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Lawyers Try to Battle Eviction Scourge with Mediation Clinic

Sep. 12, 2017
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Milwaukee County Courthouse - J Ferrer

Every Wednesday afternoon finds Joanne Lipo Zovic and Amy Koltz standing up before the small crowd that gathers at the Milwaukee County Courthouse for eviction court. The two lawyers’ message for both landlords and tenants is a simple one: Before fighting it out in front of a judge, try mediation. So far, about two-dozen pairs of opposing parties have decided to take them up on their offer.

For a few, the help was to no avail. After trying mediation, they still end up fighting things out in court. But the vast majority managed to find their way to outcomes that are likely far better for everyone concerned than they would have got had they gone through the usual adversarial proceedings. That’s exactly what Lipo Zovic and Koltz hoped for when they started the Tenant-Landlord Mediation Program.

“We have seen this work in small claims and in other cases, with pro se parties in particular,” said Lipo Zovic, who has acted as both a faculty and student adviser in mediation clinics held at the Marquette University Law School. “So why wouldn’t it be effective in another setting?”

Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond may have drawn international attention to the scourge of eviction in Milwaukee with the publication last year of his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. But Lipo Zovic and Koltz were aware well before all the publicity that the situation had gotten out of hand.

“Sadly, that put us in the headlights nationally,” Lipo Zovic said of Desmond’s book, which followed the struggles of four Milwaukee families and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. “That gave some added urgency to the situation.”


Thousands of Cases Each Year 

About 13,000 eviction cases were filed in Milwaukee County alone last year. On any given day of the week, it’s not unusual to have more than 100 cases called up. Court commissioners were not only worried that the deluge of cases was leading to outcomes that were in no one’s best interest, they were also concerned that the entire system was being jammed up. Enter Lipo Zovic and Koltz—both of whom have experience working on mediations and other types of alternative dispute resolutions.

Their first mediation clinics dedicated to evictions were single-day affairs held in 2015 and 2016. The success of those events showed the pair how great the demand landlords and tenants might have for their services is. Several court commissioners had also expressed an interest in setting up something similar to an already existing mediation clinic used for small-claims cases. The opportunity came at a good time for Koltz.

Besides teaching classes on mediation as an adjunct professor at Marquette University, Koltz is president of Metro Milwaukee Mediation Services, which seeks to resolve foreclosure cases without the need to go to court. With the economy recovering following the latest recession, she was finding that her work at Metro Milwaukee Mediation Services was starting to taper off. Suddenly, with some monetary support from the Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts, she had found a new outlet for her expertise.

Having got the Tenant-Landlord Mediation Program up and running, Lipo Zovic and Koltz are now able to set aside time to sit in a room with landlords and tenants to try to come up with a resolution that avoids the inevitable entanglements of a court battle. One advantage of mediation, Koltz said, is that it keeps everything private; that’s a contrast from formal eviction proceedings, which generate a mass of paperwork that ends up in the public domain. Records showing that a tenant has been served an eviction notice can remain on the state’s public website for up to 10 years, putting up a high hurdle to ever being able to rent again.


Avoiding the Adversary 

Another advantage of mediation is in its basic avoidance of adversarial proceedings. When tenants and landlords go to court, they tend to be on the defensive lest any show of weakness give their opponent an opening for an attack. In mediation—which the parties must enter voluntarily and which produces resolutions that are binding only if accepted by all the parties—they can be much more honest about their own shortcomings. 

Sometimes the biggest obstacle is simply a lack of communication. People naturally tend to want to avoid conflict and will go out of their way to avoid disagreeable encounters. Mediation provides a formal setting where the disputants are not only expected to sit across the table from each other, but also behave like adults. Koltz said that a mediator’s mere presence in the room will many times prompt people to look for a rational resolution simply because they want to avoid seeming greedy or obstinate before a stranger. “There’s an element of having a third party there that makes them want to maybe be a little more reasonable,” she said. 

Often, once tenants and landlords sit down and start talking things out, it becomes apparent that a way out of their impasse was staring them in the face the entire time. The landlord is tired of trying to collect rent from a tenant whose payments are constantly late; the tenant is tired of being hassled and living in a place he can’t afford and just wants some time to make new arrangements. “What might make sense to me might not make sense to somebody else,” Lipo Zovic said. “It’s surprising what you get if you let go of all your assumptions.”

To be sure, Koltz said, mediation is not a cure-all. “Sometimes the situation is too personal,” she said. “There is too much history, and there is no turning back in some ways.” When things don’t go right, there are alternative ways to get help. The organization Legal Action of Wisconsin, for instance, has an Eviction Defense Project that helps protect the rights of tenants who cannot afford legal representation. Koltz said that service will always be available to anyone who either outright rejects mediation or isn’t satisfied with its results.

But Joanne Lipo Zovic and Amy Koltz are optimistic enough about mediation that they are looking to add to their services. One possibility is to make themselves available to landlords and tenants before an eviction notice is even filed. The goal here would be to prevent a record of a dispute from ever even appearing in public records. The pair is also thinking about taking their clinic outside the walls of the Milwaukee County Courthouse and setting up shop in other parts of the city on different days of the week. “I would like to see us eventually become mediating itinerants,” Lipo Zovic said.


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