The Samaritan Center in Jefferson City, Missouri cares for the poor by providing groceries, free medical and dental care, Christmas gifts and Halloween costumes for kids….and lawyers to fight off debt collectors.
It might seem strange that what started as a food bank for that state’s capital city has turned into a pseudo law firm, but that’s exactly what the poor need, said volunteer coordinator Lou DeFeo. State courts are clogged with debt cases, many of them illegitimate, DeFeo says. Unless defendants know their way around a courthouse, they are doomed to unfavorable court rulings that can lead state-imposed wage and bank account garnishments.
“One way we look at it is if we can solve a legal problem for people…then they have more money to pay for their medicine, groceries, and so on,” DeFeo said. Often, the mere hint that a defendant has legal representation is enough to make a collector quickly drop a case, he said.
Lawyers from all over Missouri offer free advice, and even court appearances, to Samaritan Clients. Volunteer lawyer Tony DeWitt, also from Jefferson City, said he spends most of his time fighting a phenomenon called, “Zombie Debt” — debts that have been dismissed by judges or are no longer valid but end up leading to lawsuits anyway.
“Zombie Debt, like the movie zombies, just won’t die, no matter how often you shoot it,” he said. “We’ve successfully defended clients against a St. Louis law firm … only to have to mount a second defense later against a Kansas City law firm. As long as the debt can be bought, sold and assigned, it can be sued upon.”
The Samaritan Center offers help to anyone whose income is below 150% of the poverty line. Volunteers help with all kinds of legal problems, including criminal cases, but after family law, debt issues get the most attention.
“There are legitimate debts, and it’s just and appropriate that companies try to collect on those,” DeFeo said. “But what you have in zombie collectors, (firms) frequently trying to collect on debt that’s no longer legally valid, and sometimes never was …people preying on the system, that’s where we get in.”
One consumer helped by the Samaritan Center agreed to be interviewed only if Credit.com agreed to conceal his identity – for good reason. The disabled man settled a debt situation with a firm that re-emerged a year later and started calling him late at night again.
“They just make you feel worthless. They threatened me. They said they were sending me to jail,” he said. When a Samaritan lawyer got involved, the calls stopped. He feared using his name because that might “stir up more trouble,” he said.
Threatening jail is illegal, but it often gets results, DeWitt said.
“They called one lady in Kansas City I worked with and told her to get a money order and send it that day or they were going send to the sheriff out to her house and arrest her,” he said. “She was in a panic when she called me.”
DeWitt got involved with Samaritan Center because of a personal experience. After a divorce and a rough patch in his financial life, he started getting collections calls and witnessed collection tactics first-hand.
“It left me with such a bitter taste in my mouth,” he said. “These are people who talk widows and orphans into taking the money that pays for heat or rent and using it to pay a credit card debt that might be 10 or 12 years old.”
DeWitt figures about half the cases he sees involve debts that are older than the state statute of limitations allows. Collection firms routinely file lawsuits and fail to include the age of the debt. Judges don’t inquire about the age of the debt, so they grant judgments against consumers that have the force of law and can lead to wage and bank account garnishments.
“They count on people not challenging them,” he said. “They never put anything in a lawsuit pleading indicating how old the debt is. That’s crazy, if it were a car accident, you’d say when the accident was.”
The cases are easy to win on appeal (“when we show up, usually the other side packs up their tent and goes home,”) but the morass of forms required and fear of courtrooms usually prevents consumers from mounting an adequate defense.
“You need to have a guide to get you through it,” he said.
DeWitt is a successful lawyer who “makes a good living,” so he gladly donates time to the Samaritan Center.
“When I represent whistleblowers in False Claims Act cases I charge $475 per hour for my time. I derive less satisfaction out of that than I do kicking the debt collectors in the teeth for free,” he said. “When you take a $4,000 load off a working mom, or a retired postal worker, you restore hope. There is no better feeling in the world.”
There are ways to get legal help that don’t cost anything, DeWitt advised.
“The first thing people have to do when they are served with lawsuit papers is go to a legal aid center or call a bar referral service,” DeWitt said. Also, almost every law school in the country has a legal clinic that could supply an eager student who wishes to help.
“There are options that may not be obvious,” he said. “If all else fails, it’s always a good idea to call a plaintiff’s attorney.” The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act actually provides for collection of damages, so lawyers are willing to take what might otherwise seem like desperate cases.
Most of all, he advised, don’t send money to a caller trying to collect on an old debt. Send even $5, and the debt is “re-aged,” meaning the statute of limitations clock is re-set to zero, and consumers lose all or most of their legal leverage.