Fighting For A Veteran Facing the Invisible Wounds of War

Linda Heeyoung Park, JD ‘21, a student in LSC’s Safety Net Project, shares the story of her client, Jay, a veteran who came to LSC for help protecting his disability benefits. 

Jay loved his job as a tower agent with US Airways. Seated high in Logan Airport’s control tower, he guided planes to and from their gates. He was a commander of sorts, a role that was familiar to him from his previous career.

Before working at the airport, Jay served as a Marine.

Linda Heeyoung Park

Linda Heeyoung Park, JD ’21

After being called to active duty in 2004, he quickly climbed up the ranks and, by 2006, became a sergeant. With the other Marines in his unit, he traversed Iraq by Humvee, sending radio signals to different camps through the night. One night in June 2006, everything came to a halt. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED), hidden under the road detonated, destroying the Humvee, injuring the people inside, obliterating Jay’s right leg, and severely damaging his right elbow and his left foot.

When Jay returned stateside for rehabilitation, his body was in shambles. He could no longer extend his right arm and could barely put weight on his broken left foot. The phantom pain from the right leg he lost was intense and perplexing. His right foot, the foot that no longer existed, felt numb.

Pain spurred reflection. “It’s hard to see all the soldiers returning from Iraq,” Jay confessed. “What were we there for? Why did we die?”

Still, Jay persevered. He endured intensive physical therapy, started using prosthetics, and learned to walk again. Most importantly, he learned to accept his disabilities. Within four years, Jay was directing planes for US Airways, starting a new life with his new body.

But Jay’s disabilities followed him like a shadow. Every morning at work, Jay walked up three flights of stairs with no elevators and no railings. He had to stop every other step, leaning against the wall until the shooting pain from his phantom limb subsided. Going to the bathroom during work, which involved going up and down the stairs, was not a possibility. Jay would be drenched in sweat throughout the day from the effort he exerted to complete his work. After two years of enduring the pain, Jay was forced to quit.

This was the story that Jay told me when I met him at our first intake meeting. As he recounted his story, his eyes remained still and his face calm. I tried to reflect his composure, but my mind spiraled. Images of bombs, blood, and hidden tears flashed in front of my eyes. I managed to squeeze out a question.

“So, how can we help you today?”

Jay explained that his disability benefits had been discontinued after he stopped working, because he was no longer considered disabled. Really? I asked him. Even to me, a student only one month into my work on disability benefits cases at LSC’s Safety Net Project, the notion that Jay was not ‘disabled’ in some basic sense seemed absurd.

“I received a bunch of letters years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know what they were saying. Now I know that Social Security Administration (SSA) is discontinuing my benefits. I have a hearing in three weeks.”

Three weeks meant we had no time to spare. I had to dig through thousands of pages of medical records, schedule a meeting with Jay every week leading up to the hearing, and find out why SSA rejected his benefits. I had to get to know Jay and understand his story and his struggles as soon as possible.

Every day at work, I shuffled through the thick stack of Jay’s medical records. Those medical records, especially from Jay’s first few years of rehabilitation, served as Jay’s biography. They revealed in great detail a side of Jay that he did not explicitly present to me: Jay’s life hidden behind the closed doors of hospitals. Words like “depression,” “agoraphobia,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” permeated the records.

Thinking about how eloquent and resilient Jay is, I realized that Jay had additional disabilities that were invisible to our eyes. Beneath his thick jeans Jay wore a prosthetic leg. Beneath his skin, Jay was suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Jay woke up in middle of the night, panting and paralyzed by his nightmares. He downed liquor to forget the bright orange flames he saw in his dreams. He jolted when people approached him at work.

SSA neglected to consider Jay’s symptoms. The agency dismissed Jay’s physical disabilities because he worked for a period of time, not knowing the pain he fought through every day. SSA denied Jay his benefits when he needed them most, and failed to consider the other vestiges of war: the emotional injuries he sustained as a Marine.

Jay and I met every week leading up to the hearing. I asked him questions that drew out the stories SSA had ignored. As we both were getting exhausted from the prepping, Jay lamented, “They say, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I’ve done my share for the country. I gave it everything. What has the country done for me?” I didn’t know how to answer his question. Jay had served his country, but nobody fought for him when he needed help.

