By David Brand
For 11 years, low-income Queens residents have been able to count on the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO) to help them fight back against predatory lenders or manage their consumer debt.
On Sunday, CLARO, an initiative founded by the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project (QVLP), celebrated its 11th Anniversary.
CLARO began as a small group of volunteer lawyers and law students in 2008 and continued to grow, taking on various types of cases that affect low-income Queens residents, especially senior citizens.
“CLARO is needed now just as much as it was in 2008,” said QVLP Executive Director Mark Weliky. “Unscrupulous debt collectors continue to prey on the most vulnerable in our community — the elderly, disabled and those with limited English competency who may not understand the legal system.”
Weliky said CLARO has thrived because the organization provides “a very high quality of legal assistance” every Friday that court is open.
“People can rely on us,” he said. “Over 500 clinic sessions and over 10 thousand consultations speak to that reliability.”
In July, Weliky discussed the important role that CLARO plays in the community.
Debt collection agencies often target low-income residents — even individuals who never accrued debt in the first place — and engage in shady practices to advance their case against supposed debtors, he told the Eagle.
“If a person’s name is Jose Lopez, the third-party debt buyer doesn’t care what Jose Lopez they try to get the debt from as long as they get it,” Weliky said. “People are sued for debts that aren’t even theirs or the debt is so old that it legally isn’t collectible in court.
“The bottom line is a lot of people get judgements against them for cases they had never been legally served on and sometimes were never involved in,” he continued.
In one example, a senior citizen named Maria visited the CLARO clinic after she received what appeared to be a legal document at her home address. The document informed Maria that a company she had never heard of was suing her for thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Maria’s fixed income would never enable her to pay off the debt and she did not know what to do.
Though she was confused and scared, Maria nevertheless responded to the lawsuit and visited Queens Civil Court, where she noticed a poster for the CLARO Consumer Debt Clinic. When she visited the CLARO clinic she received free assistance from a QVLP attorney.
The attorney discovered that the debt Maria allegedly owed was related to an account with Citibank. But Maria never had an account with Citibank — the debt collector was suing the wrong person. A judge eventually dismissed the case.
“CLARO was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maria later told Weliky.
Looking ahead, CLARO will handle more tenant-landlord issues.
In recent months, CLARO has starting assisting low-income resident whose former landlords sue them for rent arrears years after they were evicted or left the apartment. By that point, the tenants often lack the evidence they need to defend themselves, such as proof of payment or evidence related to serious issue with the condition inside the apartment, Weliky said.
“CLARO will continue to increase our focus on defending against these cases and also bring this problem to the attention of our elected officials and the judiciary,” Weliky said. “CLARO will continue to be diligent in monitoring the ever changing unscrupulous tactics of debt collectors who have caused so much harm to the residents of Queens County.”