“Mr. Holtz,” who is 65-years old, contacted BRLS for assistance because he knew he was about to fall behind on his mortgage. “Mr. Holtz” and his late wife had combined their social security to make ends meet. After his wife had passed away the previous fall, though, he no longer had a balanced budget and could not afford to cover his basic living expenses. “Mr. Holtz” feared he would lose his home of 40 years to foreclosure.
“Mr. Holtz” is elderly, in poor health, and also getting by with only very limited reading skills, so he was in no position to advocate for himself.
A BRLS attorney negotiated with the lender from 2010 to 2013. At one point in the negotiation process the lender issued a denial reasoning that contradicted itself. The lender stated both that a) “Mr. Holtz” was not at risk of falling behind on his mortgage, and also b) that “Mr. Holtz” had no chance of keeping his home because his budget was so far in the red that he clearly could not make payments. The BRLS attorney persisted. The BRLS attorney formed an effective partnership with the nonprofit housing counseling organization Housing Opportunities Made Equal (“HOME”). BRLS, collaborating with HOME, assisted “Mr. Holtz” in obtaining a permanent HAMP modification. This lowered “Mr. Holtz’s” monthly payment and allowed him to save his home of 40 years from foreclosure.
A study by economists at Colgate University and the University of Arkansas (published about 10 years ago) found that the availability of free legal services for victims of domestic violence is one of the most effective tools in preventing future abuse. Unless victims of domestic violence have meaningful access to civil legal assistance, they are frequently bullied by their abusers in the courts, resulting in a decision to return to the abuser -continuing the cycle of abuse – rather than risk losing their children and facing destitution. That’s why helping victims of domestic violence is a high priority for Blue Ridge Legal Services. Here’s a perfect example, in a case we’ve just concluded.
“Ms. Gomez” had been married to her abusive husband for almost eleven years, enduring his abuse, before she finally left him after he assaulted her and burned her with a hot iron. She went to court and obtained a 2 year protective order against him. But now she faced the prospects of raising their four children, ranging in age from 3 to 14, on her own, and he was threatening to fight her for custody of the children. Given the demands of caring for the children, one who is autistic and another who suffers from an emotional disorder, Ms. Gomez was unable to work outside the home. If she were going to make it on her own and not return to her abusive husband, she’d need to persuade the court to award custody of their 4 children to her, and she’d need the court to compel him to pay a reasonable amount of child support from him – a lot more than the sporadic amounts he was giving her.
In desperation, Ms. Gomez sought legal assistance from Blue Ridge Legal Services, and our domestic violence attorney agreed to represent her. Although her husband was providing some financial assistance, it was inconsistent and not enough to meet the basic needs of Ms. Gomez and the children. Moreover, her husband had not been truthful to the court about his income, as he worked for his brother and was being paid under the table. However, with the representation of our domestic violence attorney, Ms. Gomez was awarded sole custody of her children and an amount of monthly child support that was nearly twice what her husband had been giving her. Ms. Gomez now has the chance to raise her children, free from the terrible abuse her husband had inflicted on her over the years.
“Mr. Johnson,” a 75 year old gentleman on a low fixed income and recently widowed and wheelchair-bound, contacted our Lexington office early one morning. He was upset because the day before he had received a notice informing him that his Medicaid was about to be terminated due to “excess resources”, in the form of two life insurance policies. As he needs daily in-home care provided by aides paid for by Medicaid, he was, understandably, very agitated, and he struggled to explain his problem. Our paralegal instructed him how to get his paperwork to us (no small feat for Mr. Johnson, who has no internet access, etc.), and after receiving it began making phone calls to Social Services, the insurance company, etc., to get to the bottom of the problem. The paralegal determined the life insurance issue involved two small policies. Mr. Johnson maintained one of the policies on a grandchild and he was not the beneficiary. The other life insurance policy was small enough it could be designated for his burial, and doing so would exclude it as a countable resource for Medicaid eligibility. The paralegal obtained on the same day verification from the life insurance company and sent this information to Social Services. The problem was resolved, and Mr. Johnson’s Medicaid was not terminated after all. Although the many phone calls and faxes consumed most of the paralegal’s day (hey, it’s all in a day’s work!), Mr. Johnson did not have to spend a second sleepless night wondering if his Medicaid would continue and how he would live without the daily in-home care it provided.
“Ms. Jones” was in her early twenties, married, with a new baby. While home alone, she was viciously attacked by an intruder, suffered a gunshot to her head and was permanently disabled as a result. Subsequently, she lost custody of her child and was divorced from her husband. After several years of intensive therapy, she recovered sufficiently to begin reestablishing her life.
Due to the crushing medical bills resulting from her injuries, she sought our assistance in filing for a chapter 7 bankruptcy, allowing her a fresh start financially. Successfully discharging the medical debts, she now controls her own disability income and pays her own bills.
In addition to losing her marriage and her child, Ms. Jones had also lost her motor vehicle when it was repossessed shortly after her injury. Although the car was sold at auction to an unrelated third party, DMV records never picked up the transfer. As a result, when Ms. Jones filed her 2012 income tax return, looking forward to her meager state refund of $69, she instead received a notice that this refund was being offset for personal property taxes owed to the county she resided in at the time of her injury. She again sought help from BRLS.