On the hearing day, Jay was wearing his usual jeans and gray jacket. Other than his slight limp, Jay, like always, appeared able-bodied and articulate. The administrative law judge (ALJ) peppered Jay with questions. How are you able to go to school when you’re disabled? What changed in between your time at US Airways and now? Are you really disabled?

Jay solemnly told his story. He advocated for himself, understanding now the relevant experiences that mattered most to the judge. He was vulnerable yet unapologetic. He was brave. He told of the pain hidden underneath the veneer of normalcy and calm. He admitted his reliance on substances and explained the causes for it. After listening to Jay, the judge questioned the vocational expert and let a few seconds of silence pass. Then, she looked at Jay and thanked him.

“I have never done this during my time as an ALJ,” she said. “But I’m going to state on the record that you won your case. Thank you for your service. This country is honored to have a veteran like you.”

When I explained the ALJ’s bench ruling to Jay outside of the courtroom—how he would be awarded his benefits dating back to the date of application in 2012 and would not have to wait anxiously for the decision—Jay simply smiled at the news. Even as my supervisor and I profusely congratulated him, he nodded and thanked us. Then he returned to his beloved two cats and his life.

In retrospect, the long and winding path to Jay’s victory could have been shortened if the system offered Jay the proper assistance when he first needed it. SSA could have acknowledged the seriousness of Jay’s mental injuries. Legal aid organizations could have been more accessible to Jay and his community to help him out in the initial stages of his case. SSA could have not punished recipients for attempting to find work despite their disabilities. Too many systemic barriers impeded Jay from accessing the benefits that he was entitled to and needed.

I read a lot of medical reports for my clients. According to those reports, a doctor diagnoses the problem, comes up with a solution, and communicates with the patient about ways to move forward. Social security benefits attorneys are like doctors. They see the issues in a client’s case, discuss a strategy to tackle the issue, and work with the client to achieve a goal. Just as every patient should be able to see a doctor, every client should be able to see an attorney.

Sometimes, on the Orange Line train back to campus from the Legal Services Center, I’m lucky enough to grab a seat. As I sit down, close my eyes, and allow my thoughts to wander, I often feel crushed by the weight of not only Jay’s, but all my clients’ stories. The stories that rarely get told yet must be heard. The responsibilities that come with knowing the stories. Sometimes these stories consume me, and I have to sneakily wipe away the tears. How unprofessional, I think to myself.

The day Jay and I won the case, I cried unabashedly on the train. A lady who sat next to me offered tissues. She asked if I was okay, and I explained through the tears that my client won his case. She congratulated me. She told me that I would be a good lawyer. Listening to her, I realized that I do want to be the lawyer that she envisioned me as. I want to be a lawyer who treats every story with the significance it deserves and who gives it its proper stage.

Linda Heeyoung Park is a 2L student at Harvard Law School. This is her first semester working with LSC’s Safety Net Project.

LSC’s Toby Merrill ’11 named to the TIME 100 Next list

The founder of the Project on Predatory Student Lending is recognized for leading the fight against predatory for-profit colleges and fighting for the rights of over one million student borrowers.

toby merrill

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending.
(Photo: Martha Stewart)

Toby Merrill ’11, founder and director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School, has been named to the first-ever TIME 100 Next list, an expansion of the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world. The list highlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of business, entertainment, sports, politics, health, science and activism, and more. Others on the TIME 100 Next list include Pete Buttigieg, Kyrsten Sinema, Aly Raisman. The full list and related tributes appear in the November 25, 2019 issue of TIME, available on newsstands on Friday, November 15, and now at time.com/next.

TIME 100 Next says of Merrill: “Years before student debt would be widely considered a national crisis—Americans now owe a combined $1.6 trillion—Toby Merrill started using litigation to fight what she calls the ‘worst-of-the-worst student debt,’ the kind incurred by students who enrolled in predatory for-profit colleges that burdened them with debt and provided them with worthless degrees.”

Read more at Harvard Law Today.

SAVE THE DATE: Lieutenant Colonel Shannon McLaughlin To Give DAV Lecture Thursday, Nov. 21

dav lecture poster nove 2019

November 21: The DAV Distinguished Lecture Series, with Lt. Colonel Shannon McLaughlin (Click image to enlarge)

Lieutenant Colonel Shannon McLaughlin of the Massachusetts Army National Guard will deliver this year’s Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture on Thursday, November 21 at noon at Harvard Law School.

