Consumer debt and access to justice

  • By Anthony Antonini, ’21

Covid-19 brought many issues, but some things never change. America has a lot of debt. Household debt in America reached a record high of $14.3 trillion by the end of 2020. And even though card balances fell by $34 billion across the country as households spent less on consumer goods, large numbers of Philadelphians still find themselves in court facing debt collection suits.

Defendants in these actions are given little resources to adequately prepare and are almost always unrepresented. In an effort to assist, the consumer debt team in the Access to Justice Clinic focused on developing helpful materials for these defendants. The team, composed of Emily Alvarez, Elizabeth Wetzler, and Anthony Antonini, worked with Prof. Rieser and attorney Laura Smith at Community Legal Services to figure out what would be most useful.

By the conclusion of the semester, the team had crafted a set of materials comprised of a timeline showing how debt collection work, a checklist for defendants to follow as they prepare for their hearings, and two fact sheets on defenses to collection actions. The materials were reviewed both by CLS and by a person who had been through a debt collection action. Looking forward to the future, the team is excited to pass on the materials they crafted to the next group, so that they can more adequately test their effectiveness. We extend a special thanks to Laura Smith from CLS for all of her help.

Helping a client get back his wages

  • By Colin O’Neil

At the end of my 1L year, I knew what a complaint was, had learned some civil procedure, and had some abstract ideas of the difficulties disadvantaged communities face. After participating in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I’ve written an actual complaint, figured out how to apply civil procedure to a real case, and helped an actual client get the money he was entitled to from his former employer.

In our first meeting, my client—who knew little English and brought his son to translate—explained that he was an immigrant from Pakistan who had worked at a gas station in Philadelphia. For the seven months he worked there, his employer paid him well below minimum wage. Worse, he was never paid at all for his final few months of work. He didn’t want to sue his former boss, but didn’t know what else to do.

At the time, I didn’t really know what to do either. However, my partner and I worked through the possibilities and began drafting a complaint. Writing this complaint was the first thing I did in law school that would have a real-world impact on someone’s life, which was just as valuable, and scary, as it sounds.

After filing the complaint, we heard nothing from my client’s boss for months. When we finally sent him notice of our intent to file for default judgement, his attorney called us. We then began the settlement process. I went back and forth with opposing counsel, negotiating a settlement offer for my client. Months later, right before it seemed like negotiations were about to break down, my client decided to settle. Though it was less than he could have gotten if he had won at trial, he came away happy with this amount. I’ll never forget when his son called to thank me for helping his father.

Through the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I was able to apply what I had previously learned in the classroom to represent a client through their whole case—from our first meeting in the Sheller Center all the way to settlement. Along the way, I gained the skills and confidence I’ll need to continue helping clients in the future.


Observations from a semester’s work on the SSI Project in the Access to Justice Clinic

-Stephanie Curl, Lauren Williams and Josh Lachewitz

This semester, we set out to create user-friendly materials to assist recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – a federal safety-net program that provides essential monthly benefits to people who are 65 and older, blind, or disabled and who are very low income. SSI is not the same as Social Security, for which many SSI beneficiaries don’t qualify. To be eligible for SSI, a person must have access to very little money (carefully calculated using many factors that look at assets and income) and have a documented and ongoing disability that makes it difficult or impossible to work.

Our project focused on two aspects of SSI. First, we addressed the situation in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) tells recipients that their benefits will be cut because they have too much money. Second, we addressed overpayments, which happen when SSA informs recipients that SSA paid them too much and now the recipient must pay SSA back. Focusing on these two areas — both of them sources of great stress and confusion to SSI recipients — allowed us to narrow the scope of a very complex topic.

Sara Lynch, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), had brought the idea for this project to the Access to Justice Clinic after seeing clients who were confused and scared about what to do if their benefits were cut or they were told they owed SSA money. We began our project with research—wading through as much material as we could find on SSI—and quickly found out that SSI is incredibly complex. We then took questions and concerns to several local attorneys and community advocates who specialize in assisting clients through the SSI process. From those meetings, we were able to narrow down our project to the two areas described above; however, we also realized that there are many more aspects of SSI that students could focus on for future projects.

