Safe Child Immigrant Project
William P. Farthing Jr.
When thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children arrived in North Carolina last year with a critical and immediate need for legal assistance, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont was supported by local lawyer associations, firms, private attorneys, foundations, and community members to create the Safe Child Immigrant Project to assist these children who lacked the resources to defend themselves in court and access safety from violence and abuse.
Last summer the US media exploded with the news that tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, were arriving at the US-Mexico border. The media classified this influx as everything from a “flood” to an “invasion,” to, finally, President Obama’s “humanitarian crisis.” What everyone agreed upon, however, was that the “crisis” was, in terms of simple numbers, unprecedented, and that something had to be done.
To understand just how “unprecedented” the numbers were, we can look to the number of Central American children who arrived before 2014. In 2009 the total number of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—together known as the “Northern Triangle”— arriving at the US border was about 3,000. The number began to spike in 2012 when about 10,000 children were apprehended at the border. Then, in 2014, the number rose steeply to nearly 52,000 children—a 500% increase—with 2015 on track to be dramatically high as well.
The drastic increase raised the question: what is motivating these children to flee their homes and countries to come to the US? The reality emerged as these children were processed in shelters and their stories were heard: brutal abuse, violence, and poverty had driven them from their homes.
The Most Dangerous Gangs in the World
In addition to being amongst the poorest countries in Latin America, with 30% (Honduras), 26% (Guatemala), and 17% (El Salvador) of their populations surviving on less than $2 a day, Northern Triangle countries also have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Honduras, with a murder rate in 2014 of 90.4/100,000 people, tops the list, with Guatemala and El Salvador at fourth and fifth. For comparison, Detroit had a murder rate of 54.6/100,000 people in 2013—a number that itself is ten times the national US average. The rates of femicide and murders of youth are even greater in high gang activity areas in the Northern Triangle than the average murder rate.
In the past decade, violence has gotten increasingly worse in the Northern Triangle, due in large part to gangs that have increased in size, power, and violence. Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and MS-18 are two of the most powerful and violent gangs, and they are present in all three countries. MS-13 and MS-18, known together as “las maras,” are now bitter rivals and in a constant struggle—some call it a war—for power and territory.
Maras reign by fear, and those in opposition are beaten, murdered, or “disappeared.” They make money by engaging in extortion, illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and more. Police in the Northern Triangle are often ineffective in stopping them and, in many cases, have been known to work alongside the gangs or accept bribes in exchange for willfully turning a blind eye to gang activity. Even when there is no corruption, gangs often threaten the lives of police and their families if they prosecute.
Children can be especially vulnerable to las maras for many reasons, including their age, accessibility, gender, and lack of an adequate caretaker. Boys in their early teens are particularly susceptible to gang recruitment; any who attempt to resist are threatened or killed simply for refusing to join. For example, “Edgar” is a 16-year-old Honduran boy who now lives in NC. At age ten, his father died, and Edgar quit school to work and support his family. At 15, las maras began to recruit him. When he resisted, they beat him and gave him the choice to leave his home or be killed. Edgar chose to leave and attempt the journey to the US.
But the danger Edgar faced did not end when he escaped the gang’s threats. The journey to the US is incredibly dangerous. Migrants have to cross several countries and are particularly exposed to robbery, rape, kidnapping, and inadequate food and water. Edgar was kidnapped in Mexico, starved and beaten for ten days, until a family friend paid the $3,000 ransom. Now Edgar lives in NC with a cousin and is applying for asylum to gain status and remain in this country lawfully.
Edgar’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. It is a story shared by many children arriving in the US. Young girls from the Northern Triangle also face issues with gangs. Girls are targeted to be “girlfriends” of gang members, known as “mareros.” When a marero chooses a girl he likes, her options are to acquiesce or try to resist and be confronted with rape and murder.
“Maria” is 15 and from El Salvador. Last year, mareros told her she was starting to “look ready” and she was going to be theirs. One marero in particular stalked her and said she was “his.” Maria knew other girls who had resisted in the past and were violently raped or beaten. She chose to flee to the US where her mother had fled years before after her father was murdered by a gang.
For Edgar, Maria, and so many others, the only option to stay alive without becoming involved with gangs is to flee to the US.
Welcome to America
While resistance to gangs may be the driving reason for fleeing, many children choose to leave because of a complex combination of issues they face in their home country. Often a child who is targeted by gangs also lives in poverty, and many face other issues at home, like abandonment and abuse. But whatever their reasons, children from the Northern Triangle fled their home countries in droves last summer. After undertaking a harrowing journey, they arrived at the US-Mexico border to an existing structure that was woefully unprepared to handle them.
Upon arrival the children were—and continue to be—sent to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Because they do not cross the border with a parent or guardian, they are labeled as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) and forced to remain in ORR custody until ORR locates a family member willing to take custody of them. Once a family member volunteers to care for the child, the child is sent to that person to await the immigration court process. This resulted in more than 2,000 children arriving in North Carolina last year. These children were then expected to go to immigration court, where a process they did not understand in a language they did not speak was set in motion to return them to the country from which they had fled.
