Law students file suit in federal court on behalf of 11 homeless people in Akron

CWRU law students with client
From left: Third-year law students Nathan Ehrman and Emma Victorelli, client Patrick Moe, alumna Rebecca Sremack (LAW ’14), and Avidan Y. Cover, assistant professor of law.

When Rebecca Sremack was a third-year student last year in Case Western Reserve University School of Law’s Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic, the Akron native found a way to link her dedication to important causes in her hometown with the Kramer Clinic’s mission.

Sremack, who graduated last spring with a law degree, noted Akron’s property sweeps of homeless campsites and brought the situation to the attention of Assistant Professor Avidan Cover, who teaches in the school’s Civil Litigation Clinic. The intent of the law clinics is to give students experience with real cases for people who would not otherwise be able to afford legal representation.

“We began doing research on the issues, and the clinic took on formal representation of some of the homeless in the spring of last year,” Cover said.  Since that time, two sets of clinic students have worked on the case.

Case Western Reserve law students on Friday filed a federal class-action lawsuit, claiming the city of Akron wrongfully raided places where the homeless live.

“The policy change we seek is quite modest,” Sremack said. “We are asking the city to provide the homeless community with notice before they remove anyone’s property, and then provide them a way to recover any property that is taken instead of destroying it.”

Last year, in addition to Sremack, Abigail Avoryie, Jennifer Doll and Yelena Grinberg worked on the case.  This year, clinic students Nathaniel Ehrman, Donielle Robinson and Emma Victorelli have continued, with Sremack also assisting.

“Working in the lawsuit has been a unique learning experience for clinic students,” Cover said.  “For one thing, students have been doing extensive field research, making numerous trips to Akron, where they met with homeless individuals in soup kitchens and under bridge and road overpasses. The students have dedicated a tremendous amount of time and work to the case, giving up many of their weekends.”

Cover said the students are trying “to rectify serious wrongs that a very vulnerable population has suffered. The students have the opportunity to be a part of impact litigation. We are trying to effect policy change.”

Cover also said he and his students and have gained “a greater appreciation of the humanity and dignity of people who are so often invisible to most of us. Too many of us drive by or try to ignore homeless people.

“The seizure and destruction of homeless peoples’ property reflects a similar aspect of the dehumanization of the homeless,” Cover said. “In taking on the Akron homeless as our clients, we hope to restore their dignity and protect their constitutional rights. In some way, I feel we may increase our own humanity as well.”

Eleven homeless people are named as plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio complaint. Plaintiffs range in age from 22 and 64, including two military veterans.

The lawsuit contends that personal property was taken without notice or a chance to object to the seizures. The lawsuit names certain city administrative and police officials as defendants. According to news reports, Akron police issued a statement disputing the lawsuit’s claims and asserting the legality of its actions.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent in the U. S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio.

The filing seeks damages for those affected by the seizures, a permanent injunction barring the city from conducting such seizures and a finding that the city’s practices regarding the homeless are unconstitutional.

The lawsuit contends the business owners complained to city officials between 2010 and 2012 about a homeless encampment in a wooded area in North Akron. The city then developed a strategy that included stronger enforcement of loitering and trespass laws, required homeless people to obtain a city-issued panhandlers license and raided encampments several times from November 2010 through September of this year. The lawsuit claims that some sweeps occurred where the homeless had been told they could camp.

“Many of our clients lost their belongings—including tents, warm clothing, personal keepsakes, and legal documents—as a result of the city’s sweeps at the onset of the 2013 winter,” said Emma Victorelli, part of the Kramer Law Clinic team that brought the lawsuit. “The sweeps left these already vulnerable individuals facing the elements with minimal protection.”