Steph spoke to a CLS client who had been denied SSI several times. The client expressed frustration at the long wait times that are characteristic of the appeals process. Ultimately, her first appeal resulted in a denial after a year of waiting for a response. The client said that she felt like her application was being sent off into a black hole and no one wanted to help her until she came to CLS.

After talking with the CLS client, our goal became to create materials that were not only user-friendly but that empowered people as they advocated for themselves. Our first pass resembled the information that was already available on the Social Security website—a bit academic, not conversational and a little too dense. We incorporated the feedback we received, and learned that our materials would be best presented as part of a family of materials CLS provides for clients, all with the same look and feel. CLS provided a template to us and we were able to drop our copy directly into it. We had been playing around all semester with graphics in Microsoft Word, but it turned out we didn’t have to be quite so creative.

We ended up creating a flyer informing SSI recipients about how to stay on SSI, which addresses what to do if recipients find that their benefits have been cut or reduced, and importantly, how to keep it from happening again. We also created a flyer on what recipients can do when SSA tells them they have been overpaid.

Throughout the project, we collaborated with Dacil Keo, a paralegal at CLS who works with clients, often when they have had their benefits cut off or reduced. She told us that many members of the Asian-American community in Philadelphia are affected, and our materials might be even more useful if translated into some of their native languages. Dacil also invited us to sit in on a meeting of the Asian Pacific American Social Services Providers Group, composed of individuals representing organizations that assist Asian Americans in Philadelphia. Through that discussion, we learned that the most useful languages for translation of our materials were likely Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese. But we are also left with the feeling that there is so much more to do! Immigration status affects SSI—what about a resource for that? Many community organizations work with people eligible for SSI—what about creating a resource for advocates to use when their work coincides with an application or an appeal related to SSI? What about the homeless population, for whom our suggestions about keeping receipts and documentation in a shoebox or a folder were particularly poorly suited? What could we do for them?

Though we learned a lot this semester and hopefully created some useful resources for CLS, we are hopeful and enthusiastic that other students may continue this work in coming semesters.


Berks County residents sue over secret plans for the Berks Family Detention Center

The Sheller Center, on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and residents of Berks County, has filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners for deliberately keeping secret its plans surrounding the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). BCRC is one of three family detention facilities in the US that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants seeking asylum. It has long attracted local, statewide, and national attention, particularly given the impact of detention on children.

On February 25, 2021, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 on a resolution concerning the future of the facility. While the vote was public, the language of the resolution was so cryptic that it was unclear what the vote was really about. The federal government has stated that it is working with Berks County to convert the BCRC into an adult facility. The resolution referred to executing a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the facility. The Commissioners, however, neither engaged in public discussion nor provided information about the contents of these documents.

Plaintiffs are concerned about the continuing use of BCRC for immigration detention. Since the resolution passed, the public has sought to get further information. Berks County’s response has been to deny these requests for information and refuse to answer questions concerning BCRC.

The Sunshine Act requires that local governments operate openly as part of the democratic process. The complaint alleges that Berks County violated the Sunshine Act by having private deliberations about the resolution and failing to provide the public with a reasonable opportunity to comment prior to official action. It requests that the resolution be voided and the public be provided the opportunity to discuss Berks County’s plans for BCRC.

Temple law students, Lina Ruth Duiker (‘22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) helped to draft the complaint. A Facebook Live event sponsored by the Shut Down Berks Coalition featuring Lina can be found here. Co-counsel include Temple Law alumni Karen Hoffman (‘16) and Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10) with Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project and Aldea. Further media coverage of the lawsuit can be found here and here.