Addressing the Need
Children arriving in North and South Carolina were luckier than most. Charlotte-area nonprofit Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP) already had a program in place called the Immigration Assistance Project (IAP) that began in 2010 at the Charlotte Immigration Court, which serves both states, to help orient people to the court process. Through this project, a bilingual LSSP employee educates and reassures first-time defendants by explaining what is going to happen in court, answering questions and helping people navigate the court by filling out basic forms. As part of IAP, private attorneys volunteer their time to provide basic screenings for relief, and give information to people who are present in court for the first time.
While programs like IAP provide basic legal orientation and information, these children have no legal right to court-appointed counsel. They are expected to somehow hire an attorney or represent themselves if they seek to pursue legal remedies. Without adequate representation, children who may have had a viable form of relief could be deported without the chance to fairly defend their case. LSSP, already helping so many immigrants through IAP, committed to change that.
In October 2014, with the help of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (AILA)’s North and South Carolina chapter, LSSP created a project pairing pro bono attorneys with children who are eligible for a particular type of relief called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) that provides permanent residency to certain children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents. To date, pro bono representation has been provided to more than 120 children, children who otherwise may not have been able to afford or access representation to help them remain in the US.
In addition to the pro bono project, LSSP, with the help of local funders, including Sisters of Mercy Foundation, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Oak Foundation, Foundation for the Carolinas, and the Leon Levine Foundation, hired three additional staff to serve as Equal Justice Works justice AmeriCorps (jAC) attorneys to represent unaccompanied minors in NC under the age of 16. The jAC program was created by the Department of Justice and AmeriCorps with the goal to provide representation to as many unaccompanied children as possible, to show the difference having legal representation can make in a child’s case. Current statistics show that nine of out ten children without representation are deported, while almost half of children with representation find relief.
These efforts, in addition to other service areas within LSSP that are dedicated to protecting immigrant children, come together to create the Safe Child Immigrant Project (SCIP).Through SCIP, hundreds of children in North Carolina have received legal orientation and information they would have otherwise not had access to. Furthermore, nearly 200 children have received legal representation and assistance navigating the incredibly complicated system that is the US immigration system.
Essential to LSSP’s ability to respond and create these programs was our state’s legal community, which saw the urgent need for legal help for these children and responded. SCIP would not be possible without the committed work of the pro bono attorneys who took on these worthwhile cases, or without the generous local funders who helped LSSP hire the jAC attorneys to provide information and representation to children throughout the state, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Our community of committed individuals, foundations, and organization continue to work to uphold justice to protect our most vulnerable children.
William P. Farthing Jr. is former managing partner and of counsel at Parker Poe in Charlotte. Bill is a member of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission and president of the Board of Directors of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
By Charlotte Stewart and Kirk Warner
In the past few years, there have been exciting developments in serving the legal needs of North Carolina’s veterans. With the third-highest population of active-duty military in the nation, as well as almost 800,000 veterans in the state,1 North Carolina’s legal community must be equipped to address the needs of this specific client population. While nonprofit legal aid providers such as Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, Pisgah Legal Services, and Legal Aid of North Carolina have expanded legal services available to veterans in recent years, engaging private attorneys in pro bono and public service work is critical to ensuring that no veteran’s legal needs go unmet in North Carolina.
There are three principle groups working to increase private attorney participation in this worthy effort: the State Bar’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel (LAMP), the North Carolina Veterans Pro Bono Network (VPBN), and the North Carolina Bar Association’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee (MVAC). LAMP’s activities primarily focus on the legal needs of active duty personnel, whereas the VPBN is primarily (though not entirely) concerned with veterans. MVAC was designed from the beginning to encompass both. Together, these groups comprise a formidable network of attorneys and advocates making a difference for our military and veteran population.
The State Bar’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistance to Military Personnel (LAMP)
LAMP is a standing committee of the NC State Bar, formed to support military legal assistance attorneys assigned within North Carolina who are typically unfamiliar with state law practice.2 LAMP connects these professionals rendering services to active duty personnel and their families with experienced North Carolina practitioners who can provide advice.
Currently chaired by Lonnie Player of Fayetteville, LAMP meets quarterly to share information about legal issues facing military personnel. Members report on developments in legislation and case law affecting members of the military, particularly in the areas of employment law, family law, and consumer protection. Reports by Mike Archer, legal assistance director at Camp Lejeune, often feature high-profile takedowns of entities engaged in predatory lending and other consumer fraud perpetrated against service members and their families. Mark Sullivan of Sullivan & Tanner, PA, provides in-depth updates on legal developments that impact military families in matters such as pension division, child custody, and civil procedure. The Legal Assistance Office chiefs and representatives from the major military commands located in the state provide critical input to the LAMP committee.
For years, LAMP has put on an annual CLE to train attorneys in various aspects of North Carolina law affecting active duty personnel and their families. This training makes expanded representation in state court possible by JAGs and other military legal assistance personnel who would otherwise have inadequate familiarity with state practice. In 2015, LAMP partnered with MVAC to put on this training in partnership with the North Carolina Bar Association. An NCBA Foundation Endowment Grant enabled active and retired military personnel to receive this training at no cost.
