Jonah Bryson, (647) 530-6641, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elise Baranouski, email@example.com
SOUTH CAROLINA (March 21, 2023) — The South Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (South Carolina NAACP) and three of its members — Robynne Campbell, Marvin Neal, and De'Ontay Winchester — filed suit today in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina to expand the free guidance available to low-income tenants facing eviction. Filed by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law Center, the National NAACP, and the South Carolina-based Wyche Law Firm, the lawsuit argues that South Carolina's prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law violates the First Amendment rights of the South Carolina NAACP and its members to speak and associate together when that prohibition stops them from providing free, vetted, and helpful advice about the law to tenants facing eviction.
South Carolina has one of the highest eviction rates in the country. It also has one of the worst access-to-justice gaps in the country — more than 99% of tenants facing eviction in the state do not have representation. According to a statewide study released last month, there is a "dire need for legal help."
"Tenants across South Carolina are desperate for assistance," said Brenda Murphy, President of the South Carolina NAACP. "The South Carolina NAACP has more members than there are lawyers in our state. Working with legal service providers, we can bridge the gap and offer tenants some of the legal help they need to exercise their rights and avoid being unnecessarily evicted."
The South Carolina NAACP has designed a program that would empower trained nonlawyer advocates to provide free and carefully tailored advice to tenants who are facing eviction actions. The advice, which has been vetted by a leading housing attorney in the state, is designed to ensure tenants do not default on those actions, are able to exercise their rights and raise certain defenses at a hearing, and have more time and a better chance to connect with legal service providers who might be able to represent them.
But South Carolina's prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law, as broadly interpreted by the South Carolina Supreme Court, prohibits nonlawyers from providing this type of free advice. As a result, the South Carolina NAACP and its members would face the threat of criminal prosecution for attempting to implement this program.
"Plaintiffs seek to provide tenants with free and accurate guidance about what they need to do after receiving a notice of eviction," said ICAP Counsel Elise Baranouski. "South Carolina's criminalization of Plaintiffs' intended speech and association is at odds with the First Amendment and serves only to deprive tenants of the advice they need to access the courts."
"The NAACP is often the only place low-income tenants know to turn when they face eviction," said NAACP Assistant General Counsel Joe Schottenfeld. "Volunteer NAACP leaders like Ms. Campbell, Mr. Neal, and Mr. Winchester already provide tenants in their communities with all sorts of vitally important assistance. But they can't provide the advice many tenants need most — about how to respond to an eviction action. That makes their advocacy less effective, with devastating consequences for the tenants they're trying to help."
"In the eviction context, South Carolina has too much legal need and too few lawyers to meet that need," said Wyche Partner Jimmy Cox. "In particular, tenants in our state need to be able to access free and accurate legal guidance. The Plaintiffs in this case can provide that advice and help stem the tide of evictions."
The lawsuit builds on NAACP activism inside and outside of the courtroom to ensure access to justice for all. Decades ago, cases involving the NAACP's efforts to desegregate the south established some of the First Amendment protections that are central to this case. Throughout the pandemic, the South Carolina NAACP has operated a series of housing advocacy programs to try to connect tenants to resources and keep them in their homes. Last year, it filed a pathbreaking First Amendment lawsuit to allow it to automatically scrape court records so that it could reach out to tenants across the state as soon as they have an eviction action filed against them.
The official filing documents can be found here.
The NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Founded in 1939, the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP is the leading civil rights organization in South Carolina. The NAACP and the South Carolina NAACP have fought for decades to secure equality and access to the courts.
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law Center uses strategic legal advocacy to defend constitutional rights and values while working to restore people's confidence in the integrity of their governmental institutions. More information about ICAP can be found at www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/.
Wyche is a full-service law firm that has practiced law and served the community for over 100 years. In that time, Wyche has participated in landmark litigation, served as counsel on cutting-edge transactions, and provided community leadership that has helped shape and drive our region's growth and success. With offices in Greenville, Spartanburg, and Columbia, Wyche is the South Carolina member of Lex Mundi, the world's leading association of independent law firms.