Please go and listen to Serial, a new radio show by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder (two producers from This American Life). The radio show follows a team of investigative journalists as they comprehensively review the potentially botched criminal trial of a 17-year-old boy who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999.
This is a bit off the course for our Civil Litigation blog, being as it is a radio show about a criminal case. But Serial does a spectacular job at showing how lawyers-- people who almost by definition don't really know what occurred in a given situation-- sit down and puzzle through the evidence of what happened and come to their conclusion. Whether it means to be or not, it is a spectacular inside look into the job of an attorney.
From Serial's website:
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
Tune in early Thursday mornings for new episodes, posted online.
It's common sense, right? Seems that way from the outside, at least.
In reality, people who get sued on an old debt-- usually a medical debt or credit card-- very frequently cover their eyes and hope it makes them invisible, so to speak. They ignore the Summons and Complaint and skip the court date, and that's that. The debt collector, unchallenged, gets a default judgment against them, and at some indeterminate point in the next 10 years starts garnishing their wages or levying their bank account.
In August, This American Life aired a segment showing what happens when a consumer sued for an old debt actually shows up to the hearing. Incredibly, many collectors do not account for this happening, and are totally unprepared for it! The collector in this segment, serial federal law violator LVNV Funding, dropped the case immediately when the person it was suing showed up and asked LVNV to offer some proof that the debt it was trying to collect was even real. This is a high bar for collectors to make, since often collectors buy debts by the spreadsheet, and ultimately possess little more than a row on an Excel document backing up their claims for thousands of dollars against a complete stranger.
All this leads to the most valuable pieces of advice you'll ever get if you find yourself in this position: answer the lawsuit and show up to court. You have little to lose, and chances are you'll successfully call their bluff.
AIG shareholder Hank Greenberg is suing the federal government for its bailout of AIG during the Financial Crisis. Specifically, Greenberg says AIG was offered a higher interest rate than the other companies offered loans at the same time, and that the federal government's 90% buyout as a condition of AIG was unreasonable.
Those of you with functioning long-term memories will remember that AIG's insane leveraging and insuring scheme nearly extincted our species in 2008. It was almost completely insolvent at the time of the loan, resulting in a higher interest rate than was offered to the investment banking industry (which the Fed was trying to prevent from freezing with artificially lower interest rates). The 90% buyout was, at the risk of oversimplification, collateral for the loan, and insurance against risky lending practices in the future. AIG's board at the time voted to accept these terms.
Hank Green, who insure.com calls "arguably the most litigious person in America," has a personal net worth around $3 billion, which is roughly the GDP of Eritrea. Since the Financial Crisis, which as the largest shareholder in AIG he is directly responsible for, he has gotten significantly richer.
The 8th Circuit heard oral arguments in Sarah McIvor v. Credit Control Services today, a case brought by our client Ms. McIvor which asks whether a debt collector is required by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to update a consumer's credit report to show a debt as 'disputed' in response to the dispute when the consumer disputes the debt through the process established by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Oral arguments have been posted online as of this afternoon.
Sometimes I think it goes without saying that a person who notices a debt collector breaking the law should sue the collector. It does not go without saying, however. It goes with saying. John Skiba, an Arizona consumer attorney and partner of Skiba Law Group, PLC, lays out five basic reasons that consumers should sue collectors who break the law in an article over at JD Supra. His reasons are these:
1. "A Lawsuit Will Make the Abuse Stop"
This is basically true: a collector who gets sued for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act will probably back off collecting on a debt. Sometimes they will even agree to satisfy the debt as a condition of dropping the lawsuit. There are other ways to get abuse to stop (for example, if a collector's calls are obnoxious, write them a letter demanding they stop. They have to.), but a lawsuit is a pretty surefire way to get them to move on.
2. "Statutory Damages up to $1,000"
The FDCPA was passed back in the 70s in lieu of creating a regulatory agency to oversee the collection industry. The CFPB did not exist back then. The idea was that a cottage industry of consumer attorneys would act as private attorneys general, seeking out violations of the FDCPA and suing on them. Instead of paying a fine to an agency, a collector who breaks the law has to pay it to the person they harmed. This fine, which tops out at $1,000 and has not been raised since the 1970s, is nevertheless a big help to someone with consumer debt.
3. "Actual Damages - No Limit"
If the legal violation causes a person actual harm, for example prevents them from qualifying for home financing or causes some amount of measurable psychological harm, the FDCPA lets them sue for it. This restoration, a making-equal-again, is a basic function of civil courts anyway.
4. "Free Lawyer"
The FDCPA requires debt collectors who break the law to pay the person's attorney if they sue them and win. This is really huge, because someone who's 2000 bucks in the hole to a collector likely can't afford an attorney, which is a nasty catch-22 that would otherwise make the FDCPA functionally unenforceable. Any attorney will tell you that it is extremely rare for a law to authorize this. There is actually an "American Rule" that people have to pay their own attorneys, win or lose. The FDCPA is an attractive exception to this.
5. "Costs Paid"
Court is expensive. In Minnesota, it costs $400 to file a lawsuit in federal court. Like attorney's fees, the cost of filing a lawsuit would discourage people from filing against collectors, since debtors in crisis are categorically less likely to be able to afford the fee. The FDCPA covers these costs too.
Bennett Hartz is an associate attorney at Drewes Law, PLLC who specializes in defending against debt collection and foreclosure. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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