Jesse McCoy, supervising attorney for the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic, had made it through another Monday. It was late, and the lawyer decided it was time to head home. 

He packed up his things and checked his email one last time. A new message sat atop his inbox. By opening it, McCoy took the first step toward changing someone’s life. 

Another Durhamite faced eviction and needed a lawyer. The next morning at 9:30 a.m., he was standing alongside her in front of a judge, fighting for her right to keep her home. 

It’s a story too common in Durham: A family emergency, a layoff, a miscommunication, and then an eviction filing. The city leads the state in them: McCoy said that one in every 28 residents in Durham saw an eviction filing in 2016 and Durham has over 900 filings a month. The Duke Civil Justice Clinic’s eviction diversion program is trying to keep people in their homes. 

Tiffany Barksdale is one of those people. McCoy defended her that Tuesday morning. 

An eviction filing 

On Aug. 12, the last day to pay her rent on time, Barksdale went to her apartment’s office building to pay her bill. She said she never missed a payment, and this month would be no different.

“I always have my rent… my rent is never a problem,” Barksdale said.

Barksdale said the office was closed when she got there, so she went back early the next morning with the rent money, $1,151, to try again. The office was open this time, but according to her, they didn’t accept her payment. Instead, she said, they filed for an eviction.

Barksdale said that she wasn’t given much explanation about why the rent was not accepted. The group she rents from cited “failure to pay monthly rent when due / in full” in court records. The Chronicle contacted the property management company to confirm the specifics of the eviction filing. It did not respond. 

Suddenly, Barksdale was swept into the court system, with her house and much more on the line. 

“Eviction would have pretty much meant my life over,” she said. “I would have had no employment. My niece would have been out of school. I wouldn’t have known where to go next.” 

Her ability to rent in the future would’ve been hurt, and her niece, who lives with her, would have lost her spot in a charter school, Barksdale said. 

First, her case went to small claims court, which settles civil claims under $10,000. Barksdale represented herself, as most tenants facing eviction do. The landlord had attorneys. Barksdale lost.

“It was upsetting because the judge didn’t really want to listen to anything I had to say,” Barksdale said. “He just looked at what they had on paper and was like, ‘Well, I’m going to rule with them and if you feel different you can go downstairs and file an appeal.’ He didn’t even look at the stuff I brought.”

She filed an appeal. Then, she waited for notice of her court date. According to her, it never came. Barksdale finally became aware of her court date when a clerk shared it with her as she was paying her rent to the court during the appeal period. That clerk also advised her to call Legal Aid, a non-profit law firm that provides low-income North Carolinians with free legal services in civil matters. 

But Legal Aid told her that they couldn’t represent her because her income was slightly above their cutoff. She called a paid lawyer next, but she couldn’t afford one. 

With no one to turn to, Barksdale prepared herself for district court, where McCoy said evidence standards are high and those with no law degree have little chance of winning. Even though she had her rent money, Barksdale believed she would would have lost. 

“I probably would have been evicted,” Barksdale said. “I don’t know landlord tenant laws. They could have told me anything in court. For people like me who don’t know any better… we can get taken advantage of."

The day before her appearance in district court, she gave Legal Aid another call. Staff there still couldn’t represent her, but they passed her case onto another agency. That’s how Barksdale’s case landed in McCoy’s inbox. 

The eviction diversion program

Duke’s eviction diversion program helps tenants avoid eviction and its consequences with both legal and financial assistance. They work with landlords to keep tenants in their homes. When that’s not possible, they try to protect tenants from fines, damaged credit ratings, homelessness and other consequences of evictions with out-of-court settlements. 

It works. In 78 percent of their cases, the clinic’s clients avoid an eviction judgement, McCoy shared. In 67 percent of their cases, they’re able to keep their homes. 

McCoy said that attorneys in similar programs around the country take three to five cases a month. In Duke’s program, one full-time attorney and two part-time attorneys who are assisted by students in the Duke law school take 20 to 30 cases. 

The program covers cases that similar services, particularly Legal Aid, can’t take, McCoy said. Still, the 50 cases taken by the program every month aren’t close to the 900 filed. 

“Our eviction diversion program is essentially trying to triage to stop the bleeding,” McCoy said.

Just enough

McCoy got Barksdale’s case as he was packing up on Monday, Oct. 8. He immediately called Barksdale and had her send him receipts and documents for her payments in court. When he saw what she had, he knew he could defend her.

“If you do an appeal and you pay everything off before you appear in district court, the case is dismissed,” he explained. 

Barksdale had paid the bill off in court, but she didn’t know how to explain that to a judge.

“They were literally going to go forward with an eviction case for rent that was already paid,” McCoy said. 

But this is McCoy’s bread and butter. He put a defense together in a few hours after work.

“It was a matter of doing the mad dash to get any records she had, going in early to get the court file and making sure everything was right, and then talking to the attorney representing the landlord, showing them what we had, and making sure everything stacked up,” he said. “And it worked out.”

McCoy met Barksdale for the first time early Tuesday morning as he represented her in court. As he expected, the case was dismissed. She kept her home. 

One of hundreds saved

Barksdale’s case is one of hundreds in Durham in August, and one of thousands in 2018. McCoy expects the problem to get worse. Local landlords are being replaced by corporations who deal more rigidly with tenants, and more people are moving into the city, driving up rent, he said. 

Durham City Council voted to fund the eviction diversion program in May. The $200,000 allotted to the program will allow it to add two more lawyers and a paralegal, doubling its capacity to serve 100 clients a month. Still, the need is great, and hundreds more will go unserved. 

But because of Duke's Civil Justice Clinic eviction diversion program and one attorney’s decision to check his email, Tiffany Barksdale and her niece kept their home.