Relieving the legal burdens on unrepresented defendants in debt-collection cases

  • By Javier Zurita, Luke Myers, and Elizabeth Napierkowski,

This pandemic revealed the extent of economic inequities in our society. However, defendants sued in Philadelphia Municipal Court over allegedly unpaid debt have long struggled with an additional hindrance – the issuance of default judgments based on inadequate proof that the money sought is actually owed. Our investigation and report focused on the tens of thousands of consumer-debt actions brought by collection agencies – generally out-of-state debt buyers — each year, against low-income Philadelphians. Most of these defendants do not have legal representation.

Based on our courtroom observations, court dockets, and legal research, we created a checklist intended to help the Philadelphia Municipal Court ensure that in consumer-debt claims brought by collection agencies, default judgments are awarded only when claims have merit. Our proposed checklist itemizes the evidence that the Court should require from plaintiffs before they enter judgment (for example, proof that the plaintiff actually owns the debt; proof of the terms of the contract; and proof of the amount of damages sought). The proposal draws on local and state rules and case law, especially Local Rule 120, which states that Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence apply not only at trials but also before a default judgment can be entered. It is our hope that the Court will utilize the proposed checklist to provide greater due process to defendants in debt cases.

More reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Students Elydah Joyce and Crystal Zook share their experiences from fall ’21.

Re-ignited Goals

Elydah Joyce, ’23

I had no expectations of what my first clinic would be like at Temple Law and I ultimately was blown away by how engaging, hands-on, and enjoyable the work and class time were. Even when I was not feeling the best on a given Wednesday, the two hours of our class brought me into a great mental space, where I felt like the goals I had in entering law school (ones that have been a bit squashed by the law school grind) were re-ignited. The team I had to work with was fantastic, and it was such a refreshing experience to be placed with a passionate, effective and driven group. I feel like we collectively accomplished and learned a lot more than I could have expected from a few months of research and writing. Thanks to both the classwork and the clinic work, I have a deeper and broader understanding of collateral consequences and the USA context on incarceration issues. I am so happy to have had the chance to be part of this clinic and stand by my opinion that Professor Sibley could pursue a Netflix special that is both comedic and educational on prison abolition (or celebrities’ heights).

Reflecting on the Roles that a Lawyer Can Play

Crystal Zook, ’23

I chose to participate in the Systemic Justice Clinic because it was important to me that I have a practical element in my third semester of law school to help remind me of all the reasons I came into law school in the first place. My experience in the clinic did exactly that. The seminar challenged my thoughts and assumptions about how specific aspects of the legal system work, and about how law, power, discretion, systems, and justice operates more generally.

Both the seminar and the project aspect of the clinic encouraged me to think beyond the “normal” portrayals and understandings of what lawyers do and the interventions lawyers can be a part of in the community. I learned the importance of really stepping back to understand an issue and its context, to better understand community needs and norms, and to really reflect on the role a lawyer can and should play.

Reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Kayla Fisher and Michael Geoffino share thoughts on their work in the Systemic Justice Project during fall 2021.

Working Alongside Community Leaders

Kayla Fisher, ’23

The systemic justice seminar offered a unique opportunity to merge legal theory with practical application. As a student, I have actively sought experiences which will help me to learn more about Philadelphia. Through this experience, I have learned more about the city’s thriving anti-gun violence movement, and I worked alongside thoughtful and genuine community leaders. It was incredible to meet and share ideas with leaders of various organizations. Hearing their visions for a safer future provided an opportunity to see how legal theory and policy must be informed by lived experience.

This course challenged me to think of lawyers as a critical, not central, component of the greater project of empowering the community. The collateral consequences of policing and mass incarceration are vast (and can often feel overwhelming), but this clinic and seminar highlights how lawyers can intervene by reducing harm and providing tangible support in the lives of those who simply need legal support. Overall, this clinic and seminar provided valuable lessons which I hope to carry forward with me into my career.

Students Encouraged to Think Critically

Michael Geoffino, ’23

As a 1L, I was frustrated with how often our legal education was about learning the rules without seriously looking at the results of the rules and the implications of these results. In this clinic we spent a lot of time looking at the rules surrounding our criminal justice system and incarceration as well as discussing the policy and implications under them. The readings and discussions were often challenging and critical, and the projects were both interesting and practical. I really enjoyed taking this clinic, it felt like a space where students were encouraged to think critically about the law and discuss their own opinions and conclusions. This class was an exciting change of pace from the typical law school class.

Advocacy victory: new PA Rule excludes evidence of immigration status from most court proceedings

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted Rule 413, a brand-new rule that presumptively excludes evidence of immigration status from court proceedings. Effective October 1, 2021, the new Rule allows a court to hear such evidence only in exceptional circumstances, and only after following stringent procedures to ensure that, when immigration status is not relevant to the case, it is not considered.

