Hughes Hubbard secured a critical victory for a pro bono client when a Florida state judge affirmed a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to halt the eviction of an illiterate disabled man from the public housing apartment where he has lived for nearly 20 years.
On Nov. 1, 2016, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely granted summary judgment in favor of David Watts and held that Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Schwabedissen did not abuse her discretion when she found that Watts had the right to succeed the tenancy of his late wife, even though she never added him to the lease as a public housing tenant.
The case is the first one in Florida to adopt and apply New York's line of cases on succession in the federally subsidized project-based housing context. Under New York law, a bona fide "remaining family member" in a Section 8 public housing unit is entitled to assume the lease on the death of the public housing tenant, even if that relative had never been added to the lease as a tenant. There is no similar case law in Florida.
Watts lived with Gwen Ephord in her Miami apartment for 11 years before she died in her sleep in 2010. Shortly after her death, Watts learned that his name was not on the lease when the county sent him a 30-day notice informing him that it would terminate Ephord's lease and eject him from the apartment as an illegal boarder. In June 2011, the county brought an action to evict Watts and recover the fair market rental value for the duration of his unauthorized tenancy, arguing that Ephord violated her public housing agreement when she failed to add Watts to her lease.
HHR took the case on with Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGM) and argued the motion for summary judgment in February, shortly before a jury trial was scheduled to begin. Judge Schwabedissen issued her report and recommendation in April and the county promptly appealed. Judge Ely ruled from the bench on Nov. 1 following oral arguments and dismissed the action brought by Miami-Dade County.
"As a successor tenant," she said, "David Watts cannot be ejected from public housing."
Aviva Wernick led the HHR team, which included Jeff Goldberg, Charlotte Marill and Ricardo Falcon. LSGM nominated Wernick for the Florida Bar President's Pro Bono Service Award for her work on this matter.