Robert Gehrke: Could tenants suffer and a senator’s business benefit from multiple bills he is backing?

Wrap your head around this statistic: In 2019, the Law Offices of Kirk A. Cullimore filed eviction suits against 2,284 renters in Salt Lake County alone.

That comes out to roughly 190 a month, 44 a week, or more than one every hour that the courthouse doors are open.

The firm boasts on its website of the hundreds of evictions it handles every month, which doesn’t include all of its collections cases.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, the son of the firm’s founder, has many in Utah’s Capitol — a Legislature where conflicts of interest aren’t uncommon — questioning if he is going too far in blurring the lines between policy and professional goals.

Cullimore’s latest offering is SB220, which housing advocates are fighting, fearing it could provide landlords with a tool to strip renters of their rights and make it more lucrative to push them onto the streets.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, right, shares a laugh with Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, Feb. 26, 2020, during the afternoon session.

Last year, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, sponsored a bill that significantly limited a tool attorneys call “confessions of judgment.” They are essentially an admission by one party that, if a dispute arises, the other party is right and they won’t have to fight it out in court.

Schultz was trying to keep these confessions from being slipped into employment contracts, but the effect was more sweeping — too sweeping, according to Cullimore.

Cullimore’s firm uses these confessions of judgment after a renter defaults on their lease and is facing eviction. They give renters a last chance to keep the roof over their heads. In exchange, the renter agrees to stricter terms for an eviction.


Most importantly, the renter gives up their right to contest the eviction or the damages or attorney fees in court.

But after Schultz’s bill passed, these confessions of judgment could only be used after someone defaults on a contract, a loan or — in the case of Cullimore’s firm — a lease.

Cullimore’s bill lets parties agree to confessions of judgment before there is a default (except in consumer loans or employment contracts, like Schultz was targeting).

“What you’ll find if this passes is there will be confessions of judgment provisions added to the lease contracts,” said George Sutton, an attorney who does pro bono work representing renters facing eviction.

Cullimore said that is not his intent. He said he’s focused on commercial loans. If lenders might have to go to court to fight to be repaid, they might not make some loans, so a pre-default confession of judgment protects them and means the borrowers get their money.

Pre-default confessions, Cullimore notes, weren’t put in leases before Schultz’s bill prohibited them and he believes that based on court rules and judicial precedent the courts wouldn’t allow them. (Although the courts take a hands-off approach when it comes to contractual damages, and the burden is on the plaintiff — in this case a renter facing eviction — to prove the amounts are “unconscionable.”)

The Utah Bar Association opposes Cullimore’s bill. It would streamline the judicial process, they said, but it could also deny people access to justice.

Truth is, we really can’t say how courts will respond if Cullimore changes the law. And we could give him the benefit of the doubt, if this was an isolated case. But it’s not.

You might remember back in January ProPublica reported on title loan companies in Utah that were using bench warrants to have people who couldn’t pay their debts put in jail. It was, most agreed, an outrageous abuse of the system and Rep. Brad Daw introduced legislation that would prohibit this 21st century form of debtors prison.

But, after the bill passed the House unanimously, Cullimore got an amendment added — at the request, he said, of the lending community — that would have allowed the practice to continue.

The problem was that nobody in the lending community wanted it. It had been a black eye to payday lenders who didn’t actually lock people up and who supported Daw’s bill, as did the banks and other lenders.

Cullimore agreed to change the language, so banks, credit unions, payday lenders and title loan companies could no longer get a bench warrant when they’re collecting on bad debt. But others — like landlords — would still be able to.

The senator says putting people in jail is rare in collections cases, but is available as an option of last resort.

“There are some collection firms that still like to have this tool in their back pocket and are not abusing it,” Cullimore said.

And this is on top of Cullimore’s efforts to let attorneys kick a judge they don’t like off a case. Last month, Eric Peterson from the Utah Investigative Journalism Project highlighted one of Cullimore’s bills, SJR5.

Cullimore’s firm has had a rough time with one judge in particular, Judge Laura Scott, who had challenged the firm on more than 60 cases, cutting the attorneys fees awarded by more than half.

Cullimore defends that bill, saying 17 states have similar rules and he was interested in it before Scott scrutinized his firm’s fee claims.

That bill is currently awaiting a final vote in the Senate before moving to the House.

Two other Cullimore bills would also have affected his practice, but were defeated:

• SB177 would have allowed debt collection cases, like those his firm handles, to be heard in justice courts.

• SB172 would have changed the makeup of Utah’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which vets judicial nominees. Cullimore contended the current commission yields judges who are too liberal.

“I can appreciate the appearance of this,” Cullimore said, “but as a citizen legislature, people ask me to run bills that touch on the courts, touch on judicial process or touch on collection efforts.”

Even being generous to Cullimore, one bill that directly benefits your business is a fluke. Two is a coincidence. Three is a trend. Four is concerning. Five is a — “What are you thinking?!?”

More importantly, what do his constituents think? When he spends so much of his energy on bills that at the very least appear to serve his profession, how much time is spent serving them?