Held at gunpoint and robbed, Maya found pro bono counsel to face the creditors who demanded that she repay what was stolen from her.
OneJustice supports a network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses that work together to remove legal barriers to basic life necessities for over 270,000 Californians each year. For thousands of Californians, the attorneys who volunteer with this network make all the difference to clients facing overwhelming legal problems. A donation to OneJustice supports this entire network – spreading the gift of justice throughout the state.
In this guest blog, we are proud to highlight the pro bono work of just one of those wonderful volunteer attorneys – our very own Advisory Board member Mark Conrad.
Guest Blog by OneJustice Advisory Board member Mark Conrad
In a violent robbery that lasted less than two minutes, Maya* lost more than $50,000. Unfortunately for Maya, the money was not hers to lose. She was taking the money to the bank to deposit, as she did every night after closing up her small storefront, where she offered wire-transfer services. The money belonged to her customers, and it was supposed to get wired to their loved ones—to friends and family in places like Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. Now it was gone. Maya called the police immediately and filed a report, but the gunman was never found.
Days later, three financial institutions were knocking on her door, demanding that she repay the stolen money. The banks had wired the money to the intended recipients, and now they were turning to Maya to pay them back. That was how the contract worked, they explained. Maya was uninsured, on the brink of insolvency, and desperate.
Fortunately, a safety net of pro bono legal counsel came to her rescue. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a nonprofit in OneJustice’s statewide network, referred Maya’s case to a network of lawyers at downtown San Francisco law firms, and my former firm agreed to take the case as a pro bono (or volunteer) matter.
We helped Maya quickly negotiate a repayment plan with two of the companies making claims against her. These repayment plans took into account Maya’s modest income, so even though she did not have a lot of cash to spare, she was able to save, little by little, and make her monthly payments. She met her obligations under these plans, all while supporting a foster child, with only the modest income she earned selling jewelry and cell phone cases at her store.
The third company, however, referred Maya’s case to a collection agency, which sent letters threatening legal action. Maya’s livelihood was put at risk by these threats. Only after litigation ensued did it come to light that the third claim was owned by an affiliate of one of the initial two companies that had previously settled their claims against Maya. As a result, we learned, this third claimant had already released its claim against Maya and was seeking an additional windfall recovery. We went to court, arguing that Maya’s debt had already been discharged. The suit was dropped shortly after we filed our papers.
Maya’s case did not make headlines; it did not set any legal precedent. As a matter of dollars and cents, it is among the smallest matters I ever handled in private practice. But I can think of no other case in which I had a larger influence on the final outcome.
Without the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and without the commitment of my former firm to provide pro bono services, Maya would have been on her own. She would have had difficulty negotiating a fair deal with her creditors. It likely would have been impossible for her to get the documents she needed to discover the basis for her defenses in the debt collection action. A motion for summary judgment would have been unthinkable for someone like her, an immigrant with no familiarity with the legal system and little English. In short, without the pro bono safety net, Maya could have lost her business and her ability to support herself and her foster daughter.
This is why I work with OneJustice. More than any other organization I know, OneJustice strengthens the pro bono safety net that improves the lives and protects the livelihoods of people like Maya. It supports the legal services providers who are on the front lines working with clients like her. It is building bridges to the firms that have resources to seek discovery and file summary judgment motions on their behalf. Its lofty goal is to meet the legal needs of all low-income Californians, yet it pursues this goal with its feet planted firmly on the ground, meeting with legislators, scrutinizing balance sheets, and crunching census data to ensure that more people like Maya find the help they need.
* Names changed for the sake of confidentiality.