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The COVID-19 pandemic not only exacerbated existing financial issues for low-income families, it also set up the specter of an avalanche of consumer debt civil legal actions. Across the nation, as people lost jobs or saw their incomes decline, economic problems spiraled and many low-income families were forced to make hard decisions in hopes of avoiding joblessness, homelessness and catastrophe. For example, some households reported having to borrow money from family members or friends to make ends meet. Other households from communities [of color] with traditionally fewer financial resources to pull from, reported having to increase credit card spending in order to stay afloat. – Confronting the COVID-19 Access to Justice Crisis

Individuals and families with debts that end up in collections are oftentimes mistakenly viewed as having made poor personal financial choices. In reality, and what the pandemic has taught us is that, debt can become difficult to manage for any household, especially when experiencing emergencies, surprise expenditures or reductions in income. For example an individual or household might: 

  • Use an emergency credit card to buy food and medication , after experiencing job loss
  • Miss a few car note payments, after cutbacks at work led to reduced hours and pay
  • Fall behind on student or personal loans payments, after an unexpected trip to the hospital led to new medical bills 
  • Owe a past debt for healthcare services that weren’t covered by an employee plan
  • Unknowingly become responsible for a debt after serving as a cosigner on a loved one’s loan
  • Incur additional expenses they thought they could cover but couldn’t because they unexpectedly had to retire early due to health concerns 
  • Inherit increased financial responsibility after the loss of a contributing household member

While eviction and utility moratoriums held off some of the immediate financial consequences of the pandemic, Maryland’s courts began hearing debt collection “affidavit judgment” cases again in July 2020 after a brief pause in courthouse proceedings. And now, even as unemployment numbers signal that some adults have returned to work, families in low-income households face mounting debt collection lawsuits, ruined credit scores, and garnishment. 

In Maryland, debt collection cases are heard on the “affidavit judgment” docket which sees hundreds of cases per week, depending on the jurisdiction. Out of those cases only a small number of defendants actually show up for their hearing.  Debt collection lawsuits typically start out with a creditor filing a complaint and an affidavit with documents to support the claim. A judge will review the supporting and the complaint and if the documentation is adequate, the court may enter judgement requiring the defendant to pay the debt claimed. If the supporting documents are not adequate then the defendant is notified that they must appear in court.

“Many of the defendants are being sued for credit card debt from years ago that they may not remember . . . for bail bonds [defendants], they may not remember signing a contract or the details of the contract,” says Aja’ Mallory, Consumer Staff Attorney with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. And some defendants mistakenly “come to court thinking they can negotiate with the attorney and they show up and they’re told that the attorney does not have to be there.” Oftentimes the result is that defendants appear in court unaware and unprepared to make legal arguments in their own defense. Consider the story of Cindy:

Cindy, an elderly Baltimore City resident, received a summons to show up to court. Although she did not understand all of the paperwork and legal documents that were sent to her, Cindy understood that she was being asked to show up to court because of a debt that was owed to a bail bond company. Cindy recalled a family matter whereby a group of family members had enlisted the help of a bail bond company in order to pay the bail of another family member facing legal trouble. Cindy and her other family members signed a bail bond agreement and agreed to pay a fee, and in exchange the bail bond company would pay the bail. By having the bail paid, Cindy could help her family member wait for a court date at home instead of in jail. Cindy showed up to court hoping to work things out by speaking with the bail bond company’s attorney and explaining that she was elderly and largely living off of social security. While waiting for her turn, Cindy listened to the judge’s statements about what legal defenses defendants could and couldn’t raise and she quickly realized that she did not know whether she had a defense the court would accept. Cindy realized she needed a lawyer. 

That morning Cindy also heard the announcement about the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Services (MVLS) Clinic in the courthouse’s library and an MVLS attorney had explained that they were there to help discuss possible defenses, negotiate settlement agreements with creditors, and help defendants file a notice of intention to defend when appropriate. Cindy decided to go back to the clinic for help. At the clinic, Cindy explained to a volunteer attorney that most of the money she lived on came from social security, and the constant calls and harassment had led her to believe that collectors would be allowed to seize everything from her bank account. Cindy also explained that she had done everything she could to try to resolve the matter, but credit collectors would not listen to her explanations. After listening to Cindy’s story, a volunteer attorney reassured Cindy and explained that legally debt collectors could not seize social security benefits. The attorney contacted the creditor who agreed to dismiss the case and all cease collection efforts. Together they explained Cindy’s circumstances to the judge and obtained a postponement to allow the dismissal time to reach the court.

For Baltimore City residents like Cindy, MVLS’s Consumer Protection Clinic at the Baltimore City District Court has been a huge help. “[W]e are there to explain what the affidavit judgment docket is, and if they accept our services, we explain why they’re being sued and we provide as much [information] as we can about their specific case and then we provide them the resources to help file a defense or [negotiate a] payment arrangement. . . and we also share resources that can help [with] other issues they may have,” says Ms. Mallory. 

For many families that struggle to make ends meet, losing a debt collection lawsuit could mean having even less income to pay basic necessities like housing, food and utilities. As a result, income-strapped families become entrenched in debt and trapped in a cycle that perpetuates poverty. For example,

  • After garnishment, a family may not be able to make rent at the end of the month and face eviction
  • Facing harassment from debt collectors, a family might fall victim to debt-reduction scams and lose what little money they had left
  • A senior citizen, who receives social security may unknowingly use their benefits, which cannot be garnished, to pay a debt putting more strain on their family’s finances
  • An individual who relies on their car for employment may skip car note payments to make payments on a debt repayment plan, only to later have their car repossessed 
  • A family might enter an unaffordable debt repayment plan to avoid a judgement and which may cause them to no longer be able to afford childcare so they take out a payday loan with high interest

For defendants whose suits end in garnishment, it can mean seeing up to 25 percent of their pay taken to repay a debt. “[Garnishment] can potentially mean . . . losing a significant chunk of your income or the entire contents of your bank account . . . [it] can really be a precipitating event,” says Amy P. Hennen, the Director of Advocacy and Financial Stabilization with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

In a recently released Report the Biden Administration found that defendants in debt collection lawsuits who have access to counsel are more likely to challenge and even win cases, avoiding long-term financial and psychological consequences. That same Report, notes that less than 10 percent of defendants in debt collection lawsuits have legal representation. “One of the biggest reasons why it is so helpful to have an attorney get involved in a consumer case is that when [an attorney] says a another attorney this person is collection proof, I’ve reviewed their finances, here’s a copy of their social security statement, – that has a lot more weight than the person saying that themselves. . . if it’s an attorney saying it then [creditors] know that I’ve actually advised the client . . .  [and] trying to get additional money from the client is actually not going to work.” says Ms. Hennen. 

MVLS’s volunteer lawyers meet with defendants located in the Baltimore City District Courthouse and provide brief advice on defending against debt collection lawsuits. In addition to the courthouse-based clinic, MVLS also provides support to Marylanders through their Bankruptcy Bypass Program. For Marylanders facing bankruptcy, MVLS’s volunteer attorneys can assist clients in determining if they are collection proof (meaning that their income and assets could not be garnished by consumer lenders), and help draft letters to creditors requiring creditors to cease collection phone calls and close the client’s file. For more information on the many pro bono programs MVLS offers, visit https://mvlslaw.org/program.