Tenants file for class action against one of Virginia’s most prolific eviction law firms

Deputies from the Henrico County Sheriff's Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it's empty, watch as the owner changes the unit's locks.

Three Virginia residents are asking a federal judge to certify a class action lawsuit against a prolific Virginia law firm that in 2017 filed more than 20,000 eviction lawsuits.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleges Hampton-based Senex Law violated federal debt collection laws and tacked on unreasonable attorney fees as they attempted to collect unpaid rent on behalf of landlords around the state.

In a statement announcing the suit, the tenants’ lawyers accused the firm of holding a “starring role in the state’s mass evictions.”

“They lurk in the shadows so they can flout necessary consumer protections and charge attorneys’ fees that put Virginians who are already in financial trouble further into the hole,” said Brenda Castañeda, Legal Director with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which is representing the tenants with the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley and Charlottesville-based MichieHamlett.

Senex did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the firm filed four times more eviction lawsuits than any other lawyers in the state, advertising “wholesale pricing on its eviction filings and an online system that lets apartment managers take their tenants to court with a few clicks.”

The lawsuit, filed by Jennifer Lord and Ebony Reddicks in Roanoke and Toniraye Moss in Hopewell, accuses the company of violating consumer protections that require debt collectors to identify themselves as such. Instead, they say the company sends out delinquent notices on the letterhead of the property that hired them, sidestepping disclosure requirements in the process.

“Senex Law must provide specific information required by federal law to prevent abusive and unfair debt collection practices,” the Legal Aid Justice Center said in a statement. “This includes the right to have 30 days to verify that the amount billed is accurate, among other protections. Instead of providing this required information, Senex Law ignores the law by attempting to hide behind landlords, disguising its true role in the profit scheme.”

The lawsuit also accuses the company of inflating its fees, which are passed on to tenants, without conducting a meaningful review of the cases: “With each notice, Senex charges the tenant attorney’s fees — though the firm did little more than print and mail a letter — raking in big profits off the backs of those most in need. Senex Law then, a few days later, files hundreds of Unlawful Detainers in court, again adding their attorney fee despite no meaningful review of the cases they file. It is simply impossible for Senex Law to provide the services they claim to the enormous volume of notices and cases they process.”

This is the second time the Legal Aid Justice Center has represented clients suing Senex. A 2016 suit made similar claims and was ultimately settled and dismissed. Elaine Poon, a lawyer with the center, said the terms of that agreement are confidential.

“We had hoped that would have had some deterrent effect,” she said. “But we have just continually received calls about them continuing with many of the same practices.”