For the past eight years, Barbara Sherrill has thrown her legal muscle behind efforts to protect the rights of clients who can’t afford representation, often immigrants, who are afraid to assert their rights, and the impoverished, many of whom are prone to be taken advantage of.
As a volunteer at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, she routinely helps them mediate housing evictions, usually buying time for her clients to find suitable housing they can afford. Most cases don’t go to trial, but when they do, Sherrill is there with her clients in her signature electric wheelchair to ensure their rights are observed and not abused by landlords or anyone else.
At 70, Sherrill brings 30 years of experience as an attorney specializing in landlord/tenant issues, including Section 8 voucher programs and public housing.
Although progressive hip deterioration keeps her traveling in a wheelchair, Sherrill is a force to be reckoned with and is passionate about justice. Each week, she arrives at the courthouse in Santa Rosa with (or without) fellow volunteer, Brooke Clyde. Each year, they process up to 600 clients with housing issues, usually eviction actions, habitability problems like plumbing issues, illegal lockouts and roommate concerns.
“We always have clients,” she said. “We don’t look at immigration status. We assist all income- eligible individuals and families as long as there are no conflicts.”
Sherrill also helps individuals in court who aren’t represented by an attorney, saying, “It’s important that everyone, regardless of income and status, has equal access to the benefits of the laws.”
When a client is served with an eviction action (a summons and complaint), Sherrill prepares the answer and goes over the person’s rights and the court process.
“We appear at the unlawful detainer court every week. We assist our clients with mediation and hopefully resolve the issues. Most cases settle, giving the family time to move. We try to settle with the owner on terms both parties can live with and keep the eviction off the client’s record, so they can locate new housing. We will assist at a trial, if necessary.”
Many of Sherrill’s clients are Latino and can’t speak English, but she also helps the elderly, families, single mothers and individuals living with disabilities.
“The legal process can be confusing, so I walk them through it,” she said. “There are landlords who try to take advantage of them.”
Immigrant clients have a number of unique legal concerns.
“Immigrants need support in asserting a range of legal protections, including housing rights and domestic violence protection,” said Ronit Rubinoff, Legal Aid’s executive director. “They are fearful of asserting any of their legal rights. The chilling affect of the new administration is already being felt, and significantly exacerbating the problem. Whether it is the right to seek the court’s protection against an abusive partner, the right not to be discriminated against by an employer or the right to live in a unit that’s safe and habitable, immigrants are taking to the shadows again. This fear makes them vulnerable to abuse in many ways.”
After eight years, Sherrill said, she and Clyde have made strides in court.
“We’ve developed a good relationship with the court and the plaintiff’s attorney, she said.