LAMP publications such as “Take-1” handouts and co-counsel briefs provide invaluable guidance for attorneys and the public. These are available at nclamp.gov.
The NC Veterans Pro Bono Network
In 2012, representatives from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association3 and the National Veterans Legal Services Program4 approached stakeholders in North Carolina to develop a collaborative model of addressing the unmet legal needs of veterans. The result is the North Carolina Veterans Pro Bono Network, a joint effort of the NCBA and NC Equal Access to Justice Commission.
In fall 2014 these organizations hired the VPBN’s first coordinator, Charlotte Stewart of Chapel Hill, to initiate pilot projects and establish VPBN presence statewide. Network initiatives center on two main strategies: increasing the involvement of private attorneys and law students in pro bono projects serving veterans, and implementing solutions that utilize existing resources to meet specific needs in North Carolina communities.
One of the first projects of the VPBN was the development of an online clearinghouse of veterans-related information, with specific North Carolina legal information and resources for both veterans and practitioners, made possible through a grant from the American Bar Association. The website ncvetslegal.org serves as an important communication hub and as a portal for recruitment and placement of pro bono attorneys who want to serve veterans.
Central to the VPBN’s founding was the need to address a backlog of claims for VA disability and compensation. Continued involvement with LAMP and MVAC has enabled the network to engage additional stakeholders critical to realizing this goal, including the NC Division of Veterans Affairs, the Winston-Salem VA Regional Office, and the North Carolina VFW. Ultimately, the coordinator will work to match pro bono attorneys5 with individuals seeking legal help, and to track case progress and outcomes.
Another early goal of the VPBN is to ensure that legal services are available in some form at every Stand Down6 event in the state.7 Local Stand Down steering committees are ideal initial stakeholders to approach when seeking to serve veterans in a specific community. To date, access to civil legal services at Stand Downs has been provided by staff attorneys from legal services providers, members of the NC VetsCorps,8 and students from law school clinics and pro bono projects.
The North Carolina Bar Association’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee (MVAC)
Chaired by Kirk Warner of Smith Anderson in Raleigh, and currently in its third year of operation, MVAC was founded to serve as the coordinating body for all NCBA activities impacting the military and veterans. It is a nexus for initiatives addressing employment, housing, consumer, financial, family law, and other needs, with the greatest focus being on legal issues. Success requires a willingness to share ideas and resources with groups in North Carolina, and to learn from groups in other states. To date, Mr. Warner has represented MVAC at the National Association of Bar Executives and at a multi-state symposium hosted by the Georgia State Bar. MVAC also meets quarterly, scheduled in tandem with LAMP to facilitate collaboration.
Despite being relatively new, the NCBA MVAC is ahead of the curve in trying out new ideas in a variety of areas. Subcommittees work to support the hiring of veterans within the legal field, conduct outreach to housing authorities with the power to give preference to HUD-VASH voucher holders, advocate for the expansion of Veterans Treatment Courts, and develop pro bono in the area of family law and disability appeals. One of MVAC’s proudest accomplishments was a CLE program in February 2015 to increase the number of VA accredited attorneys in North Carolina and to educate the legal profession about PTSD in combat veterans.
Cooperation among members of LAMP, MVAC, and the VPBN has given rise to several initiatives that are changing the way the legal profession serves North Carolina’s military and veteran population. These include regular legal clinics at VA Medical Centers, the NCBA Family Law Section’s pro bono project for low-income veterans, and special court projects inspired by Veterans Treatment Courts.
Legal Clinics at VA Medical Centers
Monthly legal clinics at VA Medical Centers, staffed by legal aid providers and facilitated by Veterans Justice Outreach specialists,9 are one of the most collaborative projects of the VPBN. Since September 2013, Legal Aid of North Carolina and Legal Services of Southern Piedmont have staffed a monthly civil legal services clinic at the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury. In spring of 2014, attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Durham office recruited and trained law students to address re-entry and income-maintenance needs of homeless veterans at the Durham VA Medical Center. In spring 2015 the VPBN piloted a wills and advanced directives clinic in conjunction with the monthly clinic in Salisbury to address the expressed needs of elderly and disabled veterans; due to technological and other limitations, this project will be further developed off-premises.
Though they operate on different models and focus on different areas of the law, the success of these initiatives demonstrates the viability of community-based volunteer legal services at the local bar level, as well as the value of working with the VA health system to reach our most vulnerable veterans.
Serving Those Who Served
NCBA President Shelby Benton of Goldsboro is a member of the LAMP Committee and was a member of the NC Veterans Pro Bono Network when it identified family law as a critical services gap for low-income veterans. She worked with the NCBA’s Family Law Section to develop “Serving Those Who Served,” the section’s signature pro bono project that matches private attorney volunteers with low income veterans and service members with family law issues. The project is managed by Ms. Stewart of the VPBN, and officially launched during Pro Bono Week in October 2014. Assistance ranges from brief advice and phone consults, to ongoing representation. To date, over 40 individuals have received some form of assistance in matters such as custody, child support, divorce, and adoption.
