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Locked-Out in the Middle of Winter

Legal Action's SeniorLAW unit gets 74-year-old retiree Roger Thompson back into his apartment after an illegal lock-out

“At 74, moving to another place isn’t something you particularly want to do.”

In the middle of winter, Roger Thompson, aged 74, was locked out of his apartment.  His landlord wouldn’t allow Thompson into his apartment and told him over the phone that he was being evicted. It was New Year’s Eve.

Mr. Thompson is retired and lives on his small monthly Social Security check. He is able to afford his apartment with a federally-funded rent subsidy known commonly as a Section 8 voucher. With this voucher, Mr. Thompson pays one third of his monthly income for rent. This way, he still has enough money for food, medication, and other life necessities.

When a low-income person is evicted, it’s likely they will permanently lose their rent subsidy. If Mr. Thompson lost his rent subsidy, he could not afford his apartment anymore. “I probably would have ended up in a group home,” says Thompson. 

“I felt very intimidated,” he said. 

Roger Thompson liked his apartment and had lived there four years. And, like many of our elderly, Thompson did not have the financial means to simply move on. Fearing he would end up in a group home, Thompson tried to fix his situation himself, and then got a little help from a family member and a West Allis Police officer. But without help from one of Legal Action’s SeniorLAW attorneys, Mr. Thompson would certainly have been evicted. 

The only project of its kind in Milwaukee County, the “Services to Vulnerable Elderly Victims Project” is a part of Legal Action’s SeniorLAW unit. Funding from Wisconsin’s Office of Crime Victims and the Milwaukee County Department on Aging allows Legal Action attorneys to solve the civil legal problems of elderly people – those who are especially vulnerable to predatory and illegal actions. The illegal lockout and eviction of Roger Thompson is just one example. 

Roger Thompson’s Story: Overnight Homelessness 

In late December, 2010, Thompson’s couch caught fire. He tried to put it out with water, forgetting he had a fire extinguisher. A neighbor called the site manager who, with the building’s maintenance worker, used Thompson’s fire extinguisher to put it out. The West Allis Fire Department was called and the smoldering couch was removed. 

The Red Cross found Thompson a temporary place to stay so that his apartment could be cleaned of the fire extinguisher dust. Mr. Thompson thought he would be out of his apartment for one or two nights, but he was wrong. The next day, New Year’s Day, the building manager called Mr. Thompson and a Red Cross staff member to say that they were evicting him and were giving him 28 days to leave. 

Presuming he had no choice, Thompson tried to return to his apartment to get his belongings, only to find that the locks had been changed. The building manager said that the Health Department found the apartment to be uninhabitable. Later, Thompson learned that this was not true. The apartment was perfectly fine after the fire extinguisher dust was vacuumed. 

The landlord seemed to be searching for a reason to make him leave even though he had done nothing wrong. It was illegal for them to change the locks, but Mr. Thompson didn’t know that. He left. 

Thompson’s ex-wife then started to help him. Thompson describes his former spouse as “a person who goes after detail, asks all the right questions, tries to cover something every which way you can.” 

With her help, Thompson tried to negotiate with the apartment manager so that he could leave the Red Cross shelter and return to his home. One meeting with the apartment manager even involved a West Allis Police officer. Before the meeting, the officer had checked with the building inspector and the health department: both told the officer that the apartment was habitable and that Mr. Thompson should not have been locked-out.  The officer told the manager that locking Thompson out of his apartment was illegal and that she was leaving her employers, the building owners, open to civil liability. The manager did not budge from her position, saying that Thompson had violated the rules, but without making clear which rules he had violated or the reason he was being evicted. 

The officer couldn’t do anything more because it was a civil matter, not a criminal one. 

“It seemed there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” says Thompson. It was only after all this that Roger Thompson found Legal Action. 

Milwaukee’s Elderly Deserve Better 

Thompson has Parkinson’s Disease, which affects the brain and causes tremors, difficulty walking and, often, confusion and memory loss. He has been pronounced “stable” by his doctors, which means the disease isn’t progressing at the moment. Parkinson’s is incurable, however, and in the eight years since first being diagnosed with the disease, Thompson has seen a noted decline in his health. 

Thompson graduated in 1962 with an Associate’s Degree in Restaurant Management from Milwaukee Institute of Technology (now part of Milwaukee Area Technical College) and cooked in several Milwaukee-area restaurants. Then, for 30 years, he was a drug and alcohol counselor at different inner-city Milwaukee hospitals and at a methadone clinic. 

Now, Thompson had a civil legal problem that was threatening to leave him without a home in the middle of winter. 
Services to Vulnerable Elderly Victims 

Nicole Zimmer, one of Legal Action’s SeniorLAW unit lawyers quickly went to work on Thompson’s case. Thompson’s situation had worsened by then; in addition to the illegal lockout and the eviction notice, the building owners were also seeking $900 in damages from the fire. 

Zimmer researched the building owners and contacted them directly. After explaining that their actions were illegal and could subject them to double damages and attorney fees, they agreed that Thompson could move back into the apartment. 

When Zimmer and Thompson arrived at the apartment the next day to make sure he could get into the apartment, the building manager handed him an eviction notice for non-payment of rent. For the past two months, the landlord had received payment from the rent subsidy, but Mr. Thompson’s portion of the rent had not been paid. 

However, this was a simple mistake on Thompson’s part, likely caused by the Parkinson’s Disease. Thompson had opened an account at a new bank and had neglected to tell the landlord to withdraw his portion of the rent from his new bank. “This was also my fault,” says Thompson. “Maybe the Parkinson’s, and that I don’t write so well, led to my mistake,” he says. 

“Because I made a mistake, I probably would have ended up in a group home. That’s a guess, but I think an accurate one,” says Thompson. 

Zimmer asked the landlord to waive four months’ rent, drop the eviction and the damages claim because the landlord had locked Mr. Thompson out of his apartment – something that is clearly not allowed under Wisconsin law. She also assured the landlord that banking mistakes wouldn’t happen again because Mr. Thompson could get a money manager and other help. 

The building owners did not respond to Thompson’s lawyer at Legal Action for months, keeping Thompson in a state of uncertainty and confusion. Zimmer had to keep Thompson’s rent payments in her lawyer’s trust account until the owners finally acknowledged that Thompson should stay in his apartment. 

In the meantime, Zimmer and Cecilia Chrustic, one of Legal Action’s paralegals, worked with a social worker to get help for Mr. Thompson so that he could stay in his apartment and live independently. They got medical assistance, food service, nursing assistance, and a money manager who now handles Thompson’s finances and prevents similar mistakes. 

“But then when I was being represented adequately they knew they couldn’t keep me out.” 

Eventually, the landlord agreed to Zimmer’s plan. They waived four months of rent. They dismissed the alleged fire damages. They agreed not to pursue an eviction. Mr. Thompson remains in his apartment today. 

Legal Action got him back into his apartment – something his family and the police were unable to do. 

Even though Thompson’s life was turned upside down, through the fear and the confusion he can look back at the situation with a clear eye.

“Everyone was very professional on both sides,” says Thompson. “At 74, moving to another place isn’t something you particularly want to do. I was happy to have help, but I was very intimidated and ironically (the site manager) was very friendly throughout.” She gave Thompson a hug at one point during his ordeal.  

“But then when I was being represented adequately they knew they couldn’t keep me out,” Thompson says. 

“People have to realize there is help out there. We hear so much about budgets being cut, but you just cannot give up. It may take time, but in the long run, it’s worth it. It’s worth it.”