McLaughlin, who deployed to Afghanistan and has more than 20 years of military service including time in both the Navy and Army, is now the state judge advocate/legal adviser to The Adjutant General for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Military Division. She is a member of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. McLaughlin has also been a courageous leader on issues impacting women and LGBTQ servicemembers, including serving as lead plaintiff in the suit against VA and the Department of Defense to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act with respect to military and veterans benefits for same-sex spouses and their families. The event is free and open to the public, and will take place at Harvard Law School in the Wasserstein Caspersen Clinical (WCC) building, WCC 2036 (2nd Floor), Millstein East Function Room A.

The DAV Lecture is made possible by the generous support of the DAV Charitable Service Trust and is co-sponsored by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, the Law School’s Armed Forces Association, and HLS Lambda. Previous speakers in the DAV Lecture series have included Hon. Robert Davis, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of VA; Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy; Robert McDonald, Secretary of VA; and Hon. Robert Russell, founder of the nation’s first veterans treatment court.

New Veterans Initiative Launched To Connect Low-Income Veterans With Underutilized Benefits


For Immediate Release
November 5, 2019
Contact: Katie Ward 603-689-8170

New Veterans Initiative Launched To Connect Low-Income Veterans With Underutilized Benefits

New Online Tool Aims to Help Thousands of Low-Income Massachusetts Veterans Access Financial Assistance

BOSTON – A new statewide initiative is being launched to help close the significant gap of low-income veterans in Massachusetts who are not accessing financial assistance that they are eligible for under state law, the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) announced today.

Secretary Urena

Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services Francisco Urena speaks about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator at the State House on November 5, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Secretary Urena.)

The new online tool – the Massachusetts Veteran Benefit Calculator – created by the Veterans Legal Clinic aims to help veterans easily determine if they may be eligible for financial assistance through a state program known as Chapter 115 Benefits. Massachusetts is home to approximately 325,000 of the nation’s veterans, too many of whom experience financial instability and struggle with poverty.

The announcement was made today by the Veterans Legal Clinic in collaboration with Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Ureña, as well as Veterans Service Officers and other veterans organizations.

Low-income veterans can be eligible for state financial assistance under Chapter 115 if they fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level and meet other eligibility requirements. However, there has been a persistent gap between the number of veterans eligible for these funds and the number of veterans who actually apply and access them. A 2017 report by the State Auditor’s Office found that between 2014-2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits. Thousands more veterans may be eligible. The Chapter 115 program also supports survivors and dependents of veterans, but many are unaware of the program.

“Veterans have earned these benefits through their service, yet we know that there is a major gap between those veterans who are eligible and those who access them. And a similar gap exists for widows and widowers of veterans.  We hope this online tool can make it a little easier to close these gaps,” said Betsy Gwin, Associate Director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. “No veteran or survivor in Massachusetts should be struggling to avoid homelessness, to keep the lights on, or to feed their family, and this financial assistance can make all the difference. We are honored to share in this mission with the Department of Veterans Services and local VSOs across the Commonwealth.”

“The Department of Veterans’ Services works to ensure that Massachusetts veterans are supported after a career of service to our nation,” said Francisco Ureña, Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. “This new online tool will help veterans and their families explore state benefits available to them with ease.”

“The process of applying and navigating benefits can be complex and daunting, on top of the other daily issues veterans are dealing with,” said Wesley Bigham, a Massachusetts Veteran who served in Afghanistan. “I wasn’t aware of Chapter 115 benefits when I came back from active duty and was unemployed, but it would have made a huge difference for my family. If I’d known about this financial assistance and had access to a tool like the Benefits Calculator, it would have been one of the first things I did when returning home.”

Outreach materials

Outreach and informational materials about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator. (Photo courtesy of Secretary Urena.)

Under Chapter 115 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Commonwealth, along with town and city governments, provides financial assistance for qualifying low-income veterans and their surviving family members who are struggling to make ends meet. The monthly financial assistance can be used to help veterans pay their medical bills, for emergency assistance, or to help prevent homelessness and utility shutoff. Monthly Chapter 115 benefits can range from a few dollars to over $1,000 per month, depending on the veteran’s income and expenses. The benefits are administered by the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) and local municipalities’ Veterans’ Service Offices (VSO).

Veterans and their dependents can visit the online calculator, answer simple questions, and receive an immediate estimate of their potential eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits. If they are eligible, users can download a form with their answers to the tool’s screening questions and connect with their local VSO. In partnership with the state, the VSO will assist the veteran or dependent with their official application for Chapter 115 benefits and manage the process of accessing benefits should the applicant meet eligibility requirements.