Notably, the project has assisted several wounded warriors whose military service contributed to their family struggles. One client is a veteran escaping domestic violence while trying to protect her child. The adverse party attempted to use her service-connected disability status against her in court proceedings. Another client is a veteran who received a default judgment while in residential treatment for PTSD and consequently struggled to find employment so that he can meet his child support obligations. Another is a decorated combat veteran whose ex-spouse used his service-connected PTSD to deny him unsupervised visitation with his daughter.
Phase two of the project, set to launch during Pro Bono Week 2015, will incorporate law student participation and mentorship that will hopefully serve as a model for other NCBA sections wishing to serve veterans with needs in other areas of the law. If you would like to partner with law students to serve veterans’ family law needs, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Veterans Treatment Courts
NC's first Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) began in 2013 in Harnett County; a year later, the Cumberland County VTC opened just as Harnett was graduating its first participants. The Buncombe County VTC opened in Spring 2015, and more are on the way. While neither MVAC nor the VPBN are involved in decision-making or funding of the VTCs, these groups have provided technical assistance on an informal basis to court personnel as well as to communities wishing to establish innovative projects serving the criminal legal needs of veterans, service members, and their families.
VTCs are usually organized by a local steering committee before being formally established via funding from the Governor's Crime Commission. These courts are welcome entities providing structure and peer support for veterans with serious offenses related to untreated substance use and mental health issues. Despite their limited scope, these courts have planted a seed allowing for additional innovative efforts in communities with large military and veteran populations. Chief among these efforts are special court sessions designed by members of the VPBN in cooperation with local court officials and other stakeholders to meet the needs of veterans in specific communities through innovative and cost-effective court practices.
One such project was “Veterans Amnesty Day,” piloted in New Hanover County on May 8, 2015, in tandem with the local annual Stand Down event. At this special session of district court, veterans, service members, and spouses with outstanding warrants, traffic tickets, or missed-court fines for nonviolent misdemeanors could have these matters dealt with without fear of arrest, confinement, or debilitating fines. In just two hours on a Friday afternoon, 60 individuals were able to dispose of about 100 matters01 from the five-county area covered by the 5th and 13th Judicial Districts11 (New Hanover and Pender Counties, and Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus Counties, respectively).
Critical to the success of this event was a special commission from the NCAOC that allowed charges from other counties to be disposed of in the New Hanover County location, with judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys from both districts on hand. Most importantly, clerks from all five counties were present with at least some level of remote access to court records as needed. The project will likely be replicated in other judicial districts later in 2015. It should be noted that in areas with limited access to technology, the full potential of cross-district dispositions will remain unfulfilled.
Call to Action
In summer 2015 the VPBN worked with MVAC and LAMP to build a strong volunteer infrastructure to better serve individuals with matters that are beyond the scope of what nonprofit legal services and NCBA pro bono projects can provide. Through the MVAC’s Disability Subcommittee, the network has been able to engage North Carolina attorneys who are accredited to handle claims before the VA in taking on pro bono cases, sometimes in other areas of the law. Additionally, MVAC and LAMP attorneys have helped the VPBN establish relationships with organizations serving veterans at the county and state level with a view to coordinating efforts among local attorneys to provide pro bono service to veterans in their own communities. If you are interested in assisting these efforts, sign up at ncbar.org/giving/volunteer-now/veterans-pro-bono-network. Contact Charlotte Stewart at email@example.com with questions.
Charlotte Stewart is the assistant director of public service and pro bono activities at the North Carolina Bar Association. She coordinates all activities of the North Carolina Veterans Pro Bono Network, a coalition of stakeholders serving veterans’ legal needs statewide.
Kirk Warner is a partner at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. In 2013 Warner retired from the United States Army after 33 years of military service including as the deputy legal counsel to the chair of the joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon. Warner is a member of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission.
5. Information about volunteer opportunities is available at ncvetslegal.org/volunteer.
6. A Stand Down is a one-stop service fair for homeless veterans, offering a range of services including dental, housing counseling, and health screenings, as well as clothing and a hot meal. nchv.org/index.php/service/ service/stand_down.
7. Information about upcoming Stand Down events is available at ncvetslegal.org/calendar.
10. starnewsonline.com/article/20150508/ARTICLES/ 150509760.
By Karen Fisher Moskowitz, Sharon Dove, and Carlene McNulty
A recent study showed that more than 60% of Americans do not have an emergency fund.1 When these families face unexpected costs such as when a car breaks down or emergency medical attention is required, many families cannot afford to pay for these costs. Legal aid can assist low-income clients facing unexpected and sometimes unlawful expenses before these issues spiral out of control and destabilize a client’s financial future.
Legal aid providers are committed to helping families build and preserve wealth by challenging predatory lending practices, addressing fraud, and protecting their rights as consumers. Legal aid providers also educate consumers about the consequences of certain high-risk economic decisions and how to avoid abusive and predatory practices. Below are three examples of such work.
