Renita Robinson did not feel safe and secure in the house she shared with her chronically-ill daughter in the northern part of Columbus, Mississippi. Being diabetic herself, with a severe case of sickle-cell disease and high blood pressure, she endured a lot of unnecessary “trauma and pain” because of her landlord’s incessant attempts to evict her since August 2021, ostensibly because of lack of rent payment.
Robinson, 57, was potentially facing the same eviction ordeal that Samantha Conner, a younger single mother also of Columbus, was subjected to in February 2019 when she was $1,000 behind in her rent.
With a court order in hand and a constable beside them, Conner’s landlord and his agent forced her out of her apartment and seized all of her personal belongings, including her computer hard drive, baby clothes, family pictures, and even her jar of Vaseline, and urged the constable to arrest her if she took anything. The mean and vindictive landlord sold some of Conner’s property, gave some away, and reportedly threw the rest in the nearby dumpster. Conner sued but had to wait over two years for a court decision.
However, it turned out that Robinson, as a participant in the HUD program, was enrolled in the state’s Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program (RAMP). A federally-funded resource designed to help renters overcome the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the RAMP program promised to pay up to 15 months of Robinson’s rent. The money should have been sent directly to the landlord on her behalf, although the landlord allegedly denied receiving any money.
Attorney Michael Gorden, an associate of the Mid-Town Law Office in Jackson, was able to get to the root of the problem right away.
“The RAMP program had paid her rent all the way up through the month of December 2021,” Gorden said. “But the landlord had filed a lawsuit saying she had not paid.”
Gorden took on the case pro bono following requests from the American Diabetes Association, Mississippi Rural Legal Services, and the Mississippi Center for Justice.
“I went online to the RAMP program and pulled up her account,” he said. “As simple as that, I pulled out the receipt from her account that showed where they had paid up to July. And then from July all the way up through December. The RAMP program had confirmed that on the account. They had it represented on the account where you could see the payment. And they also showed who the payment and the check went to. It went to the landlord’s son.”
The landlord’s son was his father’s employee and had been receiving the RAMP payments because the landlord himself did not have the online address required by the federal program, Robinson said.
Attorney Gorden said the landlord had falsely denied receiving payments from his tenant, Robinson.
“The judge asked the son, ‘Did you receive the check?’ And he said, yes,” Gorden explained. “The judge then asked, ‘Are you an employee of your dad?’ And he said, yes. And that’s what got the case dismissed.”
Gorden said that Robinson and her daughter had been spared the ordeal of eviction just in the nick of time.
“It was a blessing that the Mississippi Center for Justice contacted us. And I accepted the case, so she didn’t have to pay at all,” he said. “Otherwise, her situation wouldn’t have been saved and she wouldn’t have been able to provide the necessary information.”
Her last court date was in November, Robinson said. And the judge told the landlord he couldn’t order an eviction because he had been paid over $2,200.
Samantha Conner’s case was heard before U. S. Judge Michael P. Mills in Oxford, and he issued his decision on November 30, shortly after the end of the Renita Robinson case in the lower court. Mills declared that Mississippi’s eviction laws are unconstitutional primarily because they violate both the due process and the equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.
Mississippi has gone further than any other state in allowing landlords to take full control over the belongings and personal property of tenants at the time of eviction, the judge said. State laws allow the immediate seizure of a tenant’s property, even if they are only one day late. And there is no grace period, Mills observed.
Mills called the Mississippi law “outrageous.” Although the Mississippi statutes do not allow full ownership by the landlord over the tenant’s property, the tenant has no recourse under the law against the landlord, the judge said.
Due process requires that the tenant should be able to confront the landlord in a dispute over ownership of his/her property. Mills said it would be reasonable for the landlord to place the property in storage at the tenant’s expense. And he should be able to dispose of it after 30 days if the tenant has not paid the costs of storage and removal.
Mills said that execution of his order would be put on hold (stayed) until the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to hear an interlocutory appeal. Enforcement of his order on the unconstitutionality of Mississippi’s eviction laws depends on the action of the appeals court.
Robinson’s attorney said that she had been spared the humiliation of eviction and of having all her household goods and personal belongings seized by her landlord, as Conner had.
“They had a hearing that was specifically to address that issue,” Golden said. “And if she had left that hearing without getting the case dismissed, she would have been evicted.”
Robinson says she would like to find another place to live because she is not wholly at ease in her current home, although she won her case in court. She is uncertain whether her landlord will allow her to remain there in peace and tranquility, she said.