Kelly Pedone. Texas Lawyer – November 17, 2003.
It’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning in September, and Ericka Moore navigates her gold 2000 Toyota Echo along Farm-to-Market Road 517 through Texas City. The 31-year-old legal-aid attorney is on her way to an emergency hearing and hopes to save her client from eviction. The client owns a mobile home and leases space at a mobile home park in the Gulf Coast town.
“I think it will be hard to win,” Moore says of her case, since the landowner took the proper steps and filed eviction papers. But there is a glimmer of hope. The landowner, Moore says, included in the eviction paperwork a reason for the action – that the woman is involved in selling drugs – and there is no proof of that.
“If the property owner would have filed eviction papers without including a cause, he would probably win without dispute,” Moore says.
Moore parks her car in the gravel parking lot that is used by the Justice of the Peace for Precinct 7, Mark A. Foster in Bacliff. She walks down the narrow hall to the tiny courtroom and takes her spot at one of two small tables in front of the bench. It is uncommon for people appearing before a JP to have legal representation, she says, taking her case file out of her bag and placing it on the table next to her copy of the Texas Property Code.
“Property owners hate us,” she says, referring to legal-aid attorneys who represent tenants. “It usually means they have to hire an attorney.” But the landowner in this case is pro se, she says.
Fighting for her client to continue living in a mobile home is a world away from the career in international law that Moore envisioned when she entered the University of Miami School of Law. She thought she was entering a profession that would help make a bigger dent in the more than $150,000 she has in student loans – which she is ever so slowly chipping away at with her $36,700 annual salary from Lone Star Legal Aid in Galveston and the additional money she earns working at a retail shop at the mall on the weekend.
Instead of traveling the world for a major international firm or working on political policy for a major think tank, Moore has perhaps a higher purpose: defending those who cannot afford to defend themselves.
“The more I looked at my career options, the more I realized that I wanted to make a difference and help people,” Moore says. “I didn’t want to spend the first five years of my career sitting in an office doing research.”
Despite the altruism of her position, Moore’s caseload is far from light. Last year she closed 100 cases; and by early October this year, her open cases number more than 75.
As she waits for her client to arrive, Moore looks over her schedule for the day. She has an emergency intake later this afternoon. A man called the office the night before with a housing crisis. He learned that the city of Galveston plans to condemn the home he rented only two months ago with his elderly mother. He had paid the first and last month’s rent plus deposit and would like the money back so they can find a new place to live.
“Evictions always come to us through emergency intake,” Moore says. Emergency intake is reserved for people who have a hearing scheduled that day or the next and there is no time to make an appointment. Foreclosures, evictions, food stamp and some Social Security issues are typically those that come through on an emergency status.
By the time she leaves the office for the day, Moore will have assisted two new clients, attended a staff meeting, made numerous follow-up calls to current clients and retrieved from the Galveston County Courthouse documents for a complicated divorce case.
But right now her focus is on the eviction case before her. Moore’s client arrives and makes herself comfortable next to Moore at the table as Moore goes over what questions she will ask when they appear before the judge. She keeps one eye on the door, hoping to catch the landowner when he arrives.
With less than five minutes until the hearing begins, the landowner arrives. Moore walks him into the hallway with her client to discuss the case. Moore hopes to buy her client some time before she must vacate the lot. She needs time to get enough money to hire someone who will move her home to another lot.
Judge Foster enters the courtroom at 10 a.m., and Moore and her client are at the top of his list. The small room is full of others who are asking the judge to rule on evictions and other small-claims cases. Moore pokes her head into the courtroom and asks for more time – she’s hopeful that the parties can reach an agreement.
A few minutes later, Moore and her client return to their places at the table and Moore whips out a yellow legal pad and begins writing a Rule 11 motion. The landowner agreed to give her client some time, and Moore is writing the new agreement to give to the judge to enter into the court records. Moore considers this a victory.
Diversity and More
It has been less than an hour since Moore entered the courtroom, and now she’s back in her Toyota Echo. But before heading back to her office, Moore gives her client the name of an agency that can help her make her last month’s rent. She also asks the landowner if he can refer her client to someone who can help her move her trailer to a new location – someone who will not charge too much money.
“A lot of my job is along the same lines as social work,” Moore says.
Moore settles in to the four-person field office of Lone Star Legal Aid and begins making calls to clients. She contacts one woman to find out if she was able to get food stamps. If so, she’ll be recommended to a pro bono attorney to help her with her divorce case. She then continues to return calls to clients to update them on their cases.