Karen Fisher Moskowitz
Attorney/Director of Consumer Protection and Employment Program
Legal Services of Southern Piedmont
Moving into a community with a homeowners association (HOA) can have substantial benefits. The community is maintained, repairs to the common areas are taken care of, and a well-managed association can work to increase everyone’s property values. Problems arise when the neighborhood is not well managed, or a homeowner has a hardship and is not able to pay their fees and assessments, or a homeowner has a dispute over what they owe their HOA and the HOA uses strong-arm collection tactics.
Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP) has been able to assist homeowners when the water to their home has been shut off by their HOA for unpaid assessments or fees. Last year Bernice,* a sweet, older woman, contacted us for help when she fell behind on her unpaid HOA dues and other fees after her budget was strained as a result of an illness that caused her to pay out-of-pocket for very expensive medication. Bernice had been in and out of the hospital when she fell behind on her dues. After getting out of the hospital, she tried to work out a payment plan with her homeowners association, but they insisted on payment of the full balance, which she couldn’t afford on her fixed income.
When the HOA threatened to turn off her water, Bernice knew she had to get some outside advocacy. Her medical provider told her that living in a home without water would cause her condition to deteriorate, and that she could possibly end up back in the hospital.
Although many city and county housing code sections state that having no water is imminently dangerous to health and safety, some poorly managed HOAs have begun shutting off water to those residents in an attempt to collect on HOA debts. Unlike public utility companies that must adhere to strict rules before disconnecting services, especially to elderly and disabled people, the HOA in Bernice’s case insisted that providing water to homeowners amounted to a “privilege or service” provided by the association. Through a long series of negotiations on Bernice’s behalf, LSSP was able to help Bernice work out a payment plan and keep her water from being shut off.
Another homeowner contacted LSSP after he returned home to the duplex he shared to find that his water had been shut off by his HOA. He was not behind on his dues or assessments at all, but his neighbor was behind, and the main water switch to both units had been pulled. Again, LSSP attorneys were able to assist him, and they continue to assist others like him having water turned back on after an overzealous HOA has shut it off.
*Client names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Sharon S. Dove
Legal Aid of North Carolina-Gastonia
Few things in North Carolina are as important to legal aid’s clients as their vehicles. Without a car, they lack access to employment, groceries, and health care. Yet our clients, who scrape their dollars together for months to buy an old used car, can find this precious possession vulnerable to repossession even when they do not violate the terms of their financing agreement with the dealer. Such was the case for Penny*, a then-unemployed hair dresser and single mother of two young boys, whose car was repossessed on December 30, 2014.
On November 4, 2014, Penny purchased a 2003 Ford, paying $1,000 down and financing the $3,500 purchase price balance at an annual interest rate of 25% from a used car dealer. Penny provided the dealer with proof of insurance coverage on the date of sale. Indeed, Penny kept her insurance coverage and her bi-monthly loan payments current. Her only mistake—which was not a breach of her contract with the dealer—was that she did not tell the dealer she had switched insurance carriers on or about December 9, 2014. Unfortunately, this omission led to tragic consequences for Penny.
At some point after December 9 but before December 30, 2014, the dealer contacted Penny's original insurance carrier to check whether her policy was current. When the original carrier informed the dealer about the policy cancellation, the dealer set the wheels in motion for repossession even though he had no right to do so. The dealer did not call Penny until noon on December 30, which was the day he had arranged for the car to be repossessed at 2:00 p.m.
When the dealer called at noon on December 30, Penny was interviewing for a position at a beauty salon. The call went to voicemail, which Penny decided she would check after purchasing her family's groceries. At 2:00 p.m. Penny emerged from the grocery store just as the repo man finished hooking her car to his tow truck. Penny begged the repo man to tell her what was going on. When he did, she pleaded with him to leave the vehicle because she could produce proof of current insurance coverage. The repo man said it was too late and to call the dealer.
Immediately after the repo, Penny listened to the dealer’s noon voicemail for the first time. She called the dealer and even had the insurance agent for her current policy call the dealer as well. However, the dealer was unrelenting, insisting that Penny could not recover the car unless she paid over $400 in fees. Penny called the dealer multiple times after this initial call, and each day the dealer demanded a higher price for return of her vehicle.
With nowhere else to turn, Penny called Legal Aid of North Carolina, and our office began negotiations with the dealer. We informed the dealer that his repo in the absence of a default violated Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code—see N.C.G.S. §25-9-609—which subjected him to disgorgement of 10% of the contract principal plus all interest received from Penny—see N.C.G.S. §25-9-625(c)(2). The dealer was persuaded to return the car to Penny immediately without charging her a dime.
Now, Penny’s car is back where it belongs. She can do the things she needs to for her family—drive to work, pick up her children from school, and shop for groceries.
