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Debtor's Purgatory

People who can't afford to hire an attorney have virtually no chance in court against well-heeled lawyers for banks and debt collection companies.



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"Is there anything you want to tell me about it, before I enter judgment?" Austin asked, addressing Gomez patiently. The man threw up his hands. Austin suggested he make a payment plan, solicit help from a few pro bono attorneys, and consider filing for bankruptcy. Bank of America had handed its case over to a debt collection agency, which had itemized Gomez's obligations, amassed a team of lawyers, and tacked on its own fees. The $7,300 bill would stand.

"They know they owe money," the judge said wearily, as he left the courtroom half an hour later. "They're not trying to shirk their duties, [but] they don't even present a defense."

He added that if Gomez had the luxury of an attorney, the outcome might have been different. Even bank collections aren't bulletproof, and oftentimes the agencies misfile their paperwork or miscalculate the money owed, leaving holes that a trained professional could easily poke through. But because debtors usually can't afford legal assistance, or don't know how to get it, they seldom question the charges against them.

Austin became fascinated with do-it-yourself litigants eleven years ago, when he presided over his first family law case. Unversed in that type of law and its proceedings, he was hoping to lean on attorneys from both sides to help him out. Instead he walked into a courtroom and was faced with a befuddled husband and wife, and no one to represent them. "I called the case, and they stood up, and I looked at them, and they looked at me," he remembered. "Nobody was there to explain what the dispute was about."

Our legal system wasn't really designed for cases without lawyers, he explained, and it can seem extremely punishing to anyone who arrives unattended. Every aspect of court — from the metal detector at the gate, to the bailiff's gun, to the seemingly Byzantine architecture — seems designed to intimidate people into submission. Austin said that people occasionally stop him outside the courthouse the day before they're scheduled to appear, just so they can ask how to find the room number. "Then they come in really early the next day, and they're nervous, and they haven't slept the night before," he said.

Sometimes there's nothing he can do to help. A man who walked into Austin's court on a recent Tuesday wore a suit purchased from a second-hand store. The man said he was homeless; Austin told me later that it looked as though he'd just bought the suit that day. The man was fighting a collections case against a credit card company that had already filed a "request for admissions" — basically paperwork detailing the complaints against him.

"It's a simple, hand-written reform that requires minimal answers," Austin said. "You're just supposed to say, 'I deny.'"

If you don't respond — and in this case, the man didn't — the credit card company wins by default.

"He showed up, and he'd just bought this suit to come to court in, and he was very concerned about the charges against him," Austin said, his voice softening. "And I had to say, 'That's it, the case is over — you already lost.'" And he was just looking at me like, 'I can't believe you won't let me tell my story.'"

It would happen once more that day: same papers, same misunderstanding, different defendant.

The odds facing Felipa Martinez weren't better than those in any other case — which is to say, they weren't good. But if there's one thing the 58-year-old woman doesn't suffer from, it's a lack of grit. Born in Mexico, she immigrated to the United States as an adult, eventually resettling in Union City to raise her daughter. Martinez said she would often work three minimum-wage jobs in the course of a week — cooking in fast food restaurants, serving lunch at a bingo hall, cleaning houses, washing dishes, or doing whatever else came her way — earning just enough money to make ends meet. She has the scars to commemorate a life of hard labor: burns on her calf from scalding water, knuckle burns and knotty knife-marks on her wrists from working as a line cook. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Martinez kept the news to herself for as long as possible. She describes herself, in a former life, as strong and fast, with 20/20 vision.

"Now I feel — how do you say it — impotencia," she said in an interview, standing outside Austin's courtroom with her daughter.

But that didn't stop her from waging a fight.

Austin had two Cache collection cases on his calendar that day, and a representative from Cache was waiting outside by a window — he'd been subpoenaed to appear by Claire Johnson, a staff attorney from Bay Area Legal Aid representing another debtor. Before hearing Martinez' case, Austin sent her outside to attempt a settlement agreement with the collector and his attorney, Jo-Anna Nieves. Martinez' daughter offered $500 up front to settle all scores and have the debt forgiven, and Nieves was going to take it, but Martinez intervened.

"I said, 'No, I have three root canals and she's been saving money to pay for this,'" she snapped, turning to address her daughter. "If I go to jail," she said, "don't pay nothing."

Plaintiff and defendant sauntered back into the courtroom after ten minutes of abortive negotiating. "Your Honor, we weren't able to work something out," Nieves said crisply. The trial would proceed. Nieves began her cross-examination.

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