One of the A2J Lab’s signature studies, the Financial Distress Research Project, has numerous moving parts and as the project has grown has brought new challenges for researchers and students. The Lab’s research seeks to bring empirics to the legal profession and persuade others of the value of rigorous evaluations, including RCTs, to figure out what works and what doesn’t in legal services. To do so our research tackles hard questions of triage, as well as new challenges like using adult education literature to push at the question of what exactly is effective self-help material. And to do so we have the help of many not-yet legal professionals, or law students, who are at a unique juncture to be able to craft self-help materials, bringing their outside knowledge before they are engaged in the profession, along with everything they are learning in the classroom. Throughout the semester we’ll be continuing this series of student blog posts where students will talk about their work on A2J Lab projects.
Our third student blogger is 2L Amanda Lee. Amanda works on Financial Distress Research Project, creating a legal brief on small claims debt collection cases for judges to use in the proceedings. In this post Amanda talks about why she got involved in this project, what she learned when she did, and how law works in “the real world” for pro se litigants.
From Theoretical Lectures to Field Research
I first became involved in the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) in the spring of my 1L year. After a semester of appellate cases, Socratic method, and theoretical discussions, I longed to work on a project that could let me make a real impact on individuals and their access to the courts. With all the complexities of civil procedure, how anyone could navigate the justice system without a lawyer (or a team of lawyers!) was beyond me. What was it like in the real world? And what would you do if you were pro se?
These questions and the work of FDRP eventually led me to the Small Claims Court in Manchester, CT. What I observed there was that pro se litigation is sometimes the only viable option and that the complex rules and regulations designed to create fair notice and opportunity are often missing. On my visit to the courthouse with another FDRP member, I saw that pro se litigants rarely contested their debt even though they could not even figure out where the debt was from. Lawyers from debt collection law firms had little documentation of debt owed, save what looked like Excel-sheet printouts of numbers. As I later learned, federal agencies including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) had initiated multiple enforcement actions or investigations against banks and debt purchasers for improper collection practices. Banks would, among other things, sell debts to buyers with improper debt information, with altered and inaccurate form affidavits, and without giving consumers notification of their debt sale. Buyers then pursued unenforceable accounts, used the inaccurate affidavits, and tried to collect on accounts for which the sole verification of debts consisted of easily-modified text files. The FTC, CFPB, and OCC actions resulted in millions in civil sanctions. Yet these practices continue. In the Manchester small claims court, they flourished.
At FDRP, I worked with a team of my peers to write a brief to educate the judiciary on the background and legal burden that plaintiff debt buyers must meet to successfully sue for debt. Though small claims court proceedings are not recorded and the rules of evidence don’t apply, the burden of proof remains unchanged and must be met by plaintiffs in any civil action. Judges have the power and responsibility to ensure that in their state courts, the legal standards are met to ensure a fair defense of defendants. After all, judicial enforcement of debt collection is a symbol of endorsement for the complex debt sales that banks, debt-purchasers, and debt collection law firms reap profit by. Working with other law students to do legal research and highlight case law that judges, as well as short-staffed legal aid organizations, can potentially use to ensure that consumers have access to justice was the highlight of my working with FDRP this past fall.