For more information, veterans should visit MassVetBen.org.

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School provides pro bono civil legal assistance to veterans and their family members.  Our goal is to protect the legal rights of the veterans community through determined, passionate, and effective advocacy.  In addition to representing individual clients, the Clinic also pursues broader initiatives to improve the systems that serve the veteran community.  And because it is part of the Legal Services Center, the Clinic is able to leverage a wide range of expertise and advocacy resources for our community’s most vulnerable members.

###

UPDATE: Judge Grants Class Certification to 200,000 Student Borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos

96% of the 900 class members who submitted affidavits in support of this motion said their lives are worse today than before they went to school

 

On Wednesday, October 30, a judge certified the class of more than 200,000 borrowers in Sweet v. DeVos, a case that seeks to force the Department of Education to process their borrower defense applications. This victory for borrowers ensures that the voices of former for-profit college students, who have been cheated by their school and ignored by their government for years, will be heard.

The judge also issued a sharp rebuke of the Department’s excuses for its inaction, saying that the Department’s actions, as alleged in the lawsuit, show “the uniform policy of inaction.”

The court goes on:

But here is a fact no one disputes: the Department has decided zero applications since June 2018 (Dkt. No. 20-20 at 20; Compl. ¶ 181). As represented during oral argument, over 210,000 borrower defense claims now remain pending and the Department has failed to grant or deny a single application since June 2018. This is especially striking considering that between July 2016 and January 20, 2017, the Department had decided approximately 27,996 borrower defenses applications (Compl. ¶ 135). Even if this gaping contrast might possibly be explained in part by the preliminary injunction in Manriquez, it nonetheless evidences the uniform policy of inaction alleged here where the proposed class explicitly excludes Corinthian borrowers who are members of the Manriquez class. According to plaintiffs, the Department “has a legal duty to reach a final decision on each borrower defense assertion” and it is undisputed that — despite the swelling backlog — “it has refused to satisfy that duty for well over a year” (id. ¶¶ 52–76; Dkt. No. 42 at 3).

 

In less than a month after the lawsuit was filed, more than 900 students submitted their testimony to support the certification of this class, and to have their voices heard. The extensive testimony provides a comprehensive summary of the overwhelming harm of the continued debt and stress on students’ lives due to the Department of Education’s refusal to process their claims. Specifically, students reported problems like financial and mental health consequences, and delaying basic life decisions like starting a family or pursuing additional education.

The testimony data show:

  • 96% of students reported that their lives are worse today than before they went to school.
  • 61% of students reported deferring further education
  • 47% of students reported deferring marriage and children
  • 32% of students reported continuing to receive payment demands after submitting their Defense to Repayment
  • 958 days (2.6 years) is the average time students have been waiting for an answer from the U.S. Department of Education on their Borrower Defense applications

 

Click here to view testimonial excerpts and videos from students across the country who were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

For more information on this case, click here.

LSC Student Argues Tax Case in Federal Court

Through Harvard Law School’s Federal Tax Clinic, students have the unique opportunity represent low-income taxpayers in disputes with the IRS, both before the IRS and in federal court. Working individually and in teams, they represent taxpayers involving examinations, administrative appeals collection matters, and cases before the United States Tax Court and federal district courts.

In this video, we follow Adeyemi “Yemi” Adediran ’21, a second year student in the Clinic, as he prepares to argue an appeal on behalf of a military veteran with PTSD in the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago. The veteran’s appeal to the Seventh Circuit centered on his eligibility for innocent spouse relief under the Internal Revenue Code. Over a three year period, the veteran’s wife embezzled $500K from the Appleton, Wisconsin Blood Bank—where she worked as a bookkeeper. She was arrested and sentenced to jail, but because the couple filed taxes jointly and embezzled money is taxable, they were both legally responsible for back taxes on the money.

As an important part of his preparation, Adediran participated in a mooting session before a panel of “judges” including Keith Fogg, clinical professor and director of the Federal Tax Clinic, and Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin, vice dean for experiential and clinical education and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School (LSC), of which the Tax Clinic is a part.

You can read more about the Federal Tax Clinic and other LSC clinics and services at legalservicescenter.org.

This post was published by Harvard Law Today on November 14, 2019.

