by Phil Ensler, Policy Counsel 

Victims of domestic violence, tenants facing eviction, and veterans seeking their benefits are among the thousands of low-income Alabamians who receive free legal assistance from civil legal aid attorneys because they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.

Despite the essential need for these services, Alabama is one of only two states that does not fund civil legal aid. Instead, legal aid providers in Alabama rely on the federal government, non-profit organizations, and sometimes municipalities for funding.

This  leaves thousands of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents without access to lawyers. It is also a bad business decision, with far-reaching consequences for our local economies.

According to a recent study published by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, for every $1 invested in civil legal services, Alabama communities received almost $12 of immediate and long-term economic benefits. That is an extraordinary social return on investment of 1,195% that amounts to a value of over $200 million gained from civil legal services.

Despite these benefits, civil legal aid in Alabama is grossly underfunded. Alabama is the lowest funded state for civil legal aid at a rate of $9.85 per eligible person. This amounts to half of the national average of $20 per person, and is a stark contrast to the highest funded state, which is 11 times greater than Alabama. In 2016, $8.9 million was spent in Alabama on civil legal aid. In order to meet the national average, Alabama would need to increase its spending to $18 million, and to fully meet the needs of all eligible Alabamians it would need to spend $45.5 million. By fully funding civil legal aid, Alabama would not merely be spending money to ensure that all Alabamians have access to justice, but also making a wise investment in our economy.

Funding civil legal services yields such a high return on investment because legal aid providers represent low-income Alabamians in a range of areas that impact the economy, including housing, employment, family issues, public benefits, consumer protection, and community issues.

These services can help a family keep a roof over their heads and avoid homelessness. For others, it means restructuring crippling debt to avoid financial ruin.  For some elderly clients, this help means a recovery of social security payments or other federal benefits that had been mistakenly suspended. For some veterans, it secures much-needed and hard-earned benefits. For others, these services means better, safer custody arrangements for children or even a long-awaited adoption.  

All of these outcomes strengthen our local economies, helping people remain in their homes, protect their wages, and resolve disputes that allow them to better support themselves and contribute positively to their communities. Alabama would be wise to heed the findings of the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation study and start investing in civil legal services.

To learn more about our work to ensure access to justice for all Alabamians, check out our website.

by Leah Nelson, researcher and Dana Sweeney, organizer

Payday industry supporters have often claimed that “neither the general public nor the so called ‘poor’ [are] clamoring” for payday lending reform in Alabama.

Actual borrowers might beg to differ.

Between October 2016 and September 2017, the State Banking Department reported that nearly 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans – more than eight loans per customer, on average. Each of those loans represents an untold story of struggle where borrowers were forced to weigh the urgent need for cash against the prospect of repaying predatory lenders who charge interest rates as high as 456 percent APR and can demand full repayment within as few as 10 days.

Publicly available comments made by Alabama borrowers to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) show that for some, payday loans turn out to be a far greater financial burden than what drove them to payday lenders in the first place. These self-reported stories offer a small but representative window into the horrors of predatory lending for many Alabamians.

Writing in March 2015, an individual who borrowed $300 from a payday lender said they were receiving harassing phone calls every day from a lender who was automatically deducting money from their bank account, leading to hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees and forcing them to close their account. “I paid out a lot of money to the Bank for these transactions, money they could have had if they would not have kept trying to debit my account. I am so tired of this and I don’t know nothing else to do except not answer the phone,” the borrower wrote.

In May 2016, a borrower wrote that their payday lender was threatening to track them down at work. “They call me all day every day and if I fail to answer them they will call my sister, aunt, mom and harass them too.”

“I ‘m having to pay over $1000.00 for a $400.00 loan that I was told was paid for and that my balance was $0.00,” a borrower who had paid off their loan in full, only to have their bank account garnished in connection with unpaid fees, wrote in February 2017. “This is absolutely insane. How is this not illegal?”

“I was making payments until I lost my job and I contacted agency to see if I could postpone my payments until I began working again they refused my attempt and I haven’t heard from them since until today I received an email threatening to arrest me,” wrote an individual in May 2017.