A BRLS attorney investigated the situation and discovered that the county treasurer pursuing Ms. Jones’ $69 tax refund still listed her as the owner of the vehicle that had been repossessed five years earlier and stated that she was delinquent for personal property taxes for those last five years – an approximate total of $400.
After many phone calls and emails, BRLS was able to track down the bank which had repossessed the car (by now the bank had morphed into another bank name) and obtain verification of the date of repossession and sale. Armed with this written information, we sent Ms. Jones to DMV to make sure the records were corrected to show that she was not the owner of the car after it was sold.
After supplying all of this verification to the Commissioner’ Office, the county Treasurer’s records were corrected, the $400 delinquent tax debt erased, and the hold on Ms. Jones’ tax refund released.
“Mrs. Smith” is an 81 year old woman who rented a space in a mobile home park that both rented spaces and sold mobile homes it owned. She owned her well-kept mobile home – one of the nicest in the park. She developed health problems and needed to move in with her daughter. Mrs. Smith wanted to sell her home. When she had originally moved into the park she had signed an agreement to let the mobile park management to be the listing agent for the sale of her home. Mrs. Smith also wanted to rent her home pending the sale of the home but this was denied by the mobile home park.
When her home did not sell for quite some time, Mrs. Smith did some investigation. She found that the mobile home park management had refused to sell to one person who had wanted to purchase her home. That person was employed, had a guarantor for the first year’s lot rent, and a co-signer for the purchase of the home. The reason given for the denial of sale was that the potential purchaser had bad credit. Another potential purchaser had been guided to and urged to purchase another mobile home, one that was owned and for sale by the mobile home park owner. Mrs. Smith was finally able to sell her home but for a much lesser price than she had first hoped.
She sought the help of Blue Ridge Legal Services to see if her rights had been infringed upon by the mobile home park. The BRLS attorney recognized the mobile home park owner’s conduct violated provisions of the Virginia Manufactured Home Lot Rental Act and filed suit against the mobile home park on behalf of Mrs. Smith. The mobile home park owner agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying Mrs. Smith for the lost rent AND for the amount she had lost on the sale price due to the mobile home park’s unreasonable restrictions.
Mrs. “Hill,” a wheelchair bound 53 year old woman living in Luray, contacted Blue Ridge Legal Services because she had just learned that her Medicaid benefits had been terminated. Since she had cancer and was receiving chemotherapy treatments, the loss of Medicaid to pay for those treatments was very distressing news to her.
Moreover, Mrs. Hill was so ill from the treatments that she also needed Home Health Care services to help her with her activities of daily living, including bathing, dressing, toileting, cooking, and cleaning. (Mrs. Hill’s 63 year old disabled husband was unable to help her with the care she needed.) When the Home Health Care agency learned that she no longer had Medicaid benefits, they immediately stopped sending the home health aide to her home to provide care for her. Losing this critical service left the Hills devastated and feeling hopeless.
When the BRLS paralegal met with the Hills, she ascertained that the reason Medicaid was terminated was because Mr. Hill had started receiving Social Security benefits. Although he only received $900 per month, it was too much for Mrs. Hill to continue to receive Medicaid. However, after learning that Mrs. Hill had been receiving the Home Health Care through what’s called the Elderly and Disabled Waiver Program, the BRLS paralegal recognized Mrs. Hill should still be eligible for Medicaid as a participant in this program.
The BRLS paralegal called the Medicaid worker’s supervisor and explained why the termination was incorrect, and asked that Mrs. Hill’s Medicaid benefits be reinstated immediately. The supervisor agreed and had the Hills come in to her office the same day to complete the appropriate paperwork. The paralegal then contacted the Home Health agency and notified them of the Medicaid reinstatement. As a result, the Home Health Care services were also reinstated.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill were ecstatic to know that she would be able to continue to receive the treatments for her life-threatening illness and the daily home health care she needed.
“Ms. Green” had borrowed money from a payday lender to have her old car repaired. She is in her early 50’s, disabled and receives Social Security disability. She requires frequent medical treatment and needed the car to get to medical appointments. Unfortunately, the loan was made at an interest rate of 300%. Notably, the loan documents included a clause that said “no late charge” would be assessed.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Green fell behind in her payments. The payday lender sent her a letter saying “I am also aware that you are paid on or about the third of every month” and “I will have to obtain a debt warrant and garnish your account for the balance owed.”
In fact, Ms. Green’s Social Security benefits were the funds he was referring to, and they are exempt under federal law from garnishment, something the payday lender knew or should have known. Moreover, the payday lender was charging her late fees, even though his contract stated there would be no late fees.
Ms. Green sought the help of Blue Ridge Legal Services’ Lexington office. A BRLS attorney agreed to help her, and she enlisted the help of a local volunteer “pro bono” attorney who is an expert on such cases.
BRLS filed suit on behalf of Ms. Green against the payday lender in the local General District Court for illegally charging late fees, failing to properly disclose the loan details under the Truth in Lending Act, and for falsely threatening to garnish her Social Security benefits.
When the General District Court judge ruled against Ms. Green, we appealed the case to the Circuit Court. There, we won a judgment for Ms. Green against the payday lender for his failure to properly disclose to her the loan details under the Truth in Lending Act. In addition, the judge awarded the pro bono attorney his attorney’s fees of almost $10,000.
Even so, the payday lender refused to pay the judgment and attorney’s fees as