Through a unique partnership previously highlighted in this blog, Kirkland & Ellis LLP has made a multi-year commitment to Legal Aid to support an intake site in Southwest D.C. at Friendship Baptist Church. In addition to providing financial support to Legal Aid, Kirkland attorneys and legal assistants staff the site under Legal Aid’s supervision and provide advice and representation to clients seeking legal help. Since launching this extraordinary collaboration in April 2013, Kirkland volunteers have conducted hundreds of intake interviews and provided comprehensive representation to dozens of clients spanning a variety of practice areas.
Every case that Kirkland attorneys handle is significant for the clients involved. But, one recent case illustrates how a lawyer can make all the difference in the world for a client who has the law and the facts on his side but doesn’t know where to begin to seek justice.
When Mr. Cole* came to Legal Aid’s Southwest intake site in late 2014, his paychecks were being garnished. Despite Mr. Cole’s best efforts, including multiple fruitless calls to his employer’s payroll processor and various court clerks, he was unable to determine why his wages were being garnished or how he could stop the garnishments. Fortunately, he found his way to Legal Aid, where he met with Kirkland & Ellis partner Michael Podberesky, who happened to be volunteering that day.
When Michael heard Mr. Cole’s story, he felt compelled to help. For several months, Mr. Cole’s paycheck had been garnished ten percent – already totaling nearly $1400 – to satisfy a judgment from a city court in upstate New York. Mr. Cole, however, had never set foot in New York. The judgment apparently arose in a case where a landlord had sued a prior tenant for unpaid rent, and the prior tenant had the same name as Mr. Cole. When it was time to collect on the judgment, the court and collection agency involved misidentified Mr. Cole here in Washington, D.C. as the debtor, and successfully began to garnish his wages.
Back at the firm, Michael enlisted the help of associate Justin Roland to work on Mr. Cole’s case. Michael and Justin proceeded to communicate with the Rochester City Marshal, pull the docket in the New York State court and research the parties involved in the underlying landlord-tenant dispute. They determined that the tenant involved in the underlying dispute was of a different race and age than Mr. Cole. With that information in hand, Michael and Justin contacted the responsible collection agency, laid out the results of their research, and informed them of their error.
The debt collector was skeptical and indicated “we hear stories like this all the time” but promised to look into the matter. A few days later, in early January 2015, Michael received a call from that same representative at the collection agency apologizing profusely for the mistake and informing him that Mr. Cole’s garnished wages would be reimbursed. The representative also said she would send Mr. Cole a gift card to make amends. Finally, the collection agency representative contacted the court to ensure that no further wages would be garnished from Mr. Cole’s paycheck. When Michael and Justin called Mr. Cole to give him the good news, Michael reported that Mr. Cole was “ecstatic” and intended to use the money to pay the required security deposit for an apartment so he could move out of the homeless shelter where he was staying and reunite with his wife.
Today, Mr. Cole has been fully reimbursed by the collection agency and the court thanks to the help he received from Michael and Justin. It may not have been the case of the century, but to Mr. Cole and his family, righting this wrong made a significant difference in their lives.
“This matter nicely demonstrates how even a simple mistake can lead to very difficult circumstances for a client who cannot easily navigate the morass of various bureaucracies necessary to remediate such an error,” said Michael. “While we were prepared to bring complex fraud, conversion and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claims, in the end all it took to resolve the matter were basic factual research and a single phone call to the responsible debt collection agency. These efforts, though, made a huge difference in the life of our client for whom $1,500 was a significant and even life-altering amount.”
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.