Max*, a disabled senior, called Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida (CCLA), looking for legal assistance and told us his Landlord was evicting him over having a garden. It was difficult to believe.
Even, when Max emailed us a picture of the Notice of Termination that had just been taped to his door, saying precisely that, we still couldn’t quite believe it. Max, who suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and extreme anxiety, lives in a specialized housing program for people with “severe and persistent” mental health issues. The program also receives Federal subsidies. Max was in disbelief over the threat of eviction and did not know what to do. Max lived for his garden. In fact, Max’s psychiatrist had recommended gardening for its therapeutic benefits and made it part of his treatment regimen.
When Max reached out to CCLA, as a non-profit providing free civil legal assistance to eligible residents of Broward County, we assigned an attorney to assist him. The CCLA attorney used a letter from Max’s doctor to request Reasonable Accommodation from the landlord, explaining that keeping the garden was essential for Max’s treatment. However, the Landlord denied the request. CCLA then filed a complaint with Broward County’s Human Rights Commission, which began a formal investigation into the denial. CCLA also began a co-counseling collaboration with Disability Rights Florida, a non-profit law-firm, and the State’s leading expert on litigating fair housing issues. A hearing was requested to dispute Max’s termination.
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At the hearing, the neutral hearing panel stated that Max should be allowed to keep his garden for its therapeutic benefit, and thus ruled in Max’s favor. Nonetheless, and almost inexplicably, the Landlord still filed the eviction case against Max.
In response, CCLA and our collaborating team, filed a nearly 75-page response to the eviction complaint. The argument focused on Max being a disabled senior whose fair housing rights and right to a reasonable accommodation were being denied. For good measure, we mentioned how Max was known to deliver gift baskets full of fresh fruit and veggies from the garden to the Landlord’s staff members during the holidays. Our legal response was so large our state’s e-filing system couldn’t process it, and we had to break it up into several parts.
CCLA took great pride in litigating this case at every step. Significant discovery, including interrogatories, admissions, and production of documents were all requested by our team. A jury trial was demanded and preparations began. The Landlord was so frustrated that this would not be a quick eviction, that they changed lawyers three times.
In Florida, we usually measure eviction cases in days or weeks at most; this one was over a year and a half old. While litigating vigorously, we also kept a steady line of communication open with the Landlord about a potential settlement. Max’s goal in the settlement wasn’t just to get his case dismissed. He wanted the Landlord to understand why fair housing rights are important to people with disabilities and mental health issues. He wanted the Landlord’s staff to have training and more compassion for people with mental health issues.
One Friday afternoon, we got the call that every Legal Aid lawyer dreads: Max had passed away. In addition to his mental health issues, Max had a litany of physical conditions as well. Max’s neighbor said the last thing they saw him do outside was water his garden. Later that night, while meditating on how the team had kept Max in his home and garden for so long, our CCLA attorney went back and scrolled through emails Max had sent. The last one read:
“This has been a very humbling week in every aspect. I have so much to be grateful for, so I know I will be ok. You all have my deepest gratitude and respect. I feel like I have the tenants’ lawyer dream team representing me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m pretty nervous about this and having you is a big relief to me. I know you are overworked and way too busy, but I want you to know how grateful I am to you and your staff. Thank you all. I hope you realize how much I value your help.”
*Names, images, and details may change to protect our client’s privacy
Providing free legal assistance to those in need, is only possible with your support. Make your fast and secure End-of-Year Donation here and know your donation will help make a difference in someone’s life.