“Been paying this company 2 payments every 2 weeks. They was only surposed to get 1 payment a month but taking out 2 every 2 weeks,” wrote another in May 2017. “I can’t pay my regarler bills because of this.”

“Though I do work full time I am struggling to pay off debt,” a single mother who was working with a debt consolidation program to pay off her various creditors, wrote in July 2017. The payday lender, she wrote, “has called my phone, my job, friends and family relentlessly!!   They harass me on a daily basis!! I told them about me going through the debt consolidation place and they got very very nasty, saying they aren’t participating in this program, and demanding Money NOW!!”

The CFPB did what it could to follow up with lenders and help customers resolve, or at least gain clarity, about what was happening to them. A handful of cases were “closed with monetary relief.” But the majority were “closed with explanation” – that is, the only relief the borrower received was an understanding of why the lender was allowed to do what it was doing.

For desperate people seeking help with unmanageable debt, that’s no relief at all.

In Alabama, borrowers continue to find themselves crushed by rapidly ballooning debt traps and loans continue to be issued with triple-digit APRs. Many other states have passed successful reforms, including our Southern, business-minded neighbors in Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina, which eliminated payday lenders entirely without significantly impacting borrowers’ access to cash. But our legislature failed again this year by refusing to pass the simple 30 Days to Pay bill, even though the status quo harms thousands of Alabamians and other states have demonstrated that responsible reform is possible. That’s why predatory lending reform is supported by a diverse coalition including Alabama Appleseed, the State Baptist Convention, the United Methodists, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Birmingham Business Alliance. Here in Alabama, that’s about as broad-based as it gets.

And we need our state leaders to listen now more than ever. At the national level, new leadership at the CFPB has steered the agency away from its mission of protecting consumers from abuse by large banks and corporations. Recent months have seen the CFPB refusing to enforce the federal judge-ordered punishment of a payday lender caught stealing millions of dollars from its customers, musing about eliminating basic guardrails meant to keep payday lenders from scamming borrowers, and even proposing that public comments made to the CFPB by consumers—like those featured in this article—be hidden from the public. Alabama lawmakers can no longer wait or depend on the CFPB to fix an issue that was created by the Alabama State Legislature. Lawmakers’ earliest opportunity to address this issue will be the upcoming 2019 Legislative Session, and after failing Alabamians again and again, they should finally take it.

Until then, though, Alabama borrowers will have to wait yet another year for relief – and payday lenders will get another year to line their pockets by fleecing our communities. Let’s make sure that they won’t be made to wait again.

My name is Alexis Nail and I am from Gadsden, Alabama and an upcoming junior at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. I am a major in Political Science with a minor in Human
Rights and Conflict Studies. I am currently working towards receiving a distinction in Leadership Studies on my diploma, and I plan to attend law school. Based off this alone, you can see why I would chose to work at a place like Alabama Appleseed! I am thrilled to be interning with Alabama Appleseed this summer and I am looking forward to all the new learning experiences I will have while here!

While I have always been interested in law, it wasn’t until I was introduced to a certain professor in college that I realized my passion for human rights. My freshman year I took a class called American Inequality, and it opened my eyes to how much injustice there is in the United States and the barriers that impoverished people face. I had always known there was inequality, but I had never been able to articulate the in-depth, systemic problems that impoverished people face. Through our readings of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Our Kids, and other works, I was able to see factual research on inequality and the many facets of it. Although our readings may not have always left me in the best of moods, it fired up my passion to do more in the world and to give my life and the lives of others meaning. We also were required to volunteer at different organizations around Birmingham, and this helped me to think critically about poverty and helped me see reflections of my in-class learning in everyday life. My class discussions and discussions with my professor were not only meaningful but have influenced my career path. Since taking this class, I have since added Human Rights Conflict Studies to my diploma, as well as Leadership Studies. I have also been heavily involved in efforts for change, including lots of volunteer work. I have spent the past two Spring Breaks traveling to different parts of the country to help provide aid for those in need, and I regularly volunteer at programs like First Light Women’s Shelter in Birmingham. Although I love volunteering, I desire to do more for people and to have a direct hand in making a positive change in the lives of others. American Inequality, along with other classes, and my community partnerships have shown me that I care more about the lives I touch, than the accolades that I may receive through my work.