Sheller Center Creates Model Policies Toolkit for Communities Fighting Against Federal Immigration Enforcement

February 25, 2021The Sheller Center, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), releases Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania: Toolkit of Model Policies for Advocates & Communities Seeking to End Local Collaboration with Federal Immigration Officials. This toolkit aims to support community-based, immigrant-led movements that are fighting to end local government collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

By systematically targeting immigrants for arrest, detention, and deportation, ICE creates fear within communities and perpetuates cycles of trauma and hardship. ICE relies heavily on local law enforcement and other government officials to assist with gathering information, stopping, apprehending, and detaining immigrants in Pennsylvania. 

Immigration enforcement, however, is a federal responsibility. Participation by local authorities is entirely voluntary and not required by law. Further, by assisting with enforcement of federal immigration law, localities expend their own resources and open themselves up to potential liability. For this reason, several counties and cities in Pennsylvania have enacted policies that explicitly restrict local government participation in such collaboration. 

Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania provides sample model policies. The toolkit is divided into four broad categories of interaction with ICE that localities can seek to address: (1) general assistance; (2) interactions with criminal systems; (3) information sharing; and (4) contractual agreements. Community-based organizations can use the toolkit to advocate for policies that remedy specific forms of local ICE collaboration happening within their own communities.

Beyond the model policies themselves, the toolkit provides additional resources about each policy, including talking points, statistics, and legal information that can help advocates in speaking with local government officials. It also details information about similar policies that have been enacted in localities across Pennsylvania, with the full versions available on our website.

Mana Aliabadi (‘22), Alexis Fennell (‘21), and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) developed the toolkit as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. For the official launch of the toolkit, PICC will host a public webinar on February 26, 2021, followed by in-depth workshops in both English and Spanish. For more information on these events, please visit PICC’s website. 


Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

Standing in Solidarity with Nancy

On October 8, 2020, Nancy Nguyen was arrested out of her house at around 7:30 pm in front of her two children (ages 18 months, 3 years old). The arrest was based on a warrant from Virginia for allegedly trespassing and littering during a protest in early September, in front of the house of Tony Pham, Director of ICE. Nancy is the Executive Director of VietLead, which focuses on sustainability and self-determination for Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in the region. The Sheller Center has collaborated with VietLead on a variety of projects in order to support them in advancing the rights of their community members. We have always been struck by Nancy’s leadership and vision for mobilizing and empowering community members.

Nancy’s arrest is likely the result of overreach by the local prosecutor and Philadelphia police. Yet it’s within the context of a current Administration that encourages retaliation against those who are engaged in resistance to the federal immigration system. Most notably, the government has stepped up surveillance and raids in “sanctuary” cities where immigrant activists and allies have actively advocated for such policies. ICE has also specifically sought out to arrest those who are immigrant rights activists, leading sometimes to deportation orders. These activities have created a chilling effect on activists while instilling fear more likely to depress organizing efforts.

Enough is enough. This is a country where dissent has played an integral role in fostering conversations that can help us reimagine how to reform our broken federal immigration system.

This fall in the Access to Justice Clinic

Students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, profiled in this month’s Philadelphia Bar Reporter, work on projects aimed at creating better systems for helping people who are unrepresented in civil matters. This fall, students are:

  • Studying Philadelphia’s small claims court, where mostly-unrepresented people are sued — typically by large debt-buying companies — over credit-card and other debts. The difficult experience of unrepresented defendants in consumer-debt courts, and ideas for ways of leveling the playing field, are the subject of a recent national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, How Debt Collectors are Transforming the Business of State Courts.
  • Exploring the experience of parties to child custody proceedings in Family Court, where hearings are now held virtually rather than in-person. On-line proceedings can pose hardships for unrepresented people, especially when internet access is limited and private space hard to find.
  • Looking into the possibility of creating a legal “incubator” that could help law graduates set up affordable practices serving small businesses in Philly. Currently, the city’s smallest enterprises have difficulty getting help with taxes, contracts, compliance, and other matters, and the pandemic has exacerbated the need.

We’re also continuing to work on promoting the recommendations contained in our two  reports from last summer, Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court and A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice. We welcome suggestions for ways of moving our projects forward — as well as ideas for new efforts!

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.