Written by Jennifer Ngai Lavallee

Sep 06


The Connection Between Foreclosures and Health

Jen Ngai Lavelle, Staff Attorney

Since the launch of its Consumer Law Unit in 2008, Legal Aid has worked to help many low-income DC homeowners avoid foreclosure by litigating mortgage-related fraud cases, negotiating loan modifications, and conducting community outreach and education. With a rising number of foreclosures devastating individuals, families, and neighborhoods across the country, the gravity of the current foreclosure crisis and the importance of keeping people in their homes is easy to see. But according to new research findings, the link between foreclosure and well-being may be much broader and more far-reaching than meets the eye. This study, conducted by Janet Currie of Princeton University and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University and described in the Wall Street Journal, looks beyond economic well-being and draws the connection between health problems and the increase in foreclosures in some of the hardest hit areas of the United States.

Aug 25


Legal Aid Client Perseveres in Debt Collection Case and Finds Justice

Jen Ngai Lavelle, Staff Attorney

After enduring a multi-stage battle in a consumer case to which she should have never been a party, Legal Aid client Tangela Garnett finally prevailed in her fight against a company collecting on debt she simply did not owe.

In the fall of 2010, Ms. Garnett was shocked to learn from her employer that over $300 was being taken out of her paycheck every two weeks to pay a court judgment of approximately $3,000. Unaware of any such judgment against her, Ms. Garnett immediately went to the court clerk’s office to investigate. It was there she learned for the first time that in 2003, a debt collector had sued her on an alleged unpaid credit card debt — and that when she did not appear in court, a default judgment had been entered against her. Now, eight years later, the debt collector was garnishing her wages to collect on the amount of the judgment.

Ms. Garnett had never heard of the lawsuit. She had never been served, and the person described in the plaintiff’s affidavit of service did not match her description or that of anyone who would have been able to accept service on her behalf. Nor had she ever received any notice of the initial court date or entry of the judgment. Perhaps most unsettling was that she did not recognize the underlying credit card debt — the debt was not hers.

Ms. Garnett filed a motion to vacate the judgment and stop the garnishment, but the motion was denied. Legal Aid entered its appearance and moved for reconsideration, but the judge again denied the motion. While this was ongoing, Ms. Garnett continued to watch money being taken out of her paycheck — money that she normally relied on to pay for her housing, food, and other necessary expenses.

But Ms. Garnett and her Legal Aid attorney did not give up. They requested yet an additional level of review and ultimately prevailed, this time with the judge issuing an order vacating the 2003 judgment and remanding the case for a new trial. According to the judge’s order, the plaintiff debt collector had failed to provide sufficient proof of the underlying debt when it offered no documentation other than a self-serving affidavit of one of its own employees stating that Ms. Garnett owed the collection company the amount of money stated in the complaint. Therefore, ruled the judge, the judgment that the court had previously entered against Ms. Garnett — and that formed the basis of the wage garnishment — was invalid.

Ms. Garnett’s case was resolved prior to trial, when the plaintiff provided her a refund of the full amount garnished from her pay and dismissed all claims against her with prejudice. She now receives her entire paycheck every two weeks, and the debt collector cannot bring a new action against her based on the same debt.

 Legal Aid congratulates Ms. Garnett for her tenacity and her individual victory in this case, but it also recognizes there are countless other District residents who have been victims of what are at best, sloppy — and at worst, abusive — collections practices. Legal Aid will continue to fight on their behalf through litigation and advocacy to ensure that their rights are protected and interests are represented.

Aug 04


Victory for Legal Aid Client Subjected to Abusive Debt Collection

Jen Ngai Lavelle, Staff Attorney

Last week, justice became real for a Legal Aid client whose daily life had been derailed by a company using highly illegal and abusive tactics to attempt to collect on a debt of less than $500.

Ms. H had originally come to Legal Aid because she was receiving multiple calls from debt collectors purporting to be law enforcement officials and threatening to throw her in jail over two checks — written for $150 and $300 — which had bounced.  The callers falsely identified themselves as investigators or police detectives and told her that she was guilty of committing check fraud.  Faced with the fear of imprisonment, Ms. H provided one caller with her personal bank account information so his company could withdraw the funds they claimed necessary to satisfy the debt.  She came to Legal Aid fearful of what would happen when the company learned she did not have enough funds in her bank account to cover the full amount.

In the span of only two months, Ms. H had received approximately 120 calls from the collection company, many of which included variations of the same threats of criminal prosecution.  The repeated and abusive behavior caused Ms. H, who was already disabled, to become depressed and anxious.  She developed insomnia and lost her ability to continue working at her part-time job.

Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. H against the company for violation of various local and federal debt collection and consumer protection laws.  At Ms. H’s court hearing, Legal Aid presented evidence of the abusive collection practices to the judge in the form of various witness testimony and tape recordings of sample collection calls.

After hearing the evidence, the judge found that the company had violated multiple provisions of local and federal consumer protection and debt collection laws and entered a judgment in favor of Ms. H for over $35,000, which included actual, statutory, and punitive damages.  The judge also ordered payment of almost $7,000 in attorney’s fees to Legal Aid, which does not charge any fees to its clients but may be awarded compensation in certain cases for the value of the legal services it provides. 

Legal Aid congratulates Ms. H for her victory in this case and thanks her for her role in helping to achieve a measure of justice for others in the District facing similar abuses in debt collection.

Jun 21


DC’s New Foreclosure Mediation Program Goes Live

Jen Ngai, Staff Attorney

For homeowners in the District who are behind on their mortgages, paying attention to the mail is now more important than ever before.