Although I am very early in my career, interning with Appleseed feels like a natural progression
into the work that I plan to do, especially because many of their campaigns have aligned with subjects
that I have touched upon in my studies. Some of these topics include homelessness, criminalization of
the poor, and access to justice. Being subject to these issues not only violates human rights, but it
violates human dignity. Working with Alabama Appleseed will allow me to be able to delve deeper into
these subjects while also seeing real efforts for change across the state of Alabama. Appleseed also
incorporates the idea of going out into the community, which aligns well with my love for volunteering
and meeting those who we are advocating for. A crucial part of wanting to be an advocate for change is
to be prepared for all the hard work that goes into it. I look forward to seeing and participating in the
work that goes on behind the scenes. My hope for my time here is to make meaningful connections with
my colleagues and make significant moves towards bettering the lives of Alabamians.

by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

If you had asked your legislator last year about their stance on civil asset forfeiture, jail food, or marijuana reclassification you would likely have heard confusion about the first two and opposition to the third. That’s no longer the case.

While our legislation to end civil asset forfeiture, stop sheriffs from personally profiting from money meant to feed people in their jails, and reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil offense did not pass the legislature, we made substantial progress.

In January we, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, released a report documenting serious abuses occurring under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws. It documented how laws meant to go after drug kingpins have been turned into tools for law enforcement to supplement their budgets by taking property from innocent Alabamians. The report catapulted the issue into the public debate and set the stage for bipartisan supported legislation to end this abusive program in Alabama.

While the legislation did not pass the full legislature, it did pass the Senate and is well positioned to prevail next session.

We will continue to face opposition from law enforcement, who make millions of dollars each year from civil asset forfeiture. Fortunately, sunlight has finally penetrated this long-abused program …  

State News:

  • Al.com – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • Montgomery Advertiser – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • WSFA – AL civil forfeiture laws go under the microscope
  • WTVM – Lawmakers push for bill to end civil forfeiture
  • WTVY – Alabama lawmakers propose ending civil asset forfeiture by police
  • Dothan First – Civil Asset Forfeiture

National News:

  • Fox – Despite promises to cut back, fed and state governments press asset forfeitures
  • Reason – Alabama Raked in $2.2 Million in Civil Asset Forfeiture in 2015
  • Esquire – Ethics Issues? Just Torpedo the Ethics Committee!

Op-eds/Columns:

Editorials:

Our work with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) to stop sheriffs from personally pocketing taxpayer money meant to feed people in their jails has also dominated the news. In January we, with SCHR, filed a lawsuit challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails. As Connor Sheets’ terrific reporting has shown, sheriffs are becoming rich (from taxpayer dollars) while the people in their jails are fed food “not fit for human consumption.”

Our work with the SCHR will continue until all sheriffs understand that taxpayer dollars given to them to purchase food for people in their jails are to be used to purchase food for people in their jails.

In the meantime, sheriffs who oppose our position may want to read this …

State News:

  • Times Daily – Statewide legislation would change jail food law
  • WBRC – 49 Alabama sheriffs being sued over jail food money
  • AL.com – Dietary needs unmet in some Alabama jails as concerns mount on use of sheriff food accounts
  • AL.com – Alabama legislation could stop Etowah sheriff from keeping jail food money
  • Yellowhammer – Alabama sheriff pocketing $750,000 in jail-food money draws new attention to old law
  • WCBI – Lawsuit Filed Against 49 Alabama Sheriffs
  • AL.com – Alabama sheriffs pocket tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars allocated to feed inmates
  • WAAY – 6 North Alabama Sheriffs Named in Lawsuit over Funds for Feeding Inmates
  • Lagniappe – Lawsuit seeks transparency in sheriffs’ food funds

National News:

  • CBS News – Alabama sheriff legally used $750K in inmate food funds to buy beach house
  • Daily Kos – Meet the Alabama sheriff who kept hundreds of thousands in inmate food funds for personal use
  • National Review – Alabama Sheriff Used $750,000 in Taxpayer Funds to Purchase Houses
  • Newsweek – Alabama Sheriff Allegedly Purchased Home with Money Meant to Feed Jail Inmates
  • ABA Journal – 49 Alabama sheriffs are sued over refusal to say whether they pocketed leftover inmate-meal money
  • The Daily Beast – Alabama Sheriffs Filled Their Wallets by Starving Prisoners
  • Associated Press – Groups sue, aim to learn if sheriffs profit from jail food
  • Associated Press – Enjoying leftovers: Sheriffs feed inmates, keep extra cash

Op-eds/Columns:

  • AL.com – When sheriffs go bad, public records are the best defense
  • AL.com – Alabama sheriff pocketed more than he spent on jail food
  • AL.com – 49 Alabama sheriffs hide jail food funds, flout open records law

Editorials:

We also saw major progress with our work to reclassify marijuana possession in Alabama. Every year Alabama needlessly ensnares thousands of people in the criminal justice system for the mere possession of marijuana. This policy decision is costing Alabama taxpayers over $10 million each year and misuses law enforcement resources. Worse, it is enforced along color lines. While African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, in 2016 African Americans were over 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan effort to reclassify the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense passed the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee. While that might not seem like a big deal, it is. Members from both parties in the Alabama legislature have now gone on the record in support. We will continue to educate Alabamians about the need for this common sense reform and hope to prevail in 2019.

Stay tuned.

by Leah Nelson, Researcher 

In 1972’s Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death penalty schemes that led to arbitrary results – for instance, those that allowed similar offenses committed by similar individuals to lead to different sentences – were unconstitutional. The result was a de facto moratorium on the death penalty nationwide, while states worked to make their laws more just.

Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the high court decided that the death penalty itself can be constitutional, provided that it was meted out only in clear, objective, and limited sets of circumstances, reviewable on appeal, and where the sentencer was permitted to take the defendant’s character and history into account when deciding whether to impose a sentence of death.  

Fast forward to today in Alabama.

There are 19 capital offenses under Alabama law –  each a distinct type of murder for which the death penalty can be sought. There are also 10 aggravating circumstances, which can be offered to a jury for consideration as it decides whether or not to impose a death sentence after finding a defendant guilty. Between them, the two sections make it possible for almost any homicide, committed under nearly any circumstance, to result in a death sentence.

This past legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have created an additional aggravating circumstance. HB 161, sponsored by Rep. Chris Sells (R-Greenville), would have added to both sections, making the murder of a first responder operating in an official capacity a capital offense and adding three victim types – law enforcement officers, first responders, and children under 14 – to the list of aggravating circumstances.

The bill passed in the House, but failed to pass the Senate. It did not become law, nor should it. HB 161 would have expanded Alabama’s broken death penalty system. This fact is no less true today than it was in 2006, when eight distinguished Alabama attorneys comprising the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team concluded, bluntly, that “the State cannot ensure that fairness and accuracy are the hallmark of every case in which the death penalty is sought or imposed.”

In its report, the ABA Assessment Team identified seven problem areas in desperate need of reform, including:

  • Inadequate indigent defense services at trial and on direct appeal;
  • Lack of defense counsel for state post-conviction proceedings;
  • Lack of a statute protecting people with intellectual disabilities from execution;
  • Lack of a post-conviction DNA testing statute
  • Inadequate proportionality review (i.e., inadequate review of disparities in imposition of the death penalty across socio-economic, geographic, racial, or other lines);
  • Lack of effective limitations on the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance (i.e., a failure to require prosecutors to prove that a particular capital murder was grimmer than most before invoking this aggravator); and
  • Capital juror confusion (specifically, research at the time showed that a majority of Alabama capital jurors interviewed misunderstood basic principles about their role and responsibility with regard to deciding whether a death sentence was called for, suggesting that jurors are recommending death sentences based on serious legal errors).

