Client No Longer Lives In Fear of Losing Her Home Thanks to UM Law Clinical Students

From left: Hunter Robinson, Diane Maxwell, Prof. Desiree Hensley, Research Counsel Forrest Jenkins, Mrs. Dickens, Cecilia Bacon, and Mack-Arthur Turner

From left: Hunter Robinson, Diane Maxwell, Prof. Desiree Hensley, Research Counsel Forrest Jenkins, Mrs. Dickens, Cecilia Bacon, and Mack-Arthur Turner

By: Professor Phil Broadhead

Edna Dickens first met with Low-Income Housing Clinic student/attorneys and their supervisor, associate professor Desiree C. Hensley, in the fall of 2013. After the interview, the students concluded Mrs. Dickens had lost her home of 43 years to strangers at a property tax sale, getting her home back was a long shot, and she might end up homeless.

“Mrs. Dickens is a lovely person and we really wanted to save her home. It was hard to give her such bad news and to see how that affected her,” said Darnell Pratt, now a practicing lawyer at Simmons & Simmons, PLLC in Greenville, Miss.   The students also told Mrs. Dickens although her legal situation was a hard one, they would do everything they could do to help her.

Daniel McHugh, who is now a clerk for the local Federal District Court, remembers working with other Housing Clinic students to search the land records and to investigate the facts, building the best case they could.

“We decided our first course of action was to help Mrs. Dickens negotiate with the tax sale purchasers and encourage them to sell her home back to her for a reasonable price. To do that we needed to demonstrate that the tax sale was defective in some way.”

The students put together their best arguments for Mrs. Dickens, contacted the tax owners and were able to negotiate a successful sale back to her. That was not the end of the case, however.  McHugh remembers that the students’ investigations lead to more complex problems for Mrs. Dickens.

“Her home turned out to be heir property – property that neither she nor her husband ever actually had a deed to because its ownership had passed by intestate succession through several different people; even worse, there turned out to be other heirs who could claim to own a share of the property. Mrs. Dickens’s home was even more at risk than we had first realized. The only way to solve this problem was to try to find and then file suit against all of the heirs so that Mrs. Dickens could claim her share of the property.”

Clinic students spent the next two semesters finding missing heirs, obtaining expert witness appraisals and surveys of the properties and filing suit in Lafayette County Chancery Court. Finally, the case was set for trial this semester – almost three years after Mrs. Dickens first came to the Clinic for help.

Current Housing Clinic students Cissy Bacon and Mack-Arthur Turner tried the case – each had to examine expert and lay witnesses, enter documents into evidence and argue the law before Chancellor Robert Whitwell. Diane Maxwell and Hunter Robinson also provided research assistance and advocated for Mrs. Dickens in the Chancellor’s chambers. Finally, at the close of the students’ case, the parties reached a settlement agreement that the Chancellor entered as his final order: Mrs. Dickens’ home was hers and hers alone.

Many other graduated law students worked on Mrs. Dickens’s case during those six semesters, including Mitch Thomas, Cori Benefiel, Sam Maddox, Cameron Himes, Shandreka Brown, Amy Mitchell, Marta Toczylowski, Merry Johnson and Scarlett Jones.

Last week, Mrs. Dickens and her family invited the entire Housing Clinic over to share a meal in her home to thank the students for their help.

“This could not have happened without you,” she told the students.

Professor Hensley is happy for Mrs. Dickens and for her students: “I am so proud of the ambitious legal work the law students took on in this case and their success. There is no better feeling than using your legal skills to help a person in a crisis. These students will always know that as lawyers they can choose do a great deal of good in the world.”