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Eviction is big business for this law firm. Tenants say it buries them with unfair fees.

Jennifer Lord of Roanoke is part of a class-action lawsuit against Senex, a Virginia law firm accused of acting as an eviction mill. (Heather Rousseau/For The Washington Post)

The bright-pink notice was stuck to the apartment door. Could have put it under the welcome mat, Jennifer Lord thought as she pulled it down and entered her apartment. Now the whole building knew her business.

It was September 2019, and that business, laid out in the notice’s fine print, felt to Lord like a free fall. The single mother and warehouse worker had hit some financial problems, putting her behind on her monthly rent at Frontier Apartments, a complex in Roanoke.

Now the notice — known in Virginia as a pay or quit notice — explained she had five days to hand over the rent ($700), plus a late fee ($100) and attorney fees ($30). The notice warned that if Lord didn’t pull even, an eviction would be filed against her.

“We have now retained Senex Law, PC and they have already drafted this notice and provided legal advice due to your noncompliance,” the notice read, adding that an eviction filing would add another $70 in attorney’s fees to her balance.

“When I saw those charges and late fees, I realized that even if I could get the rent handled, those fees would still be there, and they would just pile up if they filed on me,” Lord, 39, said recently. “It was very much a shock. I felt like I didn’t have time to breathe.”

The fees tied to both the pay or quit notices and the eviction filings, and the law firm behind them, are now part of a federal lawsuit against Hampton, Va.-based Senex Law brought by a coalition of Virginia legal aid organizations. According to the suit, Lord was unfairly pulled into a “debt collection machine.”

The complaint, filed in September 2020 on behalf of Lord and a handful of other tenants, alleges the firm “churns out hundreds or thousands” of pay or quit notices, then quickly “continues the churn by filing hundreds or thousands” of eviction filings “without any meaningful attorney involvement or review of the underlying claim.”

The result is that the firm has stepped into “a starring role in the state’s mass evictions” while allegedly blurring legal lines and depriving tenants of their lawful rights, the plaintiffs claim.

The lawsuit underscores the complex legal and financial gears nudging tenants toward eviction while remaining inscrutable to most renters. It also shines a light on a high-volume business passing through certain firms, particularly as an estimated 880,000 Virginians now face eviction because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The big thing is we’ve got a law firm that’s using these notices as debt collection without having to abide by the rules of the Fair Debt Collection Act,” said David Beidler, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley, one of the organizations representing the tenants, including Lord.

An attorney for Senex did not respond to requests for comment. On Friday, attorneys from both sides will face off in a hearing that will determine whether Lord and other tenants have a case.

‘The clock is ticking’: Eviction crisis still looms without federal rent relief, advocates and local authorities say

Senex’s website describes the practice as leveraging “state-of-the-art technology” to help streamline the legal process for landlords: “We’ll get you in court sooner, you can collect rent and late fees sooner, or replace nonpaying residents with rent-paying residents.”

The site says “we’ve structured our entire practice around the premise — the promise — that we will provide not just good service, but WOW! Service. . . . We won’t be satisfied until you say WOW!”

As a result of that business model, the firm has been behind a considerable number of Virginia evictions, or “unlawful detainers.” In 2018, the Richmond Times-Dispatch analyzed 150,000 eviction filings from across the state for the previous year. The paper found that Senex had filed more than 20,000 eviction cases in 2017, or four times more than any other Virginia law firm.

In the lawsuit filed last year, attorneys for Lord and other tenants alleged that in 2020, Senex filed 3,891 eviction cases in 2020 up to September. Those numbers came despite federal and state eviction moratoriums. With attorney’s fees laid out in the notices sent to Lord and others, the firm’s alleged 2020 caseload of eviction filings alone would add up to more than a quarter of a million dollars in business.

According to the complaint, the notices represent “debt collection work that does not require legal training or a license to practice law, and is thus not properly characterized as work for which an 'attorney’s fee’ is recoverable under the tenants’ leases with their landlords.”

The plaintiffs argue that those notices, even though they are written on the letterhead of the landlord, are actually generated by Senex and “falsely represented the nature of the services rendered by and compensation which may be lawfully received by Senex.”

The tenants further allege the activity violates the federal government’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

In court filings, attorneys for Senex call the allegation against the firm “bold and inflammatory” and deny the firm violates the law by acting as a debt collector.

“Plaintiffs take issue with the fact that Senex saves its clients time and money by handling in house the printing and mailing of these notices,” Senex’s attorneys counter in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. “Senex is not a debt collector as any assistance or services Senex provides to the creditor-landlord in mailing the notices of nonpayment is entirely ministerial.”

On Friday, a judge will hear arguments on whether the case moves forward.

Renters thought a CDC order protected them from eviction. Then landlords found loopholes.

Lord was eventually hit with multiple pay or quit notices, which in turn led to four eviction filings against her stretching into the summer of 2020. Each of those cases, however, was resolved without her losing her apartment and she was able to pay off the money she owed.

Lord still lives there today, conscious that any money issues could easily propel her again down the same trajectory to eviction. The pandemic has cut down her work hours, and she is staying current on her housing payments thanks to a Virginia rental assistance program funded through the federal Cares Act.

“I know it’s an adult responsibility to pay your bills, but the fees involved here just seemed astronomical,” she said. “I fear if I run into these problems again, I’ll lose my home.”

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