Moore used to handle a lot of divorce cases, but organizational changes at Lone Star Legal Aid now only allow attorneys to work on divorce cases that involve violence. Moore had to free her schedule to oversee Social Security cases. That’s a task that had once been handled by a paralegal, but budget cutbacks meant doing away with the position.
“I have 35 Social Security cases,” Moore says as she flicks through the files that are neatly stacked to the side of her desk. “Most are for disability cases, and they take a lot of time.”
Earlier in the month, she had to make the 50-mile trek to Houston for a hearing before a federal judge. Her client had been denied Social Security income benefits because she still owned a home with her ex-husband. Moore had advised her to sell her share of the house so it wouldn’t be viewed as a possible form of income. Her client has multiple sclerosis, cancer and other health problems that keep her from maintaining a full-time job but cannot qualify for Medicaid. Moore had planned to spend much of the day trying to convince the judge to agree that her client now qualified, but the hearing was over in a matter of minutes. The judge quickly agreed to recommend Moore’s client receive SSI.
“I’m getting exactly what I wanted from this job – diversity,” Moore says as she continues making phone calls to check up on clients. Soon her 1 p.m. appointment has arrived. She goes over his case with him. Since no one from the city has given him official word that the house he rented is being condemned, Moore tells him that he should begin looking for a new place and discusses what must take place before he is forced out of the home he recently rented. Once he leaves her office, her next client is waiting – a young college student going through a divorce.
“It’s really a sad situation,” Moore says of the divorce case.
“You have to love people and be socially conscious to do this job,” Moore adds. “We deal with welfare reform, spousal abuse and housing issues. It’s not always pretty work, but it’s work that demands attention.”
Moore’s cases are not quite as “sexy” as those her supervisor worked on when he became a legal-aid attorney in 1979. Working in West Texas, Steve McIntyre was part of a team that spent a lot of time fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers – a series of class-action suits that legal-aid attorneys can no longer be involved in due to changes in federal law. McIntyre also used to busy himself with a slew of civil-rights cases.
Under Code of Federal Regulations �1613, legal-aid attorneys cannot work on class-action suits, and, in Texas, they do not handle criminal work. Most of the work that comes through their doors involves consumer, employment, family, housing and Social Security issues.
Motivation Without Money
McIntyre joined the Galveston office of Lone Star Legal Aid – one of three legal aid groups in Texas – in 1994 as managing attorney. At the time, the office had seven attorneys. Budget constraints have not only limited the number of staff but also the number of cases they can accept. One of the four staff attorneys is leaving this month, and the agency will not replace him any time soon.
“As with any attorney, we need money for depositions and expert witnesses,” McIntyre says. “We can’t do a lot of that because of funding issues and because we cannot recoup attorneys’ fees. It becomes discouraging as we have to refer more and more people to pro bono attorneys. Plus, it becomes difficult to attract young lawyers because of the low salary and their need to pay back student loans and make a comfortable living.”
Moore attended a private college for law school, but she also paid out-of-state tuition for her undergraduate degree from Florida State University. Now she laughs at the thought of how long it will take her to repay the more than $135,000 she owes in student loan debt. That’s about $15,000 less than what she started out owing, in part because she’s been making payments and in part because Volunteers in Service to America paid off a couple of small loans in exchange for her willingness to work for the organization, which tries to find long-term solutions to the problems caused by urban and rural poverty.
“I try to view it as my $135,000 house on the water in North Carolina,” Moore says of her massive school loan debt. “Of course, money is an issue. Yes, I busted my butt to pass law school and the bar exam. And I’d like to have a certain lifestyle – drive a great car, wear great clothes, have a great house. But I believe it will come. I think there are ways to do it without have to work like a dog.
“Success comes from purpose – what I do and not how much I make,” Moore adds.
With a few exceptions, Moore’s schedule is pretty regular compared to her former classmates who took positions with large firms. Unless she has an early hearing, she shows up in her office by 9 a.m. and can typically leave by 6 p.m. She doesn’t have to worry about billable hours, and she rarely works weekends. The dress code is much more casual than at a firm, she says. At times she can come to work wearing jeans, but typically opts for a little more professional but casual look unless she has to appear in court.
Still, the tight financial issue legal-aid groups face is the most frustrating part of her job, Moore says.
“I wish we had more money so I could do things for my clients,” she says. “As far as my salary, I’ve seen so much of the world, and I realize that life is much bigger than a paycheck. My rent gets paid along with my other bills.”
With that, Moore takes another call from a Galveston County resident being forced from his home.
“Every time I meet with a client, I’m reminded at how many people out there don’t have anything close to what I have,” she says. “This job is very humbling. It keeps me grounded.”