Thank you, Olivia!

The Murnaghan Fellowship, 09.03.21

Olivia Sedwick recently completed a productive year at the Public Justice Center as the 2020-2021 Murnaghan Fellow. Through her work in PJC’s Appellate Advocacy Project, Olivia made significant contributions to the fight for economic justice and race equity in Maryland and across the country, developing legal arguments to advance tenants’ rights and combat accent bias and implicit bias in higher education and the courts, among other accomplishments.  And she managed to achieve all of this despite the logistical challenges associated with legal advocacy during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Below we share a few highlights from Olivia’s work as the Fellow.


Taking on accent bias and implicit bias in higher education and the courts

Olivia authored anamicus brief in Yu v. Idaho State Universityin support of doctoral candidate Jun Yu, who sued the university for discrimination based on accent bias. The university repeatedly stonewalled Mr. Yu’s progress toward his degree, saying that he could not adequately communicate with patients in English. Ultimately, the university terminated him from the program, despite his high scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam and his completion of all academic requirements, along with a successful defense of his dissertation verbally in English. Though Mr. Yu’s career goal was to return to China to treat disadvantaged clients there, using his and their native language, the University still felt that his accented English speaking was insufficient for its doctoral program. In the amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Olivia described the history and science of accent bias and called on the Court to recognize the harms associated with it, including noxious stereotypes such as lack of intelligence. She also showed how such biases exist in higher education and in the courts because these institutions are far from immune to the pervasive implicit bias in our society. The brief urged the Court to recognize how accent and related implicit bias have a negative impact on non-standard, accented English speakers. Through the PJC’s partnership with the Equal Justice Society, several prominent civil rights organizations joined onto Olivia’s brief, including the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Ensuring landlords follow Baltimore’s rental licensing law

In addition, Olivia’s advocacy urged Maryland’s highest court to block unlawfully operating landlords from using the court’s “tenant holding over” (THO) eviction procedure. Maryland precedent already states that unlicensed landlords cannot use the court’s streamlined “failure to pay rent” eviction procedure. But as Olivia and PJC attorney Zafar Shah described in an amicus brief in Velicky v. The CopyCat Building, LLC, landlords who are unlicensed and fail to comply with the City’s minimum habitability standards are successfully skirting that precedent by utilizing the THO process, which provides repossession after a tenant has stayed in the home beyond the end of the lease term. Landlords are increasingly turning to THOs to circumvent the licensing requirement, as well as pandemic-based protections from eviction for failure to pay rent. The brief argues that Baltimore’s rental license ordinance extends to THO proceedings just as it applies to summary ejectment for failure to pay rent. In order to uphold the public policy of eliminating profit from unlicensed rental operations, courts should not allow unlicensed landlords to use the THO process to evict, especially where they allege rent is due. The brief also illuminates for the Maryland Court of Appeals the human toll of evictions, describing deep racial disparities in evictions, as well as the ways evictions create housing instability and result in negative health outcomes. Maryland Legal Aid represents the tenant in this case, and the Public Justice Center submitted the brief together with the Homeless Persons Representation Project and Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

Protecting residents from illegal threats of eviction

In perhaps the defining achievement of her fellowship, Olivia won aprecedent-setting victorythat will protect residents from illegal threats of eviction and that brought to fruition the work of many of Olivia’s predecessors as the Murnaghan Fellow. In Wheeling v. Selene Finance, Olivia and the Consumer Law Center LLC continued years-long advocacy in Maryland’s appellate courts on behalf of residents who sued Selene Finance, arguing that someone seeking to take possession of a home cannot do so, or threaten to do so, with no court order and without first making a reasonable inquiry into whether someone lives there. Wheeling v. Selene Finance was the first case to interpret a law enacted in 2013, a law originally drafted by 2008-2009 Murnaghan Fellow Matt Hill. K’Shaani Smith, the 2017-2018 Fellow, and Ejaz Baluch, the 2018-2019 Fellow, handled the first appeal in the Court of Special Appeals. Olivia brought the case to the finish line with briefing and oral argument (held via video conference) that convinced the Maryland Court of Appeals to rule that the residents sufficiently pled their case that the property owner made an unlawful threat of eviction by sending a notice that the property was abandoned and would be repossessed imminently without first making the critical inquiry into whether the property was in fact occupied. The Court rejected Selene Finance’s argument that there was no relief available to the residents because they did not vacate based on the threatening notice or get evicted and instead asserted their legal rights. The Court also made clear that the residents are entitled to pursue emotional distress damages under the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. In seeing this case through to its conclusion, Olivia ultimately protected the vitality of a critical remedial statute.

PJC Legal Director Debra Gardner describes Olivia’s achievements as the Murnaghan Fellow: “Olivia made her mark on the PJC in many memorable ways. In addition to her groundbreaking, envelope-pushing appellate advocacy, she brought her own vibrancy and intellect to our organizational anti-racism journey and to the Appellate Advocacy Project’s ongoing exploration of how to get courts to reckon with racism, past and present.”

We look forward to seeing how Olivia continues to make an impact on our society in her new role as a litigator at Elias Law Group.