Amanda’s Everest Institute Story

Amanda Wilson went to Everest College in Chelsea, Massachusetts to get a degree in medical assisting. When the Corinthian-owned school collapsed and was found to have misled students, the Massachusetts Attorney General filed an application with the Department of Education asking it to cancel the loans of all Corinthian students in Massachusetts, citing the for-profit college chain’s extensive fraud. This was in 2015 – now, four years later, these loans still haven’t been cancelled and Amanda is part of the lawsuit Vara v DeVos to force the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos to act.

This is her student loan truth.

 

What made you decide to attend Everest?

It was a combination of things. My cousin was already enrolled there and I had also seen a lot of ads on TV and online about students’ personal success stories that resonated with me, so I decided to apply for a medical assisting degree.

The advisors were pushy and over the top about getting students to sign up. They were very vague about the financial process and I ended up taking out more loans than I realized. The whole process was confusing and felt very rushed. Looking back now, I realize that the enrollment process should have sparked red flags. But I was young and I trusted the school and my cousin.

 

What was your experience like at Everest?

Right away I felt that the class structure was very disjointed. Because Everest lets people start at any time instead of only at the beginning of a semester, new students would be enrolling and joining classes every month. So instructors would constantly backtrack in order to get the new students up to speed, making the class structure very difficult to really learn anything. It was clearly built around just getting more people in the door and not actually educating them.

 

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

In the beginning, recruiters stressed that there was a 100% success rate among Everest graduates, as advisors were really active in helping with the job search, but that was definitely not true. In my graduating class, I know the majority of us didn’t get any of the help we were promised.

Trying to find a job on our own was really difficult because we quickly realized that a lot of places didn’t accept the Everest degree. Employers felt I didn’t have the right hands-on experience or the hours in the field they required to get the skills they wanted. At that point, it was too late to go back and get those credentials without paying more money and going back to a different school. It made it impossible to gain the experience employers require.

I was never able to find a job using that degree. I continued at the job that I had while I was in school, then eventually, switched to get a job in medical manufacturing, which has nothing to do with medical assisting.

 

How has the debt from this experience impacted your life?

I have a total of $18k in federal and private loans. It’s been a really difficult process, especially realizing that the school cheated us and we got a worthless degree.

The process for trying to get these loans cancelled has been extremely stressful. I know the Attorney General submitted the borrower defense application years ago, but still the Department of Education has put my loans on hold and then back into default twice.

Financially, I can’t plan my life. It’s ruined my credit and I was unable to purchase a house or a car without a cosigner. I’m trying to go back to school and move on from this, but I can’t because of all the problems with my loans.

 

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They’ve ignored the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to the Department about the need to cancel these loans?

I don’t think they understand how much people are really struggling as it is. We’re getting our wages garnished and our tax refunds taken. Nobody can get a straight answer on the status of their loans, and the Department continues to collect when they’re not supposed to. It crushes people. We’re stuck. It’s a really difficult place to be, to deal with that mentally and financially.

In a system that forces you to go to school, it’s really discouraging to have this experience. It makes you not want to invest in this system that we’ve been told works for everybody. How can you trust another school to not do the same thing, when you didn’t think this would happen to you in the first place?

 

Why did you decide to join this lawsuit to force the Department to act?

The biggest reason is because the lack of accountability towards the Department of Education. They shouldn’t be able to just ignore students and the law and the Attorney General’s application for borrower defense. It’s unfair. A lot of people worked hard, graduated at the top of their class, and were still left in this spot. We were cheated. It destroys your faith in the government and in our system of education and I think it’s important to stand up to that.

 

 

For more information on Vara v. DeVos, click here.

Major Victory for Defrauded Students as Education Department Is Held in Contempt, Fined

 

“Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable.”

Toby Merrill, Director

Project on Predatory Student Lending

The Project on Predatory Student Lending secured a critical court ruling on behalf of students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges, as a federal judge held Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in contempt and fined the Department of Education $100,000 for violation of a June 2018 court order prohibiting the Department from collecting on loans from thousands of student borrowers. The ruling is part of a larger class action lawsuit brought by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Housing and Economic Rights Advocates to obtain debt relief for students defrauded by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco said that there was “no question” that the Department of Education’s actions violated the preliminary injunction, and that those violations “harmed individual borrowers.” Project on Predatory Student Lending Director Toby Merrill applauded the ruling, saying “Secretary DeVos has repeatedly and brazenly violated the law to collect for-profit college students’ debts and deny their rights, and today she has been held accountable. Thousands of students illegally had their tax refunds seized and wages garnished, and the Department still can’t identify all of the affected students nor refunded the money. The judge is sending a loud and clear message: students have rights under the law and DeVos’ illegal and reckless violation of their rights will not be tolerated.”

