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Nebraska law professor wins national award for pro bono program

From the What you missed this week in notable Southeast Nebraska crimes and court cases series
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University of Nebraska law professor Ryan Sullivan has been named the 2022 Access to Justice Award recipient for his work with the Tenant Assistance Project, launched in April 2020 as the state’s first moratorium on evictions was set to expire.

The Association of American Law Schools' award honors those who manage pro bono programs and who have removed barriers to justice or improved legal services to people unable to pay.

Sullivan had been set to pilot a tenants’ rights project with Nebraska law students in the spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. But he still saw an immediate need.

“It was a time when we were asked to social distance and stay home. Nearly all court proceedings had been put on pause, but evictions were still happening,” Sullivan said.

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He said he checked the docket one morning, went to the courthouse and offered to represent any tenant who appeared for an eviction hearing.

Prior to the Tenant Assistance Project, tenants who didn't have an attorney often agreed to an immediate eviction because they couldn’t navigate the legal process themselves.

Now, when tenants go to their hearing, a team of volunteers are there to help, and in nearly 98% of the cases, the tenant is able to avoid immediate eviction.

Sullivan said more than half of the volunteers in Lancaster County are law students.

“They are creating eviction defense packets for cases, notifying tenants of hearings and resources available and, of course, representing tenants during hearings. They are making a difference in our community and in the lives of families facing eviction,” he said.

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Since its inception, the program has helped keep more than 700 families in their homes, a number that continues to grow. The program also connects Lancaster County tenants to available resources, including more than $9 million in federal aid for rental assistance.

“Ryan’s leadership in developing the Tenant Assistance Project has been incredible,” said Richard Moberly, dean of the Nebraska College of Law. “Every day he represents the college and our mission, and this project specifically gives our students opportunities to become leaders themselves, representing clients and advancing justice in the community.”

The tenant project and volunteers have been recognized by the Nebraska State Bar Association, the Clinical Legal Education Association, Legal Aid of Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed.

Sullivan, who was the state Bar Association's 2021 Robert M. Spire Pro Bono Award recipient, also works with senators in the Nebraska Legislature to advance legislation that would ensure tenants receive legal representation in eviction hearings.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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