*Client names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Senior Attorney, Consumer & Housing Project
North Carolina Justice Center
Education has been the cornerstone of the American Dream, as millions of Americans—rich and poor—have achieved a better life through the power of a college degree. Unfortunately, unscrupulous players in the burgeoning for-profit school industry have been selling this dream to unsuspecting students with promises of great job opportunities, leaving them instead with meager job prospects and crushing debt. The North Carolina Justice Center has recently formed a new initiative to focus on this problem. Our clients—graduates of for-profit schools—rarely find themselves in the kind of work they were promised when they enrolled. Alice, for example, was promised a job in the travel industry. Tens of thousands of dollars later, she is working as a clerk in a big-box store, the job she had before she enrolled in school. John wanted to pursue a career in social work. Lured by a fancy advertisement, he signed up for a masters program at a for-profit institution. The internships he was promised did not materialize, nor did the assistance with finding gainful employment. Sixty-thousand dollars later, he has been told by prospective employers that the degree is not worth the paper it is written on.
Over the past two decades, national enrollment at for-profit institutions has increased over 225%, and each year this sector has received a larger share of federal student aid funding. With this growth has come an increased awareness of widespread problems within the industry. For-profit schools charge higher tuition than comparable public or private nonprofit schools, spend a large share of revenues on expenses unrelated to teaching, experience high dropout rates, and too often employ abusive recruiting and debt-management practices.
For-profit schools widely market their services in North Carolina, but many consumers are unaware of the potential problems related to enrolling in a for-profit school. Our nation’s veterans have been a specific target for enrollment at these institutions. Potential students fail to compare other lower-cost education and training programs that are available in North Carolina’s community colleges. Often the programs offered by these for-profit institutions fail to provide the credentials or training that is advertised or that is required for employment. Vulnerable students have fallen prey to the schools’ aggressive marketing tactics.
These for-profit institutions too often leave students with massive debt that will follow them for their lifetimes. Students at for-profit institutions—many of whom are low-income—are more likely to borrow larger loan amounts than their peers at nonprofit and public institutions. Well over 90% of for-profit students take out student loans, compared to less than 15% percent of community college students. Students at for-profit colleges are also more than twice as likely to default on federal student loans as those who attend public institutions.
The Justice Center is using a multi-prong approach to address this problem. In addition to representing consumers victimized by these practices, the center has developed an extensive community education campaign to try to stop the problem before it starts. We educate low income consumers, including veterans, regarding how best to avoid potential abuses by for-profit schools. We discuss the problems associated with taking on too much debt, and encourage workshop participants to explore lower-cost education options such as community colleges.
Karen Fisher Moskowitz is a staff attorney at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and the director of the Consumer Protection and Employment Law Program. She is a member of the North Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia Bars, and has worked in legal services for nearly 25 years.
Sharon Dove is the managing attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Gastonia office, a position she has held since 2003. She previously worked for the Charlotte law firm of Ferguson, Stein, Chambers. Dove earned her law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1998.
Carlene McNulty is the director of litigation at the North Carolina Justice Center and senior attorney of the Consumer and Housing Project. Carlene is also a clinical assistant professor at UNC School of Law in the Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic.
1. bankrate.com/finance/smart-spending/money-pulse-0115.aspx, accessed June 16, 2015.
By M. Ann Anderson
Attorneys in smaller communities know about pro bono. They frequently give of their time to citizens throughout their small towns and counties without an expectation of pay. The opportunities to provide pro bono service arise in many ways—some formal and, most commonly, informal, subject to the individual attorney’s practice.
There is only one legal aid attorney for every 13,170 low-income people. In contrast, there is one private attorney for every 562 North Carolinians. In many—if not most—of the small communities in North Carolina, easy access to legal advice is not available through an existing legal aid office because there are not enough legal aid attorneys. Instead, many needy rural North Carolina citizens who would otherwise find their legal needs unanswered have been able to utilize several methods of procuring assistance.
One way small communities are served is through a joint North Carolina Bar Association and Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) program, Lawyer on the Line (LOTL), which connects legal aid eligible clients from any geographic region of the state with volunteer attorneys who advise the clients over the telephone from the attorney’s office. Another is the most common but less recognized practice of attorneys in those small communities giving advice, performing services, or representing clients with little or no expectation of being compensated. Finally, some attorneys volunteer with local legal services offices to actually take the client’s case and handle the matter to conclusion.
Lawyer on the Line Attorneys Serve Needy Clients Throughout the State
The North Carolina Bar Association and LANC work together to provide the very successful pro bono program of LOTL. LOTL is a flexible opportunity designed to fit into the schedule of any busy attorney, wherever the attorney or client is located in North Carolina. Clients who meet the eligibility criteria of LANC are prescreened by LANC through a telephone call. The screener determines the client’s area of legal need and then matches the client with an available attorney who has agreed to participate in the program. Volunteer attorneys commit between one and four hours monthly to provide advice by telephone to program clients.
Specifically, LANC screens clients to ensure they are low-income, that their issue/situation ideally will take less than one hour to address through advice only, and can be adequately handled via telephone. LANC provides an email to the volunteer attorney that contains information about the client’s case and introductory materials on the legal topic. Part of the program also includes malpractice insurance and training for the covered representation, and an easily-reached mentor who is always available to discuss cases if needed.