Read the Project on Predatory Student Lending’s press release about this important ruling, and see coverage in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times.

Sharing Insights To Protect Low-income Taxpayers, Tenants, and Victims of Predatory For-Profit Schools

Attorneys at the Legal Services Center represent thousands of low-income clients every year to protect their rights. Our attorneys also bring their expertise and passion to bear through publications that raise awareness of critical issues and promote our client community’s legal rights. Recent publications from LSC staff members have covered topics ranging from protections for low-income taxpayers, people victimized by predatory for-profit schools, and tenants facing economic exploitation.

This summer, Victoria Roytenberg of LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending published “How Trustees Can Make Sure Former Students of Predatory For-Profit Schools Are Served by the Bankruptcy Process”in the American Bankruptcy Trustee Journal (Summer 2019 issue, Vol. 35, Issue 03). In this article, Roytenberg describes five ways bankruptcy trustees can work effectively with counsel for students to help what is the largest and most important group of creditors in the for-profit schools scandal.

Toby Merrill, Eileen Connor and Josh Rovenger, all of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, were among the co-authors of an article on the Harvard Law Review blog entitled “For-Profit Schools’ Predatory Practices and Students of Color: A Mission to Enroll Rather than Educate.” In it they highlight the particularly pernicious ways in which for-profit schools have targeted racial minorities, those who are the first generation in their family to go to college, and other low-income individuals — and how the federal Department of Education has abetted them in this effort. Read the blog here.

Keith Fogg of LSC’s Federal Tax Clinic, has been a longtime editor of Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS, the desktop bible for advocates representing low-income taxpayers before the IRS. Together with two co-authors, he also writes the widely followed blog Procedurally Taxing that regularly considers developments in regulations and case law that affect tax procedures and tax administration. You can read the blog at https://procedurallytaxing.com/

And LSC’s housing specialists Julia Devanthery and Maureen McDonagh have written chapters for the manual Legal Tactics: Private Housing, an easy-to-understand, comprehensive handbook on Massachusetts tenants’ rights for lay audiences, edited by Annette R. Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. This manual, available free and online, focuses on private rental housing and answers questions on everything from security deposits and last month’s rent to rent and utilities, repairs, evictions, housing discrimination, lead poisoning, mobile homes, and tenants in foreclosed properties. You can find the manual here.

Alum Brings Innovative Consumer Protection Project to LSC

Emily Wilkinson, JD ’17 shares how her time as a student in LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic influences her work as an attorney and motivated her to return to LSC as a Skadden Fellow. 

Emily Wilkinson first came through the doors of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) as a law student. Before law school, Wilkinson worked as a paralegal at a Washington, DC-based civil rights law firm whose practice focused on fair lending, fair housing, and credit discrimination. The experience sparked Wilkinson’s interest in consumer protection as a civil rights issue and illuminated the lasting effects predatory lending and lack of legal representation can have in the lives of low-income individuals and families.

When she arrived at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2014, Wilkinson quickly immersed herself in public interest work, joining the Tenant Advocacy Project, a student practice organization that works to protect the rights of public housing tenants. Her interest in lending fairness and justice brought her to LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic.

Emily Wilkinson

Emily Wilkinson JD ’17

Wilkinson relished the hands-on experience she gained at the clinic, and the opportunity to interact directly with clients and learn the day-to-day realities of working in a community-based law office. During her first semester in the clinic, she worked on a case involving a lender that had issued predatory and illegal loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent, a violation of state law. The case was later taken up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and ended with a settlement that provided $2 million in debt relief for low-income consumers, including many disabled veterans. The California-based lender in the case, Future Income Payments, was barred from making future loans in Massachusetts, a result that clearly demonstrates the broad and lasting impact of LSC’s consumer advocacy work.

In her two semesters as a clinical student, Wilkinson gained experience at the elemental skills of being a lawyer—interviewing clients, conducting legal research, drafting demand letters and court filings, preparing arguments, and representing clients in state and federal court. Through her work on behalf of clients and her participation in the Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic’s seminar—where students reviewed and discussed topics and cases relevant to their practice and the clinic’s work—Wilkinson learned of the pressing access-to-justice issues faced by consumers in the Massachusetts court system, issues that would serve as the basis for her future work.

