A Utah law firm acknowledges it’s sharing renter information with landlords. Here’s what it’s telling them.

Linda D. Garrow

A powerful Draper law firm that files nearly half of Utah’s eviction cases also keeps a database that some landlords use to screen prospective tenants, according to housing caseworkers and property managers.

The law offices of Kirk Cullimore have denied they maintain any kind of “black list,” even as numerous renters insist that it exists and has blocked them from securing housing. Two former housing case managers for unsheltered individuals told The Salt Lake Tribune that multiple landlords have referenced the Cullimore database of renter information — and one of them has confirmation in writing.

One of these former social workers, Braden Jenks, said several homeless clients were rejected by property managers based partly on information that came from the Cullimore office.

Some people, he said, lost public rental assistance because their vouchers expired before they could find a landlord who would accept them. These clients continued living outside instead, he said.

“One thing most people on the streets don’t have is hope, quite frankly. So when you give them a morsel of hope, they want to latch onto that,” he said. “When they get that hope and then there’s still someone putting up a bureaucratic fence in front of them, it’s extremely discouraging, and they feel completely helpless.”

Jenks says ending up on the law firm’s list could lock someone out of most of Utah’s rental housing because the office claims it represents about 80% of landlords in the state.

Kirk Cullimore Sr. said his office provides information about prospective tenants to property managers who are its clients but said the firm’s database contains information in court records that is public already. The office only shares details such as whether it’s taken the applicant to court and what landlord was involved in the case, Cullimore wrote in an email.

“We merely help our clients access the public records that are readily available to everyone,” he wrote.

However, advocates say evictions are a black mark that traps many people in homelessness or dilapidated apartments, and private lists can circumvent federal consumer protections that might enable individuals to fight back.

Chasity DePonte says she and her twin children were ejected from their Tooele apartment in June 2021, while they were suffering from COVID-19. They only had a few minutes to vacate their home when officials showed up and had to leave most of their belongings behind, grabbing a few clothes and DePonte’s prized collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.

“I lost everything,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “We were thrown out on the streets while we were sick.”

They slept in DePonte’s car and then quarantined in a hotel for a couple months while they searched for a new place to live.

They finally found a new apartment, said DePonte, a single mother who added that her medical conditions made it unsafe for her to work during much of the pandemic.

But on her own, it would’ve been nearly impossible for DePonte to find a landlord who would accept her, she said. The only way the family ultimately got a new apartment was by applying under the name of one of her 18-year-old children, whose records don’t show their eviction.

Private Cullimore ‘black lists’

Federal regulations require consumer reporting agencies, including tenant screening agencies, to purge certain pieces of negative information about a person after seven years. They also give consumers a right to access their background and credit reports and to contest any inaccuracies.

A private database, though, is unavailable to the renters listed in it, with fewer controls on how long information can stay there.

Eric Dunn, litigation director for the National Housing Law Project, said many large landlords around the nation have started compiling internal “black lists” to weed out applicants across the properties they own.

However, the Cullimore law firm might be acting more like a consumer reporting agency, he said, since they’re allegedly providing information to their clients rather than just using it internally. If that’s the case, they should view themselves as subject to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which guarantees consumers certain protections and appeal rights against credit bureaus and tenant screening agencies.

Cullimore argues his office does not have to comply with the act, since it does not provide credit information and is “not involved in the decision to accept or deny any tenant.”

Jenks argues that even if this information-sharing complies with the law, it’s immoral and it helps fuel the region’s homeless crisis.

“If our community wants individuals off the streets and out of their neighborhoods,” he said, “Cullimore is preventing this as much as anything or anyone else.”

Information on Cullimore database

Jenks said he first learned about accusations of a possible “black list” from an article he read in The Tribune about tenants who were complaining that the Cullimore firm was blocking them from securing new housing.

And then he decided to do some digging of his own.

When landlords would reject his client for having a past eviction, he’d demand they send him the credit report that had purportedly disclosed the person’s rental history. A number of times, those reports would contain no mention of the eviction, Jenks said, fueling his suspicions that something else was going on.

So he’d press the property managers to explain where they’d learned the information about his clients — and in about eight to 10 cases, they acknowledged they’d pulled it from the Cullimore database.

Most of those interactions happened over the phone, but in one case, he managed to get an email reference to the law firm’s list. As with the other situations, he’d been pushing a leasing office to disclose where they’d learned of a client’s past eviction and debts to the Cullimore firm, which doubles as a collections agency. That information hadn’t shown up on the client’s credit report, Jenks noted in an email to the Citizens West rental office.

“We pull background/credit with SimplyVerify and we also run tenants in the Cullimore database to see what collections/evictions are outstanding,” the company’s area manager replied. “It did show up on Cullimores database.”

The manager then shared a phone number for the Cullimore firm so Jenks could find out how much his client owed them. When contacted by a reporter, the property manager referred The Tribune to the Cullimore offices for “questions on their database screening.”

Jenks said that once clients of his were rejected from one Cullimore-represented property, he knew they’d be shut out of most rental housing in Salt Lake City.

The Tribune is not identifying Jenks’ former workplace, since he’s concerned the organization might face repercussions because of his decision to speak up.

Ally Anderson, a former housing case manager with Volunteers of America Utah, said she also kept running into brick walls trying to find housing for homeless clients with an eviction history.

Like Jenks, whom Anderson knows, she examined her clients’ credit reports and often found that the cited eviction didn’t appear on them.

She said she also asked friends and acquaintances who are Utah property managers to explain where these landlords might be getting their information. They told her it was likely coming from the Cullimore list.

Each unsuccessful apartment attempt would push Anderson’s clients a little deeper into despair, to say nothing of the money spent on fees for submitting application after application, she said.

The Road Home, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit that serves homeless individuals, has spent $9,000 on rental application fees in the last year — and because of funding constraints, that amount still falls short of the need, said Michelle Flynn, the organization’s executive director. The nonprofit doesn’t know how much of that money has gone toward rental applications that were denied, she said.

Anderson says many of his former clients didn’t fully understand the eviction proceedings when they were happening, since their lives just had been up-ended, but they were eager to clear their debts once they learned about them. Without secure housing that can lay the foundation for employment and financial stability, she said, that’s an almost insurmountable task.

‘Better chance of finding … previous eviction’

A former employee at a property management company that was a client of the Cullimore’s office told The Salt Lake Tribune that she was aware of the database and understood it contained records of people who’d been involved in litigation with the firm.

The employee — whom the Tribune granted anonymity to protect her from professional repercussions for speaking out — learned about the database while she was screening tenants for an apartment and found “something strange” on the applicant’s credit report. Her direct supervisor told her they could contact the Cullimore office for more information, and the law firm was able to determine from its records that the applicant owed a debt from a prior rental, she wrote in an email.

The Cullimore database was helpful to her employers, she said, because not all private landlords report an eviction to credit bureaus and disputes are sometimes settled out of court.

“With Cullimore being the largest landlord attorney in the state,” she said, “you had a better chance of finding someone who had a previous eviction through Cullimore than through a normal credit/background check.”

Cullimore also said credit reporting bureaus don’t consistently collect data on landlord-tenant cases, so they aren’t always able to offer the most updated information. His office, on the other hand, can help clients draw data straight from the courts.

Tom Wood, a property manager who used the law firm a couple decades ago and is friends with Cullimore, said to the best of his knowledge, there’s no “black list.”

Years ago, he actually asked his friend to compile a list of undesirable tenants. A private database like that would’ve been useful because credit checks were sometimes slow to incorporate new court records, creating a blind spot that prevented landlords from detecting recent evictions.

But Cullimore told him a black list was “clearly over the line,” Wood said.

How renters can expunge their records

Still, Wood said he is dismayed that evictions can haunt people years after they happen and prevent them from finding a safe place to live.

“I don’t think people should be held responsible for that stuff after a period of time,” he said. “Once you’ve resolved it, I think it’s a dead issue. I think you can get rid of it.”

Utah advocates say the state’s eviction laws are skewed heavily in favor of landlords and say the system can place crippling financial burdens on renters who are already strained by soaring rental costs.

People who remain in an apartment after their eviction notice expires are on the hook for “treble damages,” or three times the pro-rated rent for each day they overstay. So what begins as a few hundreds of dollars of past-due rent can quickly balloon to thousands of dollars in debt, advocates with the Utah Housing Coalition say.

And because case notices are mailed to the tenant’s last-known address, the place they’ve been kicked out of, some renters have no idea that their former landlords are going after them.

“It’s a process that definitely benefits landlords and eviction attorneys,” said Francisca Blanc, assistant executive director for the coalition.

The legal actions can also stain a person’s record for well over a decade in Utah. Eviction judgments against renters last for eight years and can be renewed for another eight before the statute of limitations runs out, Cullimore noted.

However, Utah tenants do now have a path for expunging evictions in certain cases, through a bill passed this year.

Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins, cases the courts have dismissed without appeal would disappear from the public record automatically after three years. Tenants could also petition for an expungement if their evictions were for nonpayment of rent or overstaying their lease; they’ve already paid off the judgment imposed by the courts; and the landlord doesn’t object.

Cullimore’s son, state Sen. Kirk Cullimore, helped shepherd the measure, HB359, through the Senate. The legislator works at the Cullimore law firm but does not handle eviction cases, according to his father.

Under HB359, agencies that carry out tenant screening checks would also have to purge any records that the courts expunge. However, the Utah Housing Coalition says it’s not sure how the bill would apply to records kept by a private attorney.

The senior Cullimore, who supported the passage of HB359, argues that his firm does not fit the definition of a tenant screening agency — in which case the bill’s prohibitions against sharing expunged information would not apply to the law office. But since his firm simply provides clients with access to public records, that information would no longer be available after the courts remove it, he said.

“The goal of that bill is to help remove from the public records information relating to evictions wherein the landlord and tenant feel the entire matter is resolved,” he wrote. “If our clients agree, we are their agents and will follow their lead to assist in getting the record expunged.”

Information outside of credit checks

Anderson, the former Volunteers of America employee, has lived through the struggle for housing.

As she’s been recovering from addiction over the past six years, she’s also been painstakingly repairing her finances, paying off her debts one at a time. She built up her credit score again, landed a solid-paying job and is going to school to become a social worker.

She didn’t think she’d have trouble finding an apartment so she could move out of her parents’ house.

She was taken aback when her application was denied because of an eviction. She was told she owed the Cullimore offices about $10,000. Since none of that had appeared on her credit check, Anderson believes the prospective landlords ran her name through the law firm’s records.

“I worked really hard to pay off everything that I owed and take care of all the things that I messed up in my addiction,” she said. “So I was pretty shocked, and I felt really hopeless at that moment. Because with what I make, with what I do, I can’t afford to pay that off.”

Ultimately, her grandfather marched into the Cullimore office, negotiated the debt down to about $4,000 and paid it off himself, she said.

Anderson said she left the situation feeling so discouraged that she decided to stay at her parents’ and isn’t sure when she’ll try again to get her own place. But she knows she’s one of the lucky ones, with a family to support her through these challenges.

For other people, these setbacks can result in homelessness.

About 10,800 people checked into emergency shelter or transitional housing in Utah in 2021. Of those, 1,022 people told Utah service providers that they were homeless because of an eviction, according to state data from intake surveys. And 476 people said they’d been denied housing because of an eviction on their record.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2022/04/11/draper-law-firm-keeps/

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