The exodus began in July.
Two top attorneys from Maryland Legal Aid’s Anne Arundel County office were fired on July 24, after a group of attorneys requested better health and safety accommodations for in-office work during the pandemic.
Since then, three more attorneys and two paralegals have left the Annapolis office, one of 12 locations in Maryland that offer free legal services to those who cannot afford it.
The departures have left a hole in the county’s legal community where there once was a group of housing attorneys with a combined century of experience representing some of the county’s most vulnerable residents, many of whom are Black public housing tenants.
The upheaval comes just weeks before eviction moratoriums at the state and federal levels are set to expire. Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland’s eviction ban would end Aug. 15 after a 45-day grace period following the end of the state emergency. A similar ban imposed nationwide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was extended Thursday by President Joe Biden and is set to end July 31.
The moratoria have temporarily prevented landlords from seeking evictions for unpaid rent during the pandemic. And despite County Executive Steuart Pittman’s efforts to put millions toward eviction prevention and rent and utility assistance, that has not stopped a flood of landlord-tenant filings in the last year. Nearly 36,000 such filings were submitted to the Anne Arundel County District Court in 2020, according to court filing data.
Now, a wave of evictions caused by job losses and other financial hardship from the pandemic could overwhelm the county in the coming months.
“Anne Arundel County low-income tenants are in danger,” said Amy Siegel, a housing attorney who left Maryland Legal Aid in May after 16 years. “There is no question about it.”
In the 11 months since the departure of Anne Arundel chief attorney Anita Bailey and her deputy, supervising attorney Lisa Sarro, who both had more than two decades of experience, staff attorney Kathy Hughes left in April after 22 years. Margaret Leonard, another veteran attorney with 23 years of experience, left after Memorial Day.
What drove so many experienced attorneys to leave the organization was a combination of factors, they said, starting with Bailey and Sarro’s firing, which drew widespread condemnation from former employees and community advocates. That was followed by changes in office policies and practices they said de-emphasized the office’s robust housing practice.
“It’s supposed to be the community’s needs that drive where your priorities are. And that was why our housing practice grew ... because of the needs in Anne Arundel County,” said Hughes, who now works for Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County.
Siegel and Hughes were called into private meetings in September with management where they were told “there will be no more ‘specialties’ in the Anne Arundel County office and that I would be assigned cases in any and all areas of law,” Siegel said.
The office shifted to a “call center model which emphasizes brief legal advice and quick turn-around time,” changes which “made it abundantly clear that MLA is following a different model for the provision of legal services,” Hughes wrote in her resignation letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Capital.
Ashley Cheatham, a Maryland Legal Aid spokesperson, said the organization is prepared for the end of the moratorium and will offer to represent in court all clients who need it, including those with housing-related issues.
“As a statewide organization, MLA has the full capacity—a combination of expert and experienced legal advocates and support from local, state, and federal funders, community partners, and pro bono attorneys from the private bar—to continue providing high-quality assistance to Maryland’s vulnerable and low-income communities,” Cheatham wrote in an email.
She added in a follow-up email that housing is one of the major civil issues the organization deals with and accounts for approximately 15% of its total cases.
“MLA may see an increase in this percentage with the eviction moratorium coming to an end and the financial fallout from the pandemic,” Cheatham wrote. “As such, MLA’s staff, together with MLA’s funding and strategic partners, stand ready to serve the civil legal needs of Maryland’s poor, through both brief advice and counseling as well as extended representation.”
For years, many of the attorneys in the small office situated in the shadow of the Naval Academy specialized in representing residents in housing-related lawsuits, some of which made a significant impact on the county’s public housing community.
Sarro, who is now the general counsel to Arundel Community Development Services, was co-counsel for more than 50 public housing residents who alleged decades of racial discrimination and unsafe living conditions against Annapolis and its independent housing authority. She helped win a $1.8 million settlement and two separate consent decrees that dictated how conditions inside public housing properties should be improved. Hughes and others have worked in similar high-profile housing cases.
Maryland Legal Aid has hired replacements for Bailey and Sarro who have more than a decade of experience in family, consumer and criminal law.
The Morning Sun
Attempts to contact the current Anne Arundel attorneys were not successful.
Hughes did not fault the new attorneys. Instead, she laid the blame on Maryland Legal Aid’s leadership team, who she said implemented a new system where attorneys are assigned cases outside of their comfort zone rather than by their expertise.
Toni Strong Pratt, an Annapolis public housing advocate and Ward 4 City Council candidate, had built long-standing relationships with Sarro, Hughes and others in the office, working hand-in-hand over the years to help residents who needed housing legal aid.
Now, when someone comes to her, she directs them to the attorneys at their new positions instead of Maryland Legal Aid.
Sarro has helped Arundel Community Development Services stand up programs to help renters during the pandemic. Siegel has joined the organization to help process cases. Hughes’ new job helps with Anne Arundel’s eviction prevention program.
“Although they are spread out, they’re still accessible, and they’re able to do their work now without being held hostage,” Strong Pratt said. “I applaud them for doing what they did. And we as advocates will continue to empower the community to find their resources and get to where they need to get.”