A public housing authority that simply cited a vaguely-worded clause in a tenant’s lease as grounds for her eviction failed to give her legally sufficient notice of the specific reasons for the eviction, the North Carolina Supreme Court has unanimously ruled. The tenant’s attorneys say that the ruling, which overturns a 2019 ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals, will help to protect the rights of residents of public housing, particularly those who are survivors of domestic violence.
Patricia Winston leased an apartment from the Raleigh Housing Authority, which owns and manages public housing. In December 2017 the RHA sent Winston a notice that it would be terminating her lease, citing a clause in the lease obliging residents to “conduct themselves in a manner which will not disturb the neighbors’ peaceful enjoyment of their accommodations” after three such neighbors complained about noise coming from her apartment.
The RHA rescinded the termination notice after an informal meeting at which Winston informed the RHA that she had been the victim of domestic violence. But it issued a second termination notice, citing the same clause in the lease, a few months later after it received another noise complaint. Winston told the RHA that the noise had been caused by her former partner, who had sent his friends over to her place to harass her.
The RHA evicted Winston, who declined to vacate the apartment. The RHA sought her ejectment, and in her response, Winston argued that the RHA had failed to give her adequate notice of the reasons for her eviction as required by federal regulations.
A Wake County District Court judge concluded that Winston had been given adequate notice, and in 2019 the state’s Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, finding that the notice was sufficient because it quoted the specific provision of the lease that served as the basis for the termination. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review, and in a unanimous March 12 opinion it reversed the ruling, finding that the RHA’s notice to Winston was insufficient.
Justice Tamara Barringer, writing for the court, said that federal regulations dictate that public housing agencies seeking to evict a tenant must first provide the tenant with a notice of lease termination that states the “specific grounds” for the termination, and the plain meaning of that term required the RHA to clearly identify the factors forming the basis for termination.
In contrast, the notice of termination provided by the RHA lacked any reference to any specific conduct by Winston, and its language was too broad and vague for her to determine how the RHA believed she had breached the lease agreement.
“A tenant’s disturbance of her neighbors encompasses a broad range of conduct, may involve the tenant or other persons on the premises, and, as relevant to this case, may include conduct for which the landlord may not evict the tenant as a matter of law,” Barringer wrote, noting that the Violence Against Women Act prohibits public housing programs from evicting tenants due to the fact they’ve been the targets of domestic violence.
Erik Zimmerman and Ethan White of Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte and Andrew Cogdell, Celia Pistolis, Darren Chester, Daniel Dore, and Thomas Holderness of Legal Aid of North Carolina represented Winston. Zimmerman, whose firm handled the case pro bono, said that the ruling preserves important due process protections for people who live in public housing, and that the Court of Appeals’ ruling would have had a far-reaching impact on public housing tenants across the state.
“People who live in public housing are some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community,” Zimmerman said. “Subsidized public housing may be the only housing they have available to them. Being able to live in public housing may be the difference between having a home and being homeless. What this ruling really does is ensure that before they’re evicted from their homes, they get the benefit of due process and have a meaningful chance to defend themselves and contest their eviction.”
The decision is also an important ruling for victims of domestic violence, Zimmerman said, because of situations like Winston’s where a housing authority seeks to evict a tenant based on noise complaints, but noise was the product of instances of domestic violence. In order for domestic violence survivors to assert their rights under the VAWA, they first need to know specifically why a housing authority is trying to evict them.
Charles Francis, Alan Woodlief and Ruth Sheehan of The Francis Law Firm in Raleigh represented the RHA. The firm could not be reached for comment about the court’s ruling.
The 11-page decision is Raleigh Housing Authority v. Winston (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-019-21).
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