By Mark Weliky
A neighbor had handed Maria what appeared to be a legal paper she found in the lobby of their apartment building. The paper said a company that Maria had never heard of was suing her for thousands of dollars for a credit card. Maria, who is elderly and living on a fixed income, didn’t know what to do.
The document told her to come to court to answer the lawsuit, but Maria had never been to court. Though she was frightened and unsure how to proceed, she went to Queens Civil Court to respond to the letter. Fortunately, as soon as she got to the courthouse she noticed a poster for the CLARO Consumer Debt Clinic, which offered free help for credit card cases. The poster was the beginning of the end of Maria’s legal nightmare.
She visited the CLARO-Queens clinic and, to her relief, found free assistance through this program operated by the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project (QVLP), the pro bono arm of the Queens County Bar Association.
“CLARO was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maria recalled.
QVLP, a nonprofit based in Jamaica, was officially founded in 1991, but the Queens County Bar Association has provided such community service since its inception in 1876. QVLP provides free legal services to low-income residents of Queens who face serious civil legal issues involving their basic human needs. QVLP’s staff attorneys, along with a roster of 200 volunteer lawyers, assist with civil law matters including evictions, foreclosure, divorce, consumer debt, bankruptcy and the drafting and execution of simple wills.
Maria completed a consultation with one of the volunteer lawyers at the CLARO clinic The lawyer told Maria that the debt was sold by Citibank to the collection agency suing her. Maria was shocked because had never had an account with Citibank and had always paid her bills.
Further investigation by the CLARO attorney revealed that the company was suing the wrong person. Someone with the same name actually owed the money. The CLARO lawyer helped Maria file an answer to the lawsuit with the court that explained the situation. When the case eventually came to court, the presiding judge dismissed the case against Maria. Her nightmare was over.
Another important service provided by QVLP is the Queens Foreclosure Conference Project. This program provides free representation for mandatory court settlement conferences for homeowners facing foreclosure. The purpose of these settlement conferences is to try to negotiate a modification of the homeowner’s mortgage and thus save their home from foreclosure. One such homeowner was Mr. R.
Mr. R was sued in foreclosure and his case was in settlement conferences for over a year. During this time, QVLP attorneys, over many court appearances, assisted in modification submissions and negotiations. Mr. R was finally offered a trial modification, which he successfully completed. The trial modification was then converted into a permanent modification of the mortgage on his home. Mr. R is pleased to have finally received a modification of his loan and is now current with his mortgage. The foreclosure lawsuit against him was discontinued.
Many people call QVLP looking for information or referrals to other legal service or government programs. The project receives about 5,000 inquiries regarding assistance each year. QVLP may refer callers to other organizations, including The Legal Aid Society or the Queens Legal Services Corporation. Meanwhile, those same programs often refer people, like David T., to QVLP for help.
David, a 54-year-old Jamaica resident, received disability payments after being seriously injured on the job while driving a truck for a Brooklyn company. His children had reached adulthood and David and his wife agreed that they wanted to divorce, but the legal papers were too expensive. The uncontested divorce could have cost more than $2,000 through a private attorney. A volunteer lawyer helped David file all of the documents necessary for the divorce proceeding with the court.
“I could never have figured out how to do these papers for the court without the help of the pro bono lawyer. She was really great.” David said. After the divorce, David and his former wife were able to move on with their lives and, in fact, both have since remarried.
QVLP is funded in part by grants from the New York State (NYS) Judiciary Legal Services Program, the NYS Homeowner Protection Program, the NYS Interest on Lawyer Account Fund and from the City of New York. In addition, QVLP is supported by donations from members of the Queens County Bar Association and by contributions from the public.
For more information on the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project and the CLARO-Queens Consumer Debt Clinic call (718) 739-4100 or visit www.qcba.org/pro-bono/