By Neeraja Aravindan
This past summer, I had the privilege of working with the Economic Justice unit at Community Legal Services to support debt collection defense in Philadelphia Municipal Court and the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Debt collection litigation presents a unique set of challenges for defendants in Philadelphia, most of whom come from low-income communities. Litigation is often commenced by debt buyers, companies which buy hundreds of thousands of defaulted accounts from original creditors for pennies on the dollar and then file collection actions against consumers for the total amount allegedly owed to the creditor. While this litigation model is highly profitable for debt buyers, the industry exists at the significant expense of consumers’ rights.
Debt buyers often lack the documentation necessary to establish their claim. However, debt buyers often win, not on the merits but from default judgments. Many defendants do not appear in court, either because they are afraid or ashamed of the underlying debt, do not recognize the alleged debt as a result of identity theft, or do not know they are being sued due to improper service. Even if defendants receive proper notice of the hearing and attend the scheduled hearing in Municipal Court, most defendants are unrepresented and coerced into entering settlement agreements with plaintiffs’ attorneys without having a full understanding of their rights.
As an intern, I managed a caseload of clients who were defendants in debt collection lawsuits. Over the summer I developed several foundational litigation skills: I conducted intake calls, screened clients for referrals to other legal services, observed settlement negotiations, and drafted court filings. As a Certified Legal Intern, I even represented my clients at court hearings, a personal first.
Beyond the valuable practical experience, the most important lesson I learned is the importance of centering clients in legal services. My supervisors reiterated the need to foster strong rapport in the client-legal representative relationship. During meetings with clients, I learned to identify client goals by asking how they felt about the litigation, learning about their housing and financial situation, and other details that informed their feelings about the litigation. Often clients experienced multiple stressors where the lawsuit was yet another added stressor that they did not have time or emotional resources to spend on. I first validated clients’ experiences and held space for them to talk if they wanted, before clearly laying out the potential paths forward and defenses available in their case. I emphasized an open line of communication, should their priorities change going forward. Our clients exhibited incredible tenacity, perseverance, and grit while navigating a legal system and broader social structure that was so clearly stacked against them.
I represented four clients in Municipal Court hearings this summer. Unfortunately, a vast majority of debt collection defendants lose in Philadelphia Municipal Court, regardless of whether the defendant has representation. I tried to emotionally prepare for this reality when readying for oral argument, reminding myself that the clients could still appeal or pursue settlement after losing in Municipal Court. However, the lessened likelihood of winning only pushed me to be as prepared as possible for to advocate for my clients. My supervisor conducted moot hearings with me and reviewed trial memos I wrote in support for each case.
In three of the four hearings, the plaintiff’s attorneys either did not appear, had no documentation in support of their claim, or were not prepared to argue. The fourth hearing was contested and proceeded in typical fashion for Municipal Court. The judge did not make a ruling at the end of the hearing, stating that he would take the oral arguments and my trial memo under advisement. I left feeling sure that the judge would rule against our client. However, to our great surprise, the order posted on the docket the following week stated, “Judgment for Defendant”. It did not matter to me whether this win, or the others, was a stroke of luck or the by-product of a broken debt collection litigation system. All that mattered was that my clients had one less worry on their plate, provided that the opposing party did not appeal (a fairly unlikely occurrence). I learned firsthand that advocating with your client’s goals in mind, being prepared, and showing up goes a long way, even and especially when the odds are stacked against your client.