Alabama Law Clinic, Alumni Win Case That Expands Access to Justice for Tenants in Alabama

April 30, 2018

The University of Alabama School of Law’s Civil Law Clinic, along with Alabama Law alumni at Winston & Strawn, LLP, scored a critical win for a Tuscaloosa single mother. In the process, they changed the law to better protect vulnerable tenants statewide.

Bridgette Morrow leased a home for her family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But the home, including its electrical system, was in constant disrepair. Because the landlord refused to make any repairs, Ms. Morrow requested an inspection from the city housing authority. In response to the city inspector’s deficiency notice, the landlord retaliated against Ms. Morrow by hand-delivering an eviction notice to her children. The landlord then sued for possession, and Ms. Morrow and her children moved. The landlord sought voluntary dismissal of his action for possession, which the court granted—with prejudice.

Subsequently, with help from the Civil Law Clinic, Ms. Morrow brought claims against her former landlord under the Alabama Residential Uniform Landlord and Tenant Act for, among other things, retaliation. But the trial court dismissed Ms. Morrow’s suit, finding that her claims should have been raised in the landlord’s prior action.

The trial court’s decision fit with years of local practice in Alabama courts, where tenants—many of whom were pro se, indigent, and facing imminent homelessness—were required to identify and raise counterclaims during an extremely short and stressful window before the hearings in their landlords’ actions for possession, or risk having those claims forever barred.

Civil Law Clinic students, supervised by Clinic Director Yuri Linetsky and Staff Attorney Caryn Roseman, along with Winston & Strawn Partner Paula Hinton (‘79) and Associate and Law Clinic alumnus William Logan (‘17), represented Bridgette Morrow on appeal. Legal Services Alabama and Alabama Appleseed filed an invaluable amici brief in support of Ms. Morrow’s position. The team argued that a tenant’s monetary counterclaims are not mandatory when a landlord sues for possession, and that a dismissal just because a tenant has moved is not sufficient to support a res judicata bar, even where the dismissal was with prejudice. A unanimous Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed, allowing Ms. Morrow’s suit against her former landlord to proceed, in the process ensuring that courthouse doors across Alabama are no longer barred to similarly situated tenants. This decision is binding precedent for trial courts statewide.