The expectations by LANC are that the volunteer attorney will interview the client, provide basic advice, and write a brief summary of the advice given, which is then sent to Legal Aid for review and case closing. Every case is assigned based on the volunteer's availability—if a volunteer is having a busy week (or several weeks), he or she can decline a referral and will receive one that works for his or her schedule once time is again available. The vast majority of LOTL cases take less than one hour to complete, and most attorneys report that they feel that they have truly helped each client after speaking with them.
Tom Anderson from Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, practices debtor bankruptcy law and serves as a LOTL volunteer. His LOTL cases vary, but basically Anderson says that the clients who seek assistance are people who do not understand the legal process or legal principles and many times do not have the skills to address the factual situations facing them. Frequently, Anderson finds that he is helping clients marshal and prioritize facts and goals so that they can make a decision. LOTL clients are sometimes in positions where they have legal rights, but they do not know what they are. In Anderson’s experience, the opposing party knows the law and “that imbalance in knowledge gives power to the opposing party.”
One of Anderson’s LOTL referrals involved a debtor who had a meager income and was threatened by a creditor with wage garnishment for a student loan, when wage garnishment was not legally allowed because of the client’s very low income. Anderson intervened with the creditor who communicated to Anderson that its rules permitted it to garnish wages. The creditor assumed that the debtor would be powerless in the face of its threat. Anderson told the creditor he did not like the rules and that “we are going to use the law.” The creditor did not pursue the client when it realized that the client was empowered by being represented by someone who knew the law. This LOTL representation took less than two hours and involved only gathering documents and talking to the client and the creditor on the telephone. The debtor in this matter did not have ready access to a legal aid office.
Anna Winger gives additional examples of how LOTL serves rural communities. Winger, who handles trusts and estates and represents small businesses, serves on the LOTL Committee. Winger has represented a number of LOTL clients. One illustrative case that she handled took less than two hours, but made a huge difference to the woman she was advising. Winger said the client had a third party payee receiving her social security check. According to Winger, in some cases, where the recipient is not competent, a third party can be designated to receive the principal’s social security check. The client was not getting the money from the social security check forwarded from the payee because of a personal conflict with the payee. Winger believed that the payee was receiving the money only because the client was homeless. The client met several times with the Social Security Office, but could not determine how to get the money sent directly to her. Winger determined that the client needed a form, talked the client through how to get a note from a doctor to say she was competent—which Winger had no doubt that she was—and then talked to the representative from the Social Security Office. There was some time pressure, because a check was going to be distributed fairly soon. Because of Winger’s efforts, the client was able to get the money sent to her directly and this change made a huge difference in her life. The client mailed Winger a thank you card with a note and money, which Winger returned. As an aside, Winger observed that her partner learned about practicing Social Security Law through the LOTL program, liked what she was doing, and now has a practice in this area.
Regan Rozier, who practices in Wilmington, notes that one of the benefits of LOTL is that the program serves citizens who are in smaller communities because attorneys can talk to clients who are located anywhere in the state. Rozier says that he volunteers with LOTL because it is a good way to give back with very little time commitment, and because he knows that with one phone call you can make a big difference in someone’s life. Many of his cases take only 15 minutes. Rozier’s referrals involve many people who just want to know what their options are or their legal rights. Clients who learn their options are then provided with power to handle their personal challenges.
Rozier, who has served as co-chair of the LOTL Committee, handles a variety of cases including expungement files which take about 30 to 45 minutes per client. Because LANC sends him all the information he needs, including the client’s criminal record, he can review the chart to determine if the client is in fact entitled to have the criminal record expunged. Volunteers are not expected to actually file for the expungement, but just to advise the client.
Lawyers who volunteer for LOTL also benefit from serving the needy clients. Bryn Dodge Wilson from Mooresville was recruited to participate in the program by her uncle, Gray Wilson. Bryn, who previously practiced with a large firm, has been a stay-at-home mom for the past five years and was looking for a way to keep her fingers in the legal field. Ms. Wilson says that providing service to a client is easy, especially when the client’s question is in an area of the attorney’s practice. Wilson notes that the time line for working with the clients should fit into any schedule.1
Pro Bono or “Low Bono” is a Common Practice for Needy Clients in Rural North Carolina
Small town lawyers often provide services for clients who cannot pay, in part due to their strong connection to the community. The practice of North Carolina attorneys in small communities giving assistance to clients who are unable to pay is illustrated by John Gehring, who has practiced in Walnut Cove, North Carolina, since 1968. Gehring says that being a country lawyer enables him to practice law without having to punch a clock or count pennies, and that when he performs services without an expectation of compensation he frequently will become that family’s lawyer. Gehring gave an example of a couple who came to see him in the 1980s so that he could prepare a will for them. He spent three hours with the couple and at the end of the conference they asked him how much they owed him. He told them that he had prepared the will for free. Subsequent to the pro bono work, the couple, returned for Gehring to represent them when two of their three children were killed in a car accident, “because he was their lawyer.” While Gehring had no expectation of being paid for the preparation of the will, his willingness to work with this family did bring him a substantial case.