To date, the state has implemented only one of the assessment team’s primary recommendations – the elimination of an Alabama law that allowed judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole in favor of death. The rest have languished, while the state’s machinery of death chugs grimly along.

Since the report’s release in June 2006, the state has executed 29 people. Five of them were killed in the last year alone.

The ABA Assessment Team in 2006 called on Alabama to impose a moratorium on executions. As they stated:

“Regardless of one’s feelings about the morality of the death penalty, we all understand that, as a society, we must do all we can to ensure a fair and accurate system for every person who faces the death penalty. When a life is at stake, we cannot tolerate error or injustice. The Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team found a number of problems in the state’s death penalty system that undermines its fairness and accuracy. Highlighted below are proposed areas for reform that would help to improve the system. Until these reforms are implemented, a temporary moratorium on executions should be imposed.”

The virtues of the death penalty may be debatable, but the merits of fairness and accuracy are not.

The state of Alabama should not carry out one more execution, nor tinker further with its death penalty laws, until and unless it addresses the gaps that led the ABA team, over a decade ago, to condemn the system’s failures.

by Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

This past legislative session, Alabama Appleseed worked to improve on access to justice for low-income individuals in our state by advocating for two important pieces of legislation.

While some legislators in both the House and Senate supported these bills, the full state legislature was not given the opportunity to vote on these necessary changes.  

We advocated for SB 36, which would have ensured that backlogs in the fee-waiver system couldn’t prevent low-income Alabamians from being heard in civil court.

Filing fees for civil lawsuits can run into the hundreds of dollars, a prohibitive cost for low-income Alabamians struggling to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and other necessities. Individuals who cannot afford these fees have a right to apply to have them waived, but applications can sit for months without any action.

This is problematic. Many civil causes are constrained by statutes of limitations, often running a year or two, which mean that individuals who wish to file lawsuits must do so by a certain deadline. But backlogs in the fee-waiver system mean judges may not decide on waiver applications until after the relevant statute of limitations has ended. As a result, low-income individuals have been denied the ability to have their case heard merely because the court failed to review their waiver application before the deadline.

This bill would have fixed a real-world problem. Coretta Arrington’s six-year-old son drowned after he gained unsupervised access to the swimming pool in their apartment complex. Ms. Arrington alleged that the property owner was at fault for her son’s death because they failed to have lifeguards and other safety measures in the pool area. But, she was unable to hold the property owner accountable because she could not afford the filing fees required to bring the case.  She sought a fee waiver, but by the time the court got around to approving her application, the statute of limitations period in which she would have legally needed to bring the case had expired. As a result, she was denied the opportunity to seek justice in the courts for the death of her child.

SB36 would have ensured that individuals like Ms. Arrington would not be denied access to the courts simply because they cannot afford a court filing fee. Under the proposed law, one’s lawsuit would be considered filed with the court on the same day as their fee-waiver application. This would prevent the statute of limitations from expiring while the judge considers the application. This fix would better ensure that all Alabamians have access to the courts, regardless of their wealth.

We also advocated for HB 379, which would have created a waiver process for the fee caps on how much appointed lawyers can be paid by the state for their representation of indigent criminal defendants.

Under current law, the fee caps are imposed regardless of the complexity of the case or how much time and effort the attorney puts into their client’s defense.

Fair justice requires that all people—regardless of how much money they have—are effectively represented in court. The existing fee caps discourage some of the most competent and effective lawyers in the state from taking on appointed work, and create a disincentive for appointed attorneys to devote the necessary time and resources to their client’s case.

We advocated for HB 379 because it would have created a process in which appointed attorneys could be paid up to double the cap in situations that require the devotion of extra time and resources into representing their client. Creating this type of waiver system will enable attorneys to provide their clients with the vigorous defense they deserve without forcing those attorneys to work for free, and could motivate attorneys who have avoided appointed work for financial reasons to represent individuals who cannot afford counsel. As a result, indigent defendants–who face the prospect of having the government take away their liberty–would enter the courtroom on a more even playing field.

