In February 2011, a young couple with a 2-year-old child were trying to start a life together as a family, despite significant economic hardship.
John and Holly (fictional names) each had a high-school education, but John recently had lost his job as an apprentice electrician because of a lack of available work. The couple decided that John would take care of their daughter full-time while Holly worked at a fast-food restaurant to support them. She also attended school at night in the hope of obtaining better job opportunities in the future.
Searching for a safe, affordable place to live, Holly and John saw an ad on Craigslist for a small house for rent in southwest Atlanta. They met the landlord there to see the house, signed a lease and paid a $600 cash deposit the same day. The landlord promised the house would be available for occupancy three days later.
Over the next week, the landlord unilaterally postponed the occupancy date three times. Holly and John held out hope that the landlord ultimately would have the house ready for them, but they started looking for another place to rent, just in casewhich is how, one week after they signed the lease and paid the deposit, they discovered that the landlord had relisted their house for rent. They demanded that the landlord return their deposit, but he refused. They called the police, who rebuffed their attempts to file a report claiming theft.
With all of their savings lost to the now meaningless deposit, Holly and John turned for help to the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which is where I met them in March 2011 and accepted their case.
Despite the fact that I a defense lawyerhad no experience with landlord/tenant law and never had filed a lawsuit before, I spent only about 20 hours on their case, with the great support provided by the AVLF staff.
Over the next six months, Holly, John and I:
filed a police report, shoring up their civil claim and creating documentation from which the police might be able to establish a pattern of conduct in case the landlord decided to make a habit of this racket;
filed a complaint in magistrate court, seeking triple damages under the Georgia statute governing landlords' handling of security deposits; damages for fraud; and attorney's fees (recoverable, I learned, even in a pro bono case);
went to trial, during which the landlord appeared and Holly testified against him; and