A recent Massachusetts court case spearheaded by clinical students and teachers at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) has created important new protections for survivors of domestic violence. Working in LSC’s Housing Clinic, Emily Mannheimer ’19 represented a woman who had been evicted from her apartment for not paying her rent after she had been physically abused and robbed by her partner. Mannheimer worked with the client for three semesters, first in the Eastern Housing Court, then to appeal the case to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, and finally through hearing at the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC).

Just days before Harvard Law School graduation in May, the SJC ruled in favor of Mannheimer’s client, holding that the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protects tenants in federally subsidized housing from eviction when the cause is tied to their domestic abuse. The court’s ruling in Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A. also held that a domestic abuse survivor can invoke VAWA protections even if he or she reveals the abuse late in the eviction process or after defaulting on an agreed upon payment plan, and that it doesn’t matter when or how the survivor alerts the court and the landlord that she is the subject of abuse.

The new precedent reduces the risk that domestic violence will lead to eviction and homelessness, a decision that has vital implications for survivors of domestic violence who are facing eviction in Massachusetts and across the nation.

“Staying housed has helped our client and her two children heal and take important steps towards freedom from abuse,” said Julia Devanthéry, lecturer and attorney in LSC’s Housing Clinic, the lead attorney on the case. “This terrific result reflects the incredible work of many great advocates—including our stellar and devoted clinical student, Emily Mannheimer—and a very brave client.”

In addition to representing Y.A. during Housing Court hearings, Mannheimer drafted motions and portions of the appellate brief, and was responsible for primary client contact and client support at each stage of the process.

“Being able to work on the same case for three semesters, and build such a meaningful connection with a client and have such a positive outcome was a great experience,” said Mannheimer. “The Housing Clinic, and particularly the work the clinic does on behalf of domestic violence survivors, is so important.”

When Mannheimer picked up the case, the client had already been fighting to keep her home since 2014 when Y.A. first received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. Y.A.’s abuser subjected her to physical and emotional abuse and stole the income she earned from her job. Y.A. had made attempts alone to negotiate repayment of back rent – but her abuser stole her rent money, putting her in violation of an agreed-upon settlement.

At a hearing in the Eastern Housing Court in January 2018, where she was facing immediate eviction and was unrepresented by an attorney, Y.A. explained that domestic violence caused her to fall behind on her payment plan. Nevertheless, the judge granted the Housing Authority’s motion to forcibly remove Y.A. from her home. In doing so the judge ignored a key provision of VAWA, the landmark 1994 law, which includes protection for tenants and applicants of federally funded subsidized housing from denial of housing or eviction from housing “on the basis that the applicant or tenant is or has been the victim of domestic violence.”

LSC began representing Y.A. after she lost her case in Housing Court and helped her appeal the decision. The SJC took up the appeal of its own accord, and the case received national attention, with 14 advocacy groups filing amicus briefs in support of the survivor. Oral argument was held on January 7, 2019.

The SJC’s May 10, 2019 decision was unambiguous, declaring that: a survivor may raise a VAWA defense to eviction at any time during an eviction proceeding; there is no prescribed method or words needed to do so; there is no restraining order prerequisite to prove eligibility for the defense; domestic violence can be disclosed to the court without first disclosing to the landlord and still form the basis for a defense; that the defense can be raised even in instances of chronic non-payment; that covered housing providers have an affirmative duty to help survivors and not evict them for reasons directly related to domestic violence; and that judges, upon hearing evidence of domestic violence, are obligated to inquire further to fully evaluate the applicability of VAWA and write findings before issuing decisions.

Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Legal Service Center, described the decision as “a powerful example of how LSC’s individual representation cases have the potential to make real change for entire communities.”

The impact of the ruling has already been felt by survivors and their advocates, including those in the United States House of Representatives. “Housing is a basic human right, and stable housing is critical to stemming the cycle of the trauma faced by survivors of domestic violence,” said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, representative of the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. “This ruling is a victory not only for Y.A. and LSC, but for every survivor who has faced housing instability as a result of domestic violence. I’m eternally grateful to Y.A. for her bravery and to LSC for reaffirming protections for survivors.”

Before releasing its full opinion, the SJC issued a brief order reversing the Housing Court’s earlier decision. The order allowed LSC to negotiate a new agreement with the Housing Authority on behalf of Y.A. that will allow her to stay housed and avoid another hearing in Housing Court.

Y.A., who fought her eviction for years without legal representation before finding LSC, expressed her happiness at the decision after a long and difficult fight, saying, “I tried for so long to get help, and to explain my situation. When [the Housing Authority] told me I had to leave the apartment, I cried, night and day. It was wonderful to get help from LSC, and I’m so glad that my case will help others.”

The result represents the culmination of a determined, collaborative effort by LSC’s Housing Clinic and numerous allies around the state who helped prepare the Clinic for oral argument. Massachusetts-based organizations contributing amicus briefs in the case include the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Casa Myrna, the Domestic Violence Institute of Northeastern University School of Law, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Foley Hoag Domestic Violence Prevention Project, Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and the Women’s Bar Foundation. In addition, national and out-of-state organizations including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, the National Housing Law Project, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed amicus briefs in support of Y.A. with the court.