Elisa Kodish, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, Atlanta.
Elisa Kodish, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, Atlanta. (Handout Photo)

I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Danielson and her daughter one Saturday morning at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF). My colleagues and I were volunteering as part of Nelson Mullins’ twice-yearly commitment to AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer Day. I showed up bleary-eyed, half thinking about the Saturday morning activities I was giving up. And then I met Ms. Danielson.

I knew from her file that she was in her 70s and suffering from leukemia and congestive heart failure. Ms. Danielson entered the office in a wheelchair with her daughter dutifully helping to guide her. Ms. Danielson was clear-eyed and beautiful, gracious and patient. She eloquently told me her story.

She explained that she was in poor health and had found an apartment where she believed she could be comfortable and enjoy serenity during this twilight period of her life. She had moved into the downstairs level of the complex because her disability prevented her from using stairs. Only a few days after she moved in, she began noticing a sewage leak inside the hallway leading to her apartment. A septic tank issue was causing waste from other apartments to flood the ground floor of the apartment building. Over the next couple of days, the sewage spread to every room of her apartment.

Her personal property—furniture, clothing, bedding—was destroyed by the contaminated water. Her apartment was rendered uninhabitable. Ms. Danielson had to be hospitalized after she became ill following her exposure to the contaminated wastewater. Her already compromised immune system was further compromised, resulting in a serious skin infection that lead to a several-day hospital stay.

She had to move out of her apartment but had no good options for places to stay. The complex offered interim accommodations at a substandard hotel that posed its own set of safety concerns. Because Ms. Danielson’s rent was subsidized, moving would be a complicated process; she did not have alternative housing options available to her on such short notice and without the funds to enter into a new lease.

Ms. Danielson had her wits about her. She had tracked down her landlord’s corporate address and found an out-of-state phone number for the parent corporation. She had provided careful notice to her landlord of its failure to repair her apartment, and she had videotaped and photographed the evidence of the damage. She handwrote a letter to her landlord outlining her rights as a tenant, attaching receipts for living expenses, describing the extent of the damage and asking to be compensated.

Ms. Danielson’s letter had fallen on deaf ears. She called the landlord many times. A corporate representative called her back and said he was sorry but they were unable to help. She was sleeping on her daughter’s floor, unable to find or afford new housing, when she called AVLF to ask for a lawyer.

Nelson Mullins accepted Ms. Danielson’s case. The demand letter we prepared wrote itself. Ms. Danielson had done the work. She had preserved her evidence, sent notice and a demand to the landlord and located a corporate party. She had been a tremendous advocate for herself.

Our demand letter incorporated her damages proof and laid out the landlord’s contractual and statutory breaches, claims for negligence, emotional distress, and physical suffering, and sought compensatory and punitive damages. A couple of phone calls elicited a response and prompted quick settlement negotiations. The landlord took the initial position that Ms. Danielson’s family had been trying to take advantage of the apartment complex and that they were wrongfully looking for easy money. I imagined myself in Ms. Danielson’s shoes—I felt the crushing anger and frustration of an honest person living quietly with difficult health conditions, with loving family members trying to help—who had been unlucky enough to find herself literally living in waste. And being treated no better.

By representing her, we were able to hear and validate her story, reinforce her strong advocacy skills and champion her rights. We were also able to convince the landlord to pay her the full amount of damages she sought. The landlord arranged to meet her in person, where he apologized and paid her $5,000. This money gave her the ability to secure new housing, replace her personal property, and, most importantly, to be told, in deeds and dollars, that she was deserving, that her rights and personhood were recognized and that justice demanded that she be made whole.

When we concluded her case, she told me “If you hadn’t stepped in the way you did, I’d be homeless.” Landlord-tenant law and legal help is only a small part of this story. More than that, this case is emblematic of the great many needy clients who rely on AVLF and volunteer lawyers to navigate difficult times in which they might otherwise be helpless. While the volunteer work needed and remuneration gained can be modest in the grand scheme, it can make all the difference between a successful result and great hardship for clients like Ms. Danielson.