In Massachusetts, where the National Consumer Law Center estimates that 23 percent of residents have at least one debt in collections, private debt collectors and their attorneys have been allowed to manipulate the court system to their advantage, intimidate consumers into signing unjust agreements with predatory terms, and even operate outside the law without consequence.

After graduating and completing a year-long clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Wilkinson was selected for a Skadden Fellowship, which supports early-career attorneys to work full-time at civil rights and legal services organizations around the country. For her fellowship, Wilkinson decided to return to LSC, designing a fellowship project to increase access to justice for Boston-area consumers facing debt collection. Although Wilkinson finds herself in LSC’s Jamaica Plain office with a new title, she’s driven by the same fundamental purpose that brought her to HLS to begin with, to pursue justice on behalf of consumers whose futures are threatened by predatory debt collectors.

Wilkinson’s work focuses on individual representation of low- and moderate-income consumers facing debt collection in small claims court, district court, and Boston Municipal Court. She has deliberately chosen to represent clients with smaller debts—ranging anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. “While it might not sound like a lot relative to other debts, a debt like that is a life-changing amount of money for many, many people, especially those who can’t afford legal representation,” she explained.

Going to court can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone, but is especially challenging for low- and moderate-income consumers who have no legal help and who might have limited literacy and English-language skills. The system is ripe for abuse, and court officers exacerbate the existing power imbalance, directing consumers to negotiate with debt collectors’ attorneys before the case is even heard by a judge.

Small claims court, originally intended as a space for the efficient resolution of conflicts between individuals, has effectively been taken over by debt buying companies, many from out of state, who flood the court with debt collection cases. According to the Midas Collaborative, in 2015 alone, debt collectors filed over 66,000 cases in Massachusetts small claims and district courts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts consumers, these companies and their lawyers aren’t always required to provide evidence of the validity of the debt before a judgment is entered.

When consumers don’t appear in court to fight a debt collection lawsuit, which happens in the majority of debt cases in Massachusetts, a default judgment is entered. This default judgment—enforceable for 20 years—records the consumer as legally owing the debt and allows debt collectors to charge 12 percent interest and even garnish wages to collect payment. LSC’s Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic has been involved in legislative advocacy around these practices, supporting statewide efforts to decrease the lifespan of and interest rate for judgments, among other protections.

One of Wilkinson’s cases that is emblematic of the challenges consumers face in Massachusetts courts is that of Elizabeth,* a woman with a disability who was defending against a debt collector seeking more than $25,000. The out-of-state company that filed the case refused to produce documentation that they were legally permitted to collect debt in Massachusetts. Finally, after months of pressure, they agreed to settle the case, with no financial liability for Elizabeth. If not for Wilkinson’s work, a judgment may have been entered against Elizabeth, saddling her with years of debt and accumulating interest she could not pay, and the company would have continued to prey on vulnerable consumers unchallenged.

In addition to defending individual clients when they are sued, Wilkinson undertakes affirmative claims when debt collectors aren’t following state and federal laws related to debt collection practices, working to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the state’s consumers.

She also conducts community education, giving presentations to consumer advocacy organizations and community groups about consumer rights, common debt collection defenses and rules debt collectors are required to follow, with the goal of having more people show up to court and avoid the lasting consequences that come with default judgments. She also plans to start a Lawyer for the Day program in small claims court, similar to the one that exists in Boston Housing Court and elsewhere, which would provide legal advice to unrepresented litigants facing debt collection.

Roger Bertling, Director of LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, who first supervised Wilkinson when she was a law student, says that having her back in the office is an asset for clients and colleagues alike. “It’s always great to have a former student join our staff at LSC, especially one as dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working as Emily. Since her first day as a clinical student, she has been a great advocate for her clients and a joy to work with.”

For Wilkinson, returning to LSC to work on consumer law issues allows her to enhance what she learned as a student, be responsible for her own slate of cases while benefiting from the expertise of LSC’s experienced attorneys, and find new ways to protect consumers in court and by changing policy. Said Wilkinson, “Being a relatively new lawyer and having the support of such knowledgeable attorneys and teachers here at LSC is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. It allows me to do my best work for clients.”

* Name has been change to protect client privacy.