Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 8, 2023

Evictions rarely tell just one story

General Sessions Court tries to offer options to both tenants, landlords

The eviction docket on Thursdays in Hamilton County’s General Sessions Court offers a microcosm of the overburdened civil justice system.

Before court begins, dozens of aggrieved landlords and tenants crowd the courtroom of either Judge Alexander McVeagh or Judge Christie Sell to be heard. Many of the landlords have attorneys; many of the tenants do not.

Self-represented tenants can seek legal representation in the hallway, where Legal Aid attorneys who are a part of the county’s Eviction Prevention Initiative (EPI) – a grant-funded effort that provides free legal and social services to families facing eviction – are waiting to help them.

General sessions judges in Hamilton County collectively hear about 14,000 cases a year, necessitating expediency, but McVeagh and Sell give each litigant their due time as they whittle down the lengthy list.

Near the end of the docket, the presiding judge usually has a handful of cases in which neither the landlord nor the tenant have an attorney. These are the cases McVeagh says “have been slipping through the cracks” of local efforts to keep people of meager means housed, including the EPI.

“Even with all of the federal funding and a tenant’s right to representation, some people were not getting help,” McVeagh says. “We needed a solution.”

Enter the court’s fledgling Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI), a grant-funded effort that will offer a housing mediation program for pro se landlords and tenants outside the courtroom.

The National Center for State Courts is funding the local EDI. The center launched its EDI in 2022 with eight cohorts across the country, including Hamilton County. The four-year, $11.5-million program aims to help state and local courts to create permanent changes to their high-volume eviction dockets.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court applied for a two-year NCSC grant last year. Upon being awarded the funds, it zeroed in on mediation.

“We believe a mediation program is the missing piece for the eviction cases that are slipping through the cracks,” McVeagh says. “In Knoxville, Judge (Chuck) Cerny and his colleagues in General Sessions Court can send cases to another courtroom to see if a mediated agreement can be reached while the parties involved are waiting for their case to be called.

“We liked this idea for evictions, because many eviction detainer lawsuits involve two individuals who have a relationship with each other, such as a tenant who’s been renting from a landlord for several years, or family members who are locked in a dispute. It’s potentially a cut-and-dry contract dispute, but there are usually other issues at play.

“A mediator can bring out these stories and produce an outcome that’s better than the ruling I’d give from the bench. As judges, we have to apply the law, regardless of the back story. So, our rulings are often cut-and-dry.

“But a mediator might be able to help the parties reach an agreement that allows their relationship to proceed, or severs the relationship but on terms (to which) both parties agree – ‘You move out and I’ll waive your past due rent,’ or, ‘You pay $20 a month to catch up on rent and you can continue to live here.’”

When the parties fail to reach an agreement, they’ll return to court, where the judge will hear their case.

Sell, a Rule 31 mediator who arbitrated numerous cases before taking the bench, agrees that mediations will serve the eviction docket well.

“A person who’s being evicted will usually go back to where they’re living and then have 10 days to leave, according to the judge’s ruling. But mediation helps people come to an agreement – and if they can leave the courthouse and return to their home with a resolution (to which) they agreed, then they’ll most likely leave the residence more peaceably,” she says.

“Maybe their agreement gives them more time to leave. At the end of an eviction, someone always says, ‘I can’t get out in 10 days. Can you give me 15?’ And I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, but the law only gives you 10.’ But in a mediation, the landlord could agree to give them more time.”

McVeagh says any measure that can help clear up the massive General Sessions Court docket is “a plus.” However, he and Sell also want people who leave their courtrooms to believe justice has been achieved, he adds.

“Folks on the eviction docket usually walk out in tears; we’d rather they leave thinking, ‘I can live with this.’”

McVeagh includes not just distressed tenants but also landlords.

“We don’t want our local landlords to view this atmosphere as hostile,” he continues. “Given everything they’re going through, they might be thinking, ‘What’s the point of being a landlord? I can sell my property to an out-of-town investor.’ But we want to build up our landlords. We want to keep them from having a negative experience with the courts.”

A key component of the local General Sessions Court’s EDI will be its housing stability facilitator. Yashika Ward, a city of Chattanooga employee with an office at the courthouse, will serve in this role. The NCSC grant will fund her salary.

McVeagh says the court plans to have Ward manage the EDI.

“Yashika will come into the courtroom and say, ‘Your Honor, we have two self-represented litigants who have reached an agreement. I’ve documented that agreement on this form.” And we’ll dismiss the case in two weeks as long as the tenant and landlord comply.”

Ward will also manage the roster of trained Rule 31 mediators that will conduct the intercessions on a volunteer basis. Attorney Marc Harwell and Clerk and Master Robin Miller are among those who have already agreed to lead mediations; McVeagh is hoping additional trained mediators will volunteer their services.

“A lot of young lawyers are expressing an interest. I can point them to landlord-tenant resources. Pursuing Rule 31 certification is a more expensive and time-intensive process.”

The court has identified the last Thursday of September as a potential launch date. McVeagh invites trained Rule 31 mediators who are willing to volunteer to contact him at alexanderm@hamiltontn.gov.