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The Lopsided Nature of Debt Collection Cases

/ Blog Post

By Matthew Brooks, 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Fidelity Investments and Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Photo of Matthew BrooksMy father passed away a few days before I started high school. His unexpected death threw my family into turmoil, but we were spared long-lasting economic consequences because of racial, family, and class privilege. Our economic security was, thankfully, not threatened by one tragic event. I became an Equal Justice Works Fellow because I know that most families who experience illness, job loss, or death are not so lucky. In Massachusetts, one in four people have experienced having a debt in collection. Through my Fellowship, I was able to help people stop worrying about debt collection lawsuits and move on to more important things in their lives.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), I litigated against debt buyers who use exploitative business models and unfair debt collection practices to make themselves wealthy by taking money from everyday people in vulnerable situations. Nationwide, about half of all civil cases are debt collection cases, and the majority of these cases are filed by large, multi-million-dollar companies who specialize in speculative debt purchasing. Because access to a lawyer is not guaranteed in civil court, debt collection defendants are rarely represented. The lopsided nature of these cases breaks a large part of our court system.

GBLS started a Lawyer for the Day program when I joined the organization as a Fellow. In this program, lawyers represent individuals with small claims debt collection cases (up to $7,000) on the day of their hearings; meet them for the first time that day and take their cases from initial client meeting to settlement or a hearing. Since then; the program has saved low-income communities over a million dollars by providing individuals with representation in debt collection cases.

In addition to the Lawyer for the Day program, GBLS works to educate community partners and financial coaches about fair debt collection rights so that people don’t pay debts they don’t have to, saving them from spending funds they need to pay rent, buy food, and support their families. GBLS is also part of a coalition that managed to help pass new civil rules of a procedure aimed at stopping abusive debt collection practices.

I continue to fight debt collection abuses as a staff attorney at GBLS because low-, moderate-, and middle-class families are still being sued for thousands of dollars in Massachusetts courts. Debt buyers are still using abusive practices to extract money in ways that should not be allowed. We are pushing back, and every litigation victory and successful reform effort gets us closer to a day when people are not hauled into court over credit card interest and fees incurred when they were laid off. Legal services organizations have just begun to attack the problem of abusive debt collection, and I am proud and grateful that Equal Justice Works allowed me to contribute to this new movement during my time as a Fellow.

To learn more about Matthew’s project, visit his Fellow profile.

Legal services organizations have just begun to attack the problem of abusive debt collection, and I am proud and grateful that Equal Justice Works allowed me to contribute to this new movement during my time as a Fellow.

Matthew Brooks /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow