UH Law Students Help Deployed Service Members
Hawaiʻi service members who leave suddenly for deployments are now getting help from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa William S. Richardson Law School students who are appearing on their behalf in disputed security deposit cases, thanks to a new partnership between the Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, UH and the State of Hawai‘i Judiciary.
In the first case of its kind in the past few months, law student Kenneth Hall successfully assisted a Naval officer whose landlord retained her deposit long after she was deployed and beyond the legal allowable time period.
If a renter disputes the retention of a security deposit, a claim may be filed in small claims court. However, this process is difficult to complete when the tenant resides many miles away, as service members do after being reassigned to locations outside Hawaiʻi. The result is the permanent loss of the withheld amount, which is often substantial.
“This gave me a chance to fight back against unethical practices,” said Hall, who is both a law student and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. “When I heard about this program I knew I had to get involved.”
Hall said the experience is a powerful one for students learning law and particularly if they may want to be litigators, as he does, while also benefiting military personnel who are no longer in Hawai‘i to argue on their own behalf.
“It was a valuable opportunity to actually stand in front of the court and make an argument and present testimony,” said Hall. “It’s always good to have more practical experience as law students, and to get to the meat and potatoes of facing an opponent with real world consequences.”
Hall is one of 24 law students who volunteered to help when Professor Calvin Pang shared the issue with students last spring. Pang said he wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of interest and support. Two dozen students received a half-day of training from judiciary and JAG Corps personnel as well as a professional mediator and members of the Legal Aid Society.
“So many students choose this school because they understand its mission is community-based,” said Pang. “This provides opportunities for students to give back to the community, and to very deserving members of our community.”
Pang had been approached by LCDR Kristi Bao of the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, who had a growing concern about the issue and had reached out to the judiciary for potential solutions. In the past, departed service members either did not file a claim for their deposits or, if they did, were unable to participate effectively in their cases because of the distance. In instances when they could not appear at their hearing, their cases were dismissed.
Under the Landlord Tenant Code, neither party is allowed to be represented by a lawyer in a security deposit case. However, each party may be assisted by a non-attorney. In the case of service personnel, this might include a willing or knowledgeable friend, but such a person also is often not available.
“In this situation it makes it very difficult even to mediate with landlords if service members are off island,” said Bao. “It’s so hard for them to come back given time and travel restrictions, and the cost.” This is how the idea of using law students was hatched.
District Court Judge Hilary Gangnes is also happy to see this new partnership, and the opportunity to give both sides their day in court.
“It’s all about getting rid of the barriers that have kept people from being able to come to court,” she said. “We’re increasing the ability for people to pursue their legitimate claims. And it will give law students some real court experience, working with a client, and learning court procedures. This is another program where students get that experience and help out real people.”
Bao said that there are 35,000-40,000 service members in Hawai‘i at any one time in the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army. With rotations every three years and deployments more often, there are a lot of people moving in and out of rental agreements. Deposits generally are around $2,000-$3,000, said Bao, but she has one case in which the amount in question is $8,000, because the landlord is charging for possible damages and the officer has already been deployed.
“Things that happen in the dark don’t go reported,” said Bao. “There’s no way to get good numbers because military personnel are constantly turning over and leaving.”
If damage to the rental unit occurred, landlords are entitled to retain part or all of security deposits, but they are required to notify the tenant within 14 days. Deployments can occur so quickly that military personnel may not still be in Hawai’i, however.
Pang also sensed a tremendous benefit for law students. “I saw an opportunity for students to work with clients who are largely under-represented.” He noted that the students are working entirely on a volunteer basis, and do not earn any credits for their assistance to members of the military.
Long before Hall went into court, he met with Pang to talk through the case, identify the issues, and develop a strategy. Pang said that he was just a “sounding board” and that the law student had already digested the facts and devised his plan. Bao said she was pleased with the way the first case was handled.
“The service member [who was already serving in a foreign country] was very pleased as well,” Bao said.