Thanks to the Saving DC Homes from Foreclosure Act — a piece of emergency legislation passed by the DC Council last fall — lenders are now required to send mediation packets to homeowners offering them the chance to participate in mediation prior to moving forward with foreclosure.  The goal of the mediation program is to preserve homeownership and avoid foreclosures where alternatives, such as loan modification, are feasible.  In addition, the new mediation law requires lenders to prove their standing and to review homeowners for loan modification in good faith.

Although the mediation law technically took effect last fall (causing foreclosures of residential mortgages in DC to be suspended because the contents of the required mediation packet were not yet available), the accompanying regulations and forms issued by the Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking went into effect on May 25, 2011 – meaning that lenders may now resume foreclosure activity so long as they comply with the rules regarding pre-foreclosure mediation.

Now that the mediation program is “live,” it is only a matter of time before the immense backlog of loans in default begins to resurface – and many DC homeowners, especially those with lower incomes, will need the help of advocates more than ever.  Legal Aid is taking steps to reach out to homeowners letting them know what mediation is, how it works, and where they can get help if they cannot afford a lawyer.  As a part of that effort, Legal Aid recently ran internal bus ads providing information about the mediation program on over 300 WMATA metrobuses, using funding from an Equal Justice Works Innovation Grant.   The bus ads used the slogan, “Mediation – Choose it Or Lose It,” attempting to emphasize that homeowners must affirmatively opt in to mediation within the required timeframe in order to obtain the benefit of the new law.

Legal Aid’s Consumer Unit is available to help lower income homeowners opt in to mediation and to represent homeowners at the mediation sessions themselves.  In addition, Legal Aid is partnering with the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC where several attorneys will offer their pro bono assistance and representation with mediation to homeowners referred by Legal Aid.  Applicants seeking assistance with this process should call Legal Aid’s foreclosure mediation intake line at (202) 386-6699.

Feb 17


The Recovery Act at Work, One Year Later:


Jennifer Ngai  Equal Justice/AmeriCorps Fellow

Jennifer Ngai Equal Justice/AmeriCorps Fellow

Legal Aid’s EJW AmeriCorps Fellow Attends Obama and Biden Address at the White House

Yesterday, amidst a string of phone calls with banks and trustee’s attorneys, one call caught me by surprise in the best of ways – an invitation to come to the White House to hear President Obama and Vice President Biden give an address on the nation’s progress so far under the economic stimulus package.  When?  Today — the one-year anniversary of the Recovery Act.


David Stern, CEO of Equal Justice Works, and Cole McMahon, EJW’s AmeriCorps Senior Program Manager and Jen

David Stern, CEO of Equal Justice Works, Cole McMahon, EJW’s AmeriCorps Senior Program Manager and Jennifer Ngai

Through funding provided by the Recovery Act, I was able to join Legal Aid’s Consumer Law Program in October 2009 as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Recovery Fellow.  My particular fellowship was created by a partnership between Equal Justice Works, the Institute for Foreclosure Legal Assistance (IFLA) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to increase legal representation to homeowners at risk of foreclosure.  I attended today’s White House event with David Stern, CEO of Equal Justice Works, and Cole McMahon, EJW’s AmeriCorps Senior Program Manager.

President Obama & Vice President Biden

President Obama & Vice President Biden

During his address, President Obama hailed the one-year anniversary of the passage of the economic stimulus and recovery package, acknowledging at first that the measure had not necessarily been politically popular, but then proceeding to highlight the benefits and successes of the package one after another.  From widespread tax breaks for working Americans, to job creation, to investment in progressive technology and infrastructure, the president noted the many ways in which Recovery Act funds have been used to address the deep economic trouble facing the country when he took office.  President Obama stated that the Recovery Act is largely responsible for the country averting a second Great Depression, noting that the economy has gone from shrinking by 6 percent to growing by about that same figure.  Vice President Biden’s remarks conveyed a consistent message – the Recovery Act is working.

Here at Legal Aid, we have seen some of the benefits of the Recovery Act first-hand, most notably with the dramatic expansion of our Consumer Law Program, which launched in September 2008 with the addition of Wendy Weinberg as supervising attorney.  Thanks in large part to the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Recovery Fellowship program, Legal Aid’s foreclosure practice is now able to serve low-income homeowners not only through litigation, but also through mediation with servicer banks to obtain mortgage modifications and through extensive community education and outreach.


Dec 10


Legal Aid Partners with WHUT Howard University Television To Help Homeowners Facing Foreclosure

Jennifer Ngai

Equal Justice AmeriCorps Recovery Fellow


Legal Aid recently became a Community Partner with public broadcasting network WHUT Howard University Television as part of a nationwide programming initiative to increase awareness about the current mortgage crisis and to connect homeowners facing foreclosure with various trusted community resources.  On December 1st, WHUT announced the launch of its new “Facing the Mortgage Crisis” website, connecting Washington, D.C. area residents with local Community Partners that provide mortgage- and foreclosure-related information and services, including Legal Aid, Homefree USA, Manna, Inc., HUD, and the Greater Washington Urban League.  The website also contains downloadable community fliers in English, Spanish, and Amharic. 

Legal Aid began handling foreclosure prevention work in September 2008 with the launch of its Consumer Law Program headed by supervising attorney Wendy Weinberg.  Legal Aid recently expanded its foreclosure practice in October 2009 with the addition of Jen Ngai, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Recovery Fellow.  Legal Aid assists low-income clients facing foreclosure by litigating cases involving mortgage-related fraud, negotiating with servicer banks to obtain mortgage modifications, and conducting related community education and outreach.  The partnership with WHUT will help get the word out about this important anti-foreclosure work.