Kendall Moriarty, a 2L at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and the Director of the College’s Debtor’s Clinic, recently scored a major victory on behalf of a Debtor’s Clinic client who, as a result of a misunderstanding and the client’s limited proficiency in English, suffered the loss of his entire life savings. In what she describes as an “exceptional experience,” Moriarty, working with supervising attorney Brian Rothschild, was able to settle the matter and get the entire amount returned to the client.
Below, Moriarty describes the matter, details how carefully listening to clients might be the most important skill she gained as a result, and explains why participating in the College of Law’s clinics might be “one of the absolute best things students can do to gain experience.”
Q: For those who might be unfamiliar with the Debtor’s Clinic, can you please briefly describe its purpose and your role as PBI’s Student Director over that clinic?
The Debtor’s Clinic is a free legal advice clinic specifically for people who have questions regarding debt, debt collections, and bankruptcy. As Director, I facilitate client intakes by pairing law students with clients to discuss their situations. Students then speak to our volunteer attorneys about the clients’ issues and return to the clients with information, solutions, and often times, recommendations about what they should do next. I make sure that flows smoothly and also deal with any problems if they come up.
Q: Last semester you took on a pro bono case under the supervision of a practicing attorney and were able to get a positive outcome for the client. Can you please describe the situation, your role, and how the supervising attorney, Brian Rothschild, was able to help?
A client with limited English abilities came into the clinic with some paperwork. As I spoke with him, he explained that he had vacated a residence several years prior and was shortly after told that he still owed about $900 in Homeowners Association (HOA) fees. The attorney’s office for the HOA told him the fees were a mistake and that he should disregard the notices. A year or so later, a new attorney’s office served him with court documents stating that he still owed the money. Because of the client’s limited English and his lack of knowledge regarding the system, he assumed he would hear shortly after about a court date which he planned to attend. A court date never arrived, but he did receive paperwork that said he owed approximately $2,300. What had happened is, he was supposed to respond to the complaint he received and when he didn’t, the HOA’s attorney obtained a default judgment against him. The client called the HOA’s attorney with the help of an interpreter and arranged to pay what he thought was going to be a settlement amount of $1,000. A few days later, the client went to the attorney’s office, paid $1,000, received a receipt, and left. A few months later, the client received a notice from his bank that the HOA’s attorneys had obtained an order of garnishment from the court and the bank was going to obey it and hand over approximately $2,400. When the office took the money form his account, that’s when he came to visit us.
The supervising attorney, Brian Rothschild, at the Debtor’s clinic, agreed to help and wrote a letter on his behalf to the attorney’s office explaining to them what they had done wrong. The attorney’s office responded negatively, basically stating that the office never had authority to negotiate settlements without consulting their clients first and therefore our client was mistaken. They argued he had actually made a payment toward the total default judgment amount and that the newly obtained Order of Garnishment reflected the new amount including attorney’s fees. When the client came in so we could tell him what they said, Brian decided that we should take his case and argue it in small claims for him.
From there we began drafting a complaint for small claims court. We collected documents from the client and made sure we had witnesses that could testify to the telephone calls between the client and the attorney’s office. When we sent the final complaint to the attorney’s office prior to submitting it to the court, they offered a settlement. After some negotiation, we were able to receive all the money back that the client had paid: the $1,000 settlement amount, as well as the full amount garnished from his bank account.
Q: What was the client’s reaction when he learned that they were going to be able to pick up a check?
The client was incredibly happy when he found out that he was going to get the money back. He is an elderly man who does not work any more. He had been injured on the job and the money garnished from him was money he had received in a worker’s compensation settlement he was involved in. That money was all the money he had. He also explained how happy he was that he wasn’t going to have to get food stamps and other public assistance as a result of receiving the money back.
Q: Describe the most memorable part of the experience. For example, how do you believe the experience gave you greater insight into practice, or the representation of clients?
Because this really was the first case I worked on as a law student, there were several memorable moments. Working with Brian, learning from him, and being able to see the kind of knowledge he has and the good it can do, was an exceptional experience. Also, telling the client that we were going to take his case at no cost, was an amazing feeling because at that point, he really had no options. He didn’t know other attorneys; he didn’t know other attorneys that could communicate with him in Spanish. And obviously, telling him that they agreed to return all of his money, not just a portion, was extremely exciting. Listening to his tears of happiness over the phone was very moving.
Q: How did your classes, clinics, or other experiences at the College of Law help prepare you for your role as the PBI Student Director?
You know, substantive classes don’t really prepare you for the moments you’re sitting in front of clients, listening to their stories, often times their desperate stories, and asking for your help. I did the civil clinic last summer and I took a course that specifically focused on interaction with clients which was extremely helpful. I think attending the clinics as a 1L also helped to build my confidence and helped me to see that the people that come to the clinics aren’t looking for someone with all the answers, instead they are hoping to talk to someone about their problems who is willing to take the time to look for the answers.
Q: And finally, would you recommend this kind of clinical experience to your fellow students? Why or why not?
I think participating in the PBI clinics is one of the absolute best things students can do to gain experience interacting with clients. It is also a great way to learn how to listen to a story full of facts and pull out the pieces that could create a legal issue. Also, the interaction with local attorneys has been incredible. Working with Brian and learning from him has been an invaluable experience.