Using Technology to Win Tenants' Rights
The Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic was initiated because technology has changed the legal landscape.
The speed of communication has challenged lawyers to draft thoughtful and thorough responses to clients in ever shorter time periods. At the same time, clinic projects like those undertaken by Ryan Toteja and Rina Vazirani show the power of technology to streamline complex information and crunch numbers to strengthen clients' cases.
The clinic was the first choice for Ryan Toteja '07 from Clifton, Virginia, who started taking apart computers in the eighth grade and majored in information systems as an undergraduate.
"Technology is creating a new breed of lawyers who are able to multitask and analyze problems more quickly," says Toteja. "You're working more and working more efficiently," he says. Toteja hoped to use his skills to help people in the community make the best of technology while gaining practical experience.
At the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation in Washington Heights, a legal services office serving low-income New Yorkers, Toteja worked with 23 tenants who had begun a rent strike against a landlord who refused to make necessary repairs to their rent-stabilized apartments. Digital Age Clinic students had previously helped the organization set up a database to track outstanding maintenance requests for buildings. Toteja and his team were asked if it might be possible to develop a rent calculator to figure out the legal rent increases for any tenant living in a rent-stabilized building.
Rent-stabilization laws are so complex, explains Toteja, that few tenants actually know what rents should be. Experts in the field had predicted that the rent-regulation system was too complicated to be tamed by a calculation program. But Toteja's team created a working calculator that takes into account the percentage that a landlord can increase the rent each year as well as many other variables, such as whether heat is included and whether a building has more or fewer than 30 apartments.
"Landlords do not always know the rules, and they know that their tenants don't know them either. Plus, many lawyers are also not comfortable with mathematic formulas," says Toteja. "In cases that sometimes require tenants to calculate their rent going back over 10 years, you want to be able to figure out easily what their rent should be."
Professor Mary Zulack helped the team think through the kinds of rent cases that come up so that the calculator could respond effectively to them. Users of the rent calculator can now enter the information for each lease term, press a button, and get a printout of all the intermediate and final rent amounts.
"When we showed it to our professors, they loved it," says Toteja. "The clients loved it, too, and are using it. Now if any tenant wants to know if their rent is right, they can figure it out. It should make many of their lives a lot easier, but if even one person uses it, I'll be happy."
The week that Toteja spent in housing court, he says, is one he'll always remember. When the tenants' case went to trial, Toteja and his team served as "second chairs," or back-up lawyers. They had organized the documents that outlined each tenant's problems in their apartment. Eventually the case was settled in favor of the clients.
"In addition to learning about tenants' rights and the laws of rent stabilization, we learned how to interview and counsel clients in class, and right away found ourselves doing that out in the field," says Toteja. That he and several classmates spoke Spanish was a big advantage.
Unlike Toteja, Rina Varizani '07 had little technological experience before law school. She joined the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic, in part, to become more computer savvy.
In addition to offering an overview of lawyering and technology, the clinic provides students with the basics of conducting a direct examination of a client, eliciting information without asking leading questions, and using legal precedents. "After a year of learning theory in the classroom, the clinic has helped me reinforce why I went to law school," says Varizani. "Now, when I write a summary judgment memo, I think, ‘This is why I learned about this in Civil Procedure.' It brings things all together."
Varizani worked with Project FAIR, a collaborative, citywide project that is a resource for those needing representation and advice in administrative hearings that are called "fair hearings"—those involving government benefits such as income subsidies or food stamps. Project FAIR provides counseling to people about their rights and what they can expect in such hearings at the Brooklyn location where the fair hearings for all of New York City are held.
Working alongside Project FAIR attorneys, who trained Varizani and her clinic partner on the specifics of counseling clients about their eligibility for benefits, the students gave information to 10 to 20 clients a day, developed a database, and worked closely with several individuals on their cases. Project FAIR had enlisted the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic in part to develop a database to enter on-the-spot information about the people it assisted. In this way, the organization could quickly identify repeat or systemic problems in the administration of public assistance benefits and use its limited resources more effectively.
"If many people are having trouble adding a new family member to their benefits in a certain part of the city, for example, Project FAIR can use this information when they conduct an individual hearing as well as to seek high-level intervention to solve the problem before more individuals suffer through continued agency errors," says Varizani.
Equipped with database software and a handbook, Varizani and her partner brainstormed with Project FAIR about what should go into the database. The database is now being used by the organization exactly as it had been envisioned.
One of the Project FAIR clients whom Varizani represented was a woman who had applied for food and shelter benefits six times and had not received them. She was a victim of domestic abuse and had been living with her 11-year-old daughter in a string of homeless shelters for six months. The people at the public assistance center would not tell her why she had been denied benefits, so the clinic took the case.
"We prepared her for the hearing, put together exhibits, and wrote a memorandum to the judge outlining our arguments," says Varizani. "Then we sat down with Professor Conrad Johnson on our side and a city representative on the other. Just two weeks later, a wholly favorable ruling was issued by the judge! Our client received a substantial check just before Christmas." Varizani adds, "We were so relieved, because our client had a good case and we wanted to make sure she won. I felt like I had made a difference."