The Court adopted Rule 413 in response to advocacy by multiple groups. The Sheller Center led a statewide coalition of law professors that penned letters in 2019 and 2020 arguing for the need for a stand-alone rule, a presumption of inadmissibility, and a clear process for applying to the court for an exception. They argued that some immigrants will refrain from participating in court cases – whether as plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses — if they fear that their immigration status may be revealed. When this happens, courts cannot adjudicate cases fairly and the rights of immigrants and other parties are inadequately protected.

Because access to the courts is foundational under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Remedies Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the new Rule is a significant step forward for justice in Pennsylvania. 

Students create tenants’ guide for unsafe or inadequate housing

A Tenant’s Guide to Suing Your Landlord: Holding Landlords Accountable for Unsafe Housing Conditions is a step-by-step pro se guide on how tenants can proactively file cases against their landlords for substandard conditions. Many tenants live in unsafe or inadequate homes. This is no accident. Landlords profit by neglecting housing while still collecting full rent from tenants. More than 300 properties in Philadelphia have been cited as unfit for human habitation every year. Tenants rarely sue their landlords, but landlords annually file 24,000 eviction cases in Philadelphia alone.

The guide is an interactive tool with fillable forms, checklists, and worksheets. It walks tenants through the process of identifying their housing issues, providing notice to their landlords, collecting evidence, and preparing for court interviews and hearings. By engaging in the bite-size steps laid out in the guide, tenants will develop their personal statement and evidence (including damages calculation) needed to make a strong claim. Ultimately, the fillable forms in the guide can be submitted to the Court as evidence of the tenant’s case, reducing the barriers and confusion that a tenant may otherwise face in filing a pro se claim.

Lina Ruth Duiker (’22), Ashley Hyman (’22), and Maria Thomson (’22) developed the guide as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. The guide was created on behalf of the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), which partners with the community to advocate for a legal system that values housing as a human right. Tenants can bring the guide to TURN or another housing advocate for additional support and individualized advice if needed. By empowering tenant groups and increasing their access to justice, the guide seeks to shift the narrative away from identifying tenant poverty as the primary cause of substandard housing to recognizing the primary role of landlord neglect.

Judge rules “Sunshine Act” case involving Berks Residential Center can go forward

For years, Berks County has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use a county detention facility to confine immigrant families and children. The arrangement has been lucrative for the County, but controversial among immigrants and immigrant advocates, who argue that secure detention of immigrant families is inappropriate and harmful.

Despite the controversy, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 in February to support an ICE proposal to expand bed space at the Center. (The Commissioners’ letter of support is here.) The Commissioners acted without public discussion and without revealing the content of the proposal that they had decided to support.

Make the Road PA and other plaintiffs, represented by the Sheller Center and co-counsel, sued the County for violating the Sunshine Act. That PA laws requires that public agencies hold their deliberations in public, and provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment on proposed action. How, the plaintiffs asked, could they provide meaningful comments on a proposal that was kept secret from them?

On June 7, at a hearing attended by Make the Road and community members, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas overruled the County’s preliminary objections and allowed the case to proceed. It is being handled by the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, along with partners at Syrena Law, Free Migration Project, Aldea, and Al Otro Lado.

For news reports on the ruling, see our News and Publications page.

 

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.

 

Helping Philadelphia low-wage workers at a virtual clinic

  • By BK Katzmann (’22)

Despite COVID-19 impediments, we have been fortunate to stay engaged with the larger community through the networks built by the Sheller Center for Social Justice. My interest in low-wage workers got me connected to the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW). CREW is comprised of twelve different community organizations advocating for Philadelphians across various industries. In recent years, CREW has achieved significant victories for low wage workers, including most recently pushing for extended paid sick leave related to the pandemic.

In December, CREW held their first Zoom legal clinic. I worked to organize  students to help with intake. The goal of the clinic was to both educate workers and ensure enforcement against employers who are violating the laws. Before the clinic, OnePA and Community Legal Services led trainings to teach us specifically about Philadelphia’s worker protection laws and how to work with potential clients coming from CREW’s member organizations. The clinic Zoom was set up such that organizers from CREW held Know-Your-Rights trainings in the main room, while the law students and other organizers met with workers individually in breakout rooms. Volunteer lawyers were available to field questions from the individual meetings and plan out next steps.

Although getting to apply the skills I am learning in law school was valuable on its own, the most impactful part of this volunteer opportunity was the ability to participate in a system where everyone had value. There was no sense that the attorneys knew more than anyone else. Instead, the community valued each individual’s skills, capacities, and needs. This sentiment was particularly apparent at the end of the clinic where all those remaining in the Zoom session—workers, organizers, lawyers, and law students—shared what we were taking away from the evening. Despite the diversity of voices and roles within the meeting, everyone offered some message of gratitude and solidarity. Participating first-hand in a setting where lawyers and clients work together in the pursuit of justice was truly powerful. I am grateful to the Sheller Center for Social Justice for this kind of learning opportunity, and I hope that many other students get the chance to work with our surrounding community.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.