Eviction Helpline Volunteer Profile: Peter Messitt, Esq.
Friday, April 24th, 2020
We’re pleased to share our first Eviction Legal Helpline Volunteer Profile featuring Peter Messitt, Esq.
Peter Messitt retired in 2015 from the civil litigation division of the Virginia Attorney General’s office after 30 years of service. He began volunteering with the Eviction Legal Helpline about eight months ago, committing part of one morning or afternoon to the Helpline per week. In that time Peter has advised more Helpline clients than any other volunteer.
One example of a Helpline caller Peter was able to assist is a woman whose landlord accused her of interfering with their business by making false statements to current and prospective residents. In fact, the tenant was simply discussing safety in the neighborhood after a recent crime, without blaming the landlord at all. Because the notice given to the tenant mentioned lease termination ‘for good cause’—which is not required under most circumstances—Peter realized the property must be subsidized housing and the tenant likely had additional protections against eviction. The case was referred to the local legal aid office, one of their attorneys represented the client, and the landlord dropped the attempted eviction.
We sat down with him recently to ask him about his experience volunteering with the Helpline. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
WHY DID YOU START VOLUNTEERING WITH THE EVICTION LEGAL HELPLINE?
It had always been my intention to do something that was socially useful, and I thought that this really seemed to fit the bill once I got into it because I wanted a situation where there was appropriate training and supervision.
When I saw the effort that was being put into training the lawyers that would take cases from the eviction legal helpline…I had no idea what to expect when I first looked into it. It could have been anything from, ‘here’s a list of names and phone numbers, good luck to you,’ to what you have. What you have is beyond what I thought that anybody could possibly supply to someone volunteering.
The CLE classes, putting together all of the landlord tenant law in Virginia, then digesting it down to what it really means to you… it’s very practical advice. And then to boil that all down to the cheat sheet, I though this is just brilliant. I thought it was very impressive and it kind of demonstrated that you guys had the ability to make sure that clients who use the Helpline get good legal assistance. I was pretty impressed by that.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT VOLUNTEERING WITH THE HELPLINE?
I have found the Helpline certainly rewarding on a personal level because you’re helping someone who’s really in a jam, and even if you can’t get them out of that jam, you can let them know what their rights are. They may not find a defense, and they may not win in court, but they have valid legal issues. At least they get an opportunity to talk to a lawyer [through the Helpline].
The Helpline gives me the freedom to do it right because I don’t have any time constraints or pressures, and I think to establish a good relationship with somebody and give them the feeling that you have their interests at heart…. I called [a recent Helpline client] and said, ‘I saw you have an eviction scheduled for Tuesday, and if you want to talk about it now, I’m available to do it.’
It’s helpful to know whether or not you have any options and be told that by somebody who hopefully established enough trust that they understand is on their side.
HOW EASY HAS IT BEEN TO VOLUNTEER?
It’s been quite easy to volunteer because anybody that wants to watch the CLE video and read the handouts is going to be very well prepared to do the job. [Clients] have already been screened…every single call has been someone who can get some benefit out of talking to a lawyer if they want to. They may not find a defense and they may not win in court, but they have valid legal issues.
WHAT ABOUT SUPPORT FOR HELPLINE VOLUNTEERS?
Whenever I have run into a problem I’ve been able to call [the Helpline supervisor] and it gives you a great sense of security. If I do run into a big problem, you [the supervisor] have seen all this before and you know the answer. So it’s nice that that’s there. You never feel like you’re going to mess up somebody’s rights by not knowing the correct legal answer.
It is definitely nice that there are experienced people there who are available to provide support. There’s someone there to discuss your work with if you run into a problem. I don’t know what more anyone could ask for.