initial email assigning the case to conclusion, the case lasted less than a week and took about eight hours—including learning the law. The judge dismissed the case based on the defective pleading argument. The victory bought my client a few more weeks in her apartment, giving her time to try to work out an agreement with the landlord or find another place to live.”
Singleterry noted that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Texans are facing eviction, most through no fault of their own. Even in normal times, evictions are a serious problem for people who lose their jobs or otherwise face hard times. “I hope other lawyers will get involved with evictions and other legal problems facing low-income Texans,” Singleterry said. “In a big law firm, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet face to face with clients, go to court, make presentations to a judge, or learn new areas of the law. Pro bono work provides these opportunities. It also is a great opportunity to meet other lawyers. I think it will make me a better lawyer for my firm and my private clients.”
“Helping others helps you,” Singleterry said. “You know you are doing good directly for a person who needs legal help, and you see the positive result a lawyer can make for the client.”
Bill Marple is the director of Pro Bono & Bar Relations for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas.