Written by Heather Latino

Jan 30


Legal Aid Protects Client’s Structured Settlement Benefits

Maybe you’ve heard the late night commercials: “If you’ve got a structured settlement, we’ve got cash!” Individuals who suffer severe personal injuries often settle their claims against the responsible party through “structured settlements,” which provide a guaranteed stream of income over long periods for the benefit of the injured party and his or her dependents.

Federal and state laws protect structured settlements by requiring that state courts approve any transfer of these guaranteed sources of income. Unfortunately, unrepresented persons often agree to – and courts sometimes approve – the sale of future guaranteed payments in return for an immediate lump sum amount that represent a tiny fraction of the true present value of the future payments.
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Sep 13


Legal Aid Supports Emergency Legislation Regarding Real Property Tax Sales

As we noted earlier this week, the Washington Post’s threepart series on the real property tax lien system in the District of Columbia captured the attention of both the Mayor and the Council.

On Wednesday, Legal Aid joined its partners in the AT HOME (Alliance to Help Owners Maintain Equity) coalition to issue the following statement on real property tax sale reform: Read more →

Sep 10


Reforming the District’s Tax Foreclosure Lien System

Earlier today we blogged about the Mayor’s response to the Washington Post’s investigative series about the District’s tax lien program.  An article published in today’s Washington Post covers the 16-month delay in the District’s response to concerns that Legal Aid and other legal services and housing counseling providers had long ago identified.

Sep 10


Washington Post Publishes Investigative Series on Problems with D.C.’s Tax Lien System that Legal Aid and Other Advocates Identified; Mayor Promises Swift Action

While foreclosure abuses have been front-page news since the 2007 housing market crash, there has been another foreclosure crisis brewing in the District that has garnered little attention, until now. In a three part series, Washington Post journalist Michael Sallah, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor, details how the District’s tax lien system has “morphed into a predatory system of debt collection for well-financed, out of town companies that turned $500 delinquencies into $5,000 debt—then foreclosed on homes when families couldn’t pay.” Read more →

Mar 18


For Many Who Expect Defeat, Having a Lawyer through Legal Aid’s Court-Based Consumer Project Offers Hope, and Makes a Difference

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in Gideon v. Wainwright that individuals accused of a crime have a constitutional right to an attorney.  Throughout this year, but today especially, advocates are using the anniversary of this landmark case to celebrate the successes and highlight the shortcomings of the criminal defense system.  But a half century later, there is still no federal, constitutional right to an attorney in civil cases, regardless of the stakes – a family home, the custody of a child, or even the safety of a victim of domestic violence.  Indeed, as the New York Times reported this weekend, the Legal Services Corporation estimates that roughly 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet.

For more than 80 years, Legal Aid worked to fill this justice gap, serving persons living in poverty in the District of Columbia.  And we continue to try to develop new, innovative projects that allow us to reach the District’s neediest residents.  Last November, Legal Aid launched the Consumer Court-Based Legal Services Project, which provides same-day legal representation to low-income consumers in debt collection cases.  In Small Claims Court a staggering 95% of defendants are unrepresented, while debt collector plaintiffs regularly appear through experienced counsel.  Consequently, defendants are at a significant disadvantage.  Unrepresented and unaware of the law and their rights, they are often unable to effectively articulate and assert legal claims and defenses. Read more →

Aug 01


Legal Aid and the Center for Responsible Lending Obtain Victory for Client in Debt Collection Case

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

When Ms. L found out that CACH, LLC was suing her for almost $15,000 based on an alleged Bank of America credit card debt, she was confused and scared.  She had never heard of CACH and did not understand how it could be suing her over a credit card from a completely different company, or how the amount could be so high.  She also feared the impact that the case could have on her ability to pay her bills and support her young son.   With help from the Consumer Law Resource Center, Ms. L defended the case the best that she could.  She filed her answer and raised the issue of whether CACH could sue her on a Bank of America credit card account without proving it was the owner of the account.  She missed work to attend multiple court appearances, answered CACH’s discovery, sent her own discovery to CACH and even filed a motion, but she worried that she would not be able to persuasively explain her case to the judge at trial.  As the trial date neared, Ms. L asked if Legal Aid would represent her.

Legal Aid’s consumer lawyers reviewed the documents in Ms. L’s case and discovered multiple problems with CACH’s lawsuit.  For instance, Ms. L had initially believed CACH’s claim was based on a personal credit card, but it was actually based on a business card that Bank of America issued to a company she had been involved with.  Moreover, CACH did not seem to have a contract between Ms. L and Bank of America; it had only an electronic reproduction of select credit card statements containing charges that Ms. L did not recognize.  Most importantly, CACH did not have or was not willing to share the agreement that purportedly gave it the right to collect on this Bank of America account.  With a rapidly approaching trial date, Legal Aid partnered with litigators from the Center for Responsible Lending.  In the short week and a half prior to trial, the team prepared motions to exclude evidence, a trial brief, exhibits, and witness examinations.  The team also prepared its arguments explaining the gaping holes in CACH’s evidence and explaining how CACH could not prove that Ms. L owed a debt, the amount of the debt, or that CACH had any right to collect that debt.

Immediately prior to trial, CACH agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice.

Ms. L can now rest a little easier knowing that she will continue to have her hard-earned income available to pay her bills, to support her young son, and to maintain stable housing.  She will also rest a little easier knowing that the vigorous defense of her case may help others like her summoned to appear in court by collectors they have never heard of.

Jul 17


New Administrative Order Paves the Way for Court Based Consumer Law Project

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

Last week, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield of the D.C. Superior Court signed Administrative Order No. 12-08, which authorizes temporary appearances in the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch and the Civil Actions Branch Collections calendar.  The Order goes into effect July 30, 2012.

Each year, the Court handles a high volume of debt collection cases, the vast majority of which involve unrepresented litigants who attempt to navigate the court system without the benefit of legal counsel.  While the Consumer Law Resource Center and the Small Claims Resource Center offer legal information and referrals, neither provides legal advice or representation to low-income litigants.  The Order allows attorneys to enter temporary appearances so that they can advise litigants about their rights and options, assist with settlement negotiations, and represent litigants at hearings and trials to assert valid claims and defenses.

The Order also lays the groundwork for Legal Aid — in partnership with AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program — to proceed with its plan to establish a Consumer Law Court-Based Legal Services Project at the courthouse this fall.  Mirroring the work of the successful court-based legal service projects in the housing and family law courts, this new project will provide low-income litigants with access to temporary, same-day legal representation in debt collection actions.  We hope to be able to share more news on this exciting new project in the coming months.

May 30


Washington Post Article Highlights Concerns about D.C.’s Real Property Tax Sale System

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article highlighting some concerns that Legal Aid and other legal advocates recently raised regarding the District’s current real property tax sale system.  Under the current system, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue sells tax-sale certificates on homes owing as little as $500 in back-taxes or utility bills.  Speculators or financial institutions purchase such certificates at government auctions, and if an affected property owner is unable to redeem the home following the tax sale, he/she loses not only the home itself, but also all of the accumulated equity.

Last month, the coalition of legal services homeowner advocates, and law firms that includes Legal Aid – known as the Alliance To Help Owners Maintain Equity, or “AT HOME” – issued a letter to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Jack Evans arguing that the tax sale system is inequitable and particularly harmful to elderly and economically disadvantaged homeowners. Among other things, coalition attorneys contend that the home values are often exponentially greater than the delinquent taxes; that the cost to homeowners to redeem their properties includes attorney’s fees often exceeding the amount of the delinquent taxes; that homeowners may lose their most valuable asset and with it all of their accrued equity; that some tax foreclosure sales are due to errors at the Office of Tax and Revenue; and that the system for providing notice to homeowners is largely inadequate.

As noted in the article, AT HOME is working to reform the current system to provide better notice and protections to District homeowners at risk of losing their homes in tax foreclosure sales.

Mar 12


Think Payday Loans Are a Thing Of The Past? Think Again.

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

In her Washington Post column last Thursday, Petula Dvorak explored how payday lenders are evolving and persisting in their abuse of low-income working class people in new, innovative ways. Payday loans have long been criticized for luring borrowers into a never-ending cycle of debt under the auspices of offering short term financial relief.  Lenders offering payday loans target the most financially vulnerable and least sophisticated consumer—the very people who are least able to afford the high fees and interest rates that accompany these loans.  In 2007, the Washington Post reported that there were 48 payday lender storefronts in the District.  When the D.C. Council voted in favor of a bill capping interest rates on short term loans, the expectation was that the District’s payday lenders would be forced out of business thus protecting low-income borrowers.  Yet, as Ms. Dvorak explains, many in the payday loan industry have simply moved their operations to locations like Indian reservations and now reach out to borrowers through radio and internet advertising.