Gerry Collins, who has a general practice in Murphy, discussed providing services to clients at a low fee, also known as “low bono.” Collins, who has been practicing since 1980, says that he has seen the need increase since the economic downturn in 2009. He believes that for some clients who cannot afford to pay him, charging an extremely modest rate—something he thinks they can afford to pay—provides a sense of dignity to clients. He gave an example of preparing a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney for a needy client and charging the client $50. The client was “tickled to death.” Collins says that he is particularly sympathetic to elderly clients who do not have much money and need wills and powers of attorney.
Though not pro bono, in other cases where a client has been paying regularly, but the client clearly is struggling to pay the fee, Collins will discount the fee as “client consideration.” Collins has tried to benefit the clients who have been paying with a fee discount. In addition, Collins understands that in certain types of cases, when the fee has been underestimated, that likely the remaining work for the client will be done pro bono. Collins stated that he performs pro bono or low fee work “out of feeling for the person sitting across the table from you who can’t afford the work, and you can come in on a Saturday—not taking away from your other work—and get it done.” Collins also mentioned the small town common occurrence of having people in the grocery store stop and ask his advice because folks know that you are “the” lawyer. Collins is confident that the lawyers in Clay and Cherokee Counties are all providing similar pro bono or low fee work for the needy citizens of those counties.
Both Collins and Anderson frequently spend time on the telephone talking to clients, knowing that they will not get paid, that the telephone call will not generate any representation, yet they spend time with those clients giving them help and guidance. Occasionally, even when there is no expectation of receiving anything in return for that help and guidance, the client will bring in a nonmonetary gift. Anderson has been given cookies, a homemade cake, and on one occasion venison. A client brought Collins a paper bag full of ears of corn in return for the preparation of a will.
Attorneys Provide Extended Representation for Needy Clients
In addition to advice and “low bono” work, attorneys in rural North Carolina are representing clients on a pro bono basis. Chris Callahan, an attorney from Rutherford County, has been a volunteer for many years and has been nominated for several pro bono awards. Callahan’s service is more in the nature of what other attorneys would call extended service in that he actually represents the clients, and is not just giving advice to the client. Callahan’s referrals come from Pisgah Legal Services, so he knows that the clients are truly needy. Callahan has represented clients in a variety of areas, but two cases that came to mind were ones that involved rent-to-own mobile homes. In one case, the client knew she was not able to pay. When the tenant told the landlord, he evicted her, threw her belongings out of the mobile home, and disposed of them. The landlord also would not return the tenant’s security deposit. Callahan represented the tenant by suing the landlord for wrongful disposal of the client’s property and for failure to follow the statute governing the return of her security deposit. Callahan sent the landlord discovery, including requests to admit, which the defendant failed to answer. Once Callahan noticed the case for a hearing on his summary judgment motion, the landlord hired an attorney. Because of the unanswered requests to admit, the client was able to obtain a settlement of a few thousand dollars. The settlement, without having to pay an attorney, was significant to his client, and took Callahan about ten hours of work.
In another matter, Callahan represented an elderly couple who unknowingly became part of a continuing scam by a well-known local citizen when they purchased a mobile home. The landlord would sell elderly clients a mobile home with a down payment of about $1,000, and then with modest monthly rent-to-own payments. One of the aspects of the scam was that the clients could not see the property before it was purchased. Of course, when these clients saw the property for the first time, they found that it was uninhabitable. Callahan believes that many of the rent-to-own scams that target the elderly are an attempt to avoid the landlord tenant laws. Callahan says that with about three hours of work and threatening to sue the landlord, he was able to get a return of the client’s money. The landlord was later prosecuted.
Callahan noted that our justice system sometimes teeters on the edge of being unfair because impoverished citizens do not have access to lawyers who can help balance out the cost that the legal system sometimes requires.
Rural communities need the assistance of attorneys willing to provide pro bono services.
There are many ways for attorneys throughout North Carolina to provide that assistance. Help can be provided in as little as one hour a month through the LOTL program, where the volunteer attorney knows that the client meets the poverty thresholds of LANC. For those attorneys who are willing to become more involved, they can assist through extended service, where the volunteer hours can make a big difference to a client who might otherwise be powerless. However the service is provided, attorneys in North Carolina are making a difference to rural communities.
M. Ann Anderson is a former co-chair of the NCBA’s LOTL Committee.
1. LOTL celebrated its four year anniversary on March 4, 2015, with some tremendous statistics. Since its creation in 2011, LOTL has served over 12,873 clients with attorneys volunteering, as of the end of April 2015, over 12,832 hours.
The total value of these services is roughly estimated to be $3.2 million dollars.
During January 2015, 39% of the clients calling LANC’s hotline were handled by LOTL volunteers. Clearly the contributions of this pro bono program are making a big difference for those in need.
Currently over 684 North Carolina attorneys are volunteering, but the program is seeking 250 more with 100 attorneys needed to handle advice only expungement cases.