In the coming months, Alabama Appleseed will publish reports that will educate the public and legislators about the importance of ensuring that all Alabamians, regardless of income, enjoy equal access to justice.

We will publish a report on the importance of civil legal aid services for individuals who cannot afford an attorney, provide attorneys with manuals to assist them in taking on such cases, and engage in court-watching and documentation research to evaluate the quality of representation afforded to indigent defendants. And when next session rolls around, we will urge lawmakers to ensure access to justice for all, making our state a fairer, safer, and more equitable place.

by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

There are more payday lenders and title loan stores in Alabama than hospitals, high schools, movie theaters, and county courthouses combined. Payday lending by itself is a massive industry that harms hundreds of thousands of Alabama borrowers and their families each year.  

Each year, the payday lending industry leeches more than $100 million from the pockets of low- and middle-income Alabama borrowers. Lenders make their biggest profits by snaring borrowers in devastating debt traps. While payday lenders advertise quick and easy access to cash, the fine print on their loan products include APR interest rates up to 456%. With astronomical rates like that, small-dollar, short-term loans frequently become expensive, multi-year burdens for Alabamians. To make matters worse, most of the money that payday lenders make by trapping Alabamians in rapidly ballooning debt—an estimated $1 billion each decade—flows out of our communities and into the pockets of companies headquartered out-of-state. When these vampiric lenders sap our neighbors’ household budgets and drain money from our local economies, we all lose.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed joined with other predatory lending reform advocates to advance the 30 Days to Pay bill (SB 138, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr, R-3). Under current law, payday loans can be issued with full repayment due in as few as 10 days. The 30 Days to Pay bill would have required payday lenders to issue loans on a 30 day repayment schedule, as is standard for virtually all other household bills. It would have significantly reduced the risk of borrowers falling into long-term debt traps by granting them more time and flexibility to repay loans, and it would have effectively cut the APR interest rate experienced by most borrowers in half (which, while remaining a deeply troubling triple-digit interest rate, would nevertheless be a substantial improvement over the current 456%).

A broad coalition of organizations joined Alabama Appleseed in advocating for the passage of SB 138, including business partners like the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, and the Alabama Credit Union Association, and faith partners like the State Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

Unfortunately, despite broad popular support for payday reform, the legislature failed to pass SB 138. After inching through the Senate Banking & Insurance committee over the course of several months, SB 138 ended up passing the Senate on March 8, 2018, with a 20-4 vote. It then moved to the House, where Speaker Mac McCutcheon assigned it to the Financial Services committee. Even though many committee members expressed a desire to vote on the bill, Chairman Rep. Ken Johnson (R-7) refused to bring the bill up for a vote. The 30 Days to Pay bill died right where many other payday reform bills have died before it: in the House Financial Services committee.

The end of the 2018 legislative session marked yet another year in which our state lawmakers failed to protect Alabama borrowers while payday lenders lined their own pockets with cash. While most legislators have said that they support predatory lending reform, friends of the payday industry again blocked a limited reform.

The legislature’s failure to pass SB 138 was deeply disappointing, but Alabama Appleseed will continue to fight for predatory lending reform alongside impacted borrowers. Predatory lending reform remains one of the most bipartisan, popular issues in the state, and we will continue to press our officials to do what their constituents have been asking them to do for many years. We will continue to advocate for reforms like 30 Days to Pay, and we remain committed to seeing Alabama move to the gold standard of a 36% APR maximum for all small loans that is seen in many other states.

By Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

Low-income tenants throughout Alabama will enjoy greater access to justice due to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal’s ruling last week in Morrow v. Pake.

In a decision that will affect thousands of tenants, the court reversed the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, and ruled that tenants who are evicted have a right under state law to later file a lawsuit for a landlord’s illegal actions while they were a resident of the property.

The tenant in the case, Bridgette Morrow, was evicted after the landlord failed to repair the unsafe living conditions she repeatedly reported about the house she rented. The law firm Winston & Straw, LLP and the Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law recognized the injustice faced by Ms. Morrow endured and represented her for free to ensure she received quality legal representation. They also took on this case to protect the rights of individuals like Ms. Morrow throughout Alabama.

Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama (LSA) filed an amici curiae brief in support of Ms. Morrow and individuals like her in our state. We felt compelled to speak up for the rights of tenants like Ms. Morrow, who too often face eviction proceedings without any legal representation. 

The main question in the case was whether a tenant who is facing eviction is legally required to raise any claims he or she has against the landlord during the eviction proceedings, during which they are likely distracted by the prospect of imminent homelessness, or if they can bring those claims at a later date.

Preserving the right to bring a claim at a later date is essential to ensuring tenants are able to receive justice in situations where a landlord subjected them to substandard living conditions and failed to provide basic services as prescribed in the terms of the lease.

The court unequivocally agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument that under the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) a tenant’s right to challenge their landlord’s illegal actions does not end with their eviction.  

The court underscored the point made in the appeal and in Alabama Appleseed and LSA’s brief that if the Alabama Legislature wanted to require such claims, they would have done so in the URLTA.

The court also agreed with our analysis that the purpose of an eviction proceeding is to focus on the issue of possession of the property, and not necessarily address the conditions and other wrongs the tenant encountered while living there.

As a result of upholding this right, tenants will have more time to find a lawyer and challenge the illegal acts of their landlord, instead of being forced to do so under the stressful and time-constrained conditions of an eviction proceedings.

While Alabama Appleseed is pleased with the court’s ruling, there is still much work to be done to create a level playing field our courtrooms. A vast majority of tenants enter the courtroom without legal representation, while the vast majority of landlords have ready access to quality counsel. As a result, the deck is already stacked against low-income tenants.

To create a more fair justice system, the State of Alabama must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including many tenants, with vital access to legal representation. Only with such access to counsel will tenants and other low-income Alabamians be more likely to receive access to fair justice in the courts.

by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

For years, there has been widespread, bipartisan agreement that we must reel in predatory payday lenders in Alabama. According to data collected by the State Banking Department, about 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans between October 2016 and September 2017, averaging more than eight loans per customer. Even though payday borrowers must be able to show that they have a source of income before being issued a loan, 87% of payday borrowers in Alabama still had to take out multiple, small-dollar loans during the year to get by — almost always to meet necessary living expenses like rent, utilities, and grocery bills, or to account for emergencies like unexpected medical costs or car repairs.

As too many Alabamians know, those small-dollar loans often balloon into large-dollar debts due to high interest rates. Alabama’s payday borrowers pay over $100 million every year on average in loan fees charged to initiate loans and to “roll them over” when full repayment is not possible. There is wide-ranging public agreement that the status quo for payday lending must change, especially when that status quo means that predatory lenders issue loans with interest rates as high as 456% APR and can demand full loan repayment within as few as 10 days.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed has been working with a broad coalition of churches, community foundations, local organizations, credit unions, direct social service providers, and individuals that spans the state and the political spectrum. We are supporting the 30 Days to Pay Bill (SB 138), a simple, modest reform that would set payday loans on the same 30 day repayment schedule as all other household bills. It would start to curb runaway interest rates and prevent many of the debt traps that currently ensnare thousands upon thousands of Alabamians every year. It enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature, and it is an opportunity for the legislature to finally take a step forward on predatory lending reform after years of failing to deliver. All we need now is the chance for senators to vote on it.

The bill has been slowly inching its way through the Senate, but it has not yet been put on the calendar to be debated and voted on. If this bill doesn’t start picking up steam soon, we may run out of time — again — to protect Alabama’s payday borrowers. Alabama deserves a vote. Alabama’s borrowers deserve a vote. We urge you to contact your senator and ask them to do everything in their power to propel this bill forward.

SAMPLE CALL SCRIPT

“Hello, my name is _________________, and I am one of Senator ____________’s constituents from ______[town]_______. I’m calling today because I would like to urge Senator ___________ to do everything in [his/her/their] power to ensure that SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, passes through the Senate. So many of us have been patient and persistent all session while waiting for this bill to advance through the Senate, just as we have been waiting for years for the legislature to deliver on predatory lending reform. We have waited long enough, and so have Alabama’s borrowers, who continue to suffer because of the legislature’s failure to address this issue. Please let Senator ________ know that SB 138 is a top priority for me as a voter, and that I want to see [him/her/them] doing everything in [his/her/their] power to support and advance this bill. It is bipartisan. It is simple. It is overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. Thank you.”

SAMPLE EMAIL SCRIPT

“Dear Senator ____________,

I am writing you to urge you to do everything in your power to pass SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, through the Senate. As someone who lives in _____[town]______, I know how damaging predatory lending practices are to our community, and as a voter, one of my top priorities is seeing SB 138 passed. So many of us have been writing and calling during this legislative session, and there has been bipartisan agreement that we need predatory lending reform for years. It’s past time that something is done, and it’s past time for the Senate to vote on SB 138. Please work with your colleagues to pass this bill as soon as possible, as we are running out of time — again — to pass reform that protects Alabama’s borrowers from predatory lenders. This bill is simple and overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. I will be looking for your leadership on this. Thank you.

Sincerely,

_______________”

Make your voice heard! It can make the difference. 

by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

The staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system mean people of color are more likely to incur criminal justice debt and face counterproductive hurdles to reentry. People of color are also far more likely to encounter predatory lenders, whose loan products can legally reach 456% APR. Together, these systems help drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alabama Appleseed has launched a collaborative project with Greater Birmingham Ministries, Legal Services Alabama, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC) to:

  • Document how court-imposed debt and collateral consequences push individuals to seek high interest loans from payday and title loan lenders.
  • Reduce the burden of these debts by educating Alabamians about alternative loan products that would minimize debt burdens.
  • Develop and execute a long-range plan to remedy these three drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

How will we do this?

Focusing on people of color in Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Lowndes County, Bessemer, and Tarrant, we will:

  • Survey Alabamians impacted by court-imposed debt and/or collateral consequences to understand their role in pushing people to predatory lenders.
  • Seek insight from individuals who know this system, including social workers, law enforcement, indigent defense and civil legal aid attorneys, bank and credit union workers, predatory lenders, academics, social service providers, state and local government workers, and faith and community leaders.
  • Partner with credit unions and other non-predatory loan providers to host public educational forums about reasonable alternative loan products.
  • Develop a broad, ideologically diverse coalition of advocates to address these drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

Here’s what we know so far:

Court fees are no longer just about funding the operations of the judiciary – they have become funding stream for basic government services. Of the over $165 million in fees collected by Alabama’s courts in 2011, more than 40 percent went to supplement government budgets outside of the judiciary, including county general funds, employee pay raises, and museums. And, fees collected by Alabama’s criminal courts made up over 66% of the total collected. These fees further ensnare low-income people of color in a hard-to-escape cycles of debt.

Alabama continues to erect counterproductive barriers in front of former offenders returning to their communities, such as arbitrary limitations on employment and housing – two key factors to reducing recidivism. According to The Council of State Governments, Alabama maintains 842 collateral consequences to a criminal conviction.

In addition to those statutorily created hurdles, because of the criminal history checkbox on many employers’ initial employment applications, individuals with criminal records often have their job application tossed out before they ever have an opportunity to present their qualifications or rehabilitation. 

Alabama has more predatory lenders than McDonalds restaurants. In 2015, 246,824 unique Alabama borrowers took out more than two million payday loans. The average predatory loan rate is 300% APR and can legally reach 456% APR. Despite being sold to lawmakers as a way for individuals to obtain emergency credit, the average borrower took out eight loans in 2015. In reality, these predatory loan products are used to pay for basic needs and, as a 2014 survey conducted by TASC found, to cover court costs, fines, and fees.  

By reducing criminal fees, removing unnecessary hurdles to reentry, and reining in predatory lenders, this project will help remove three drivers of household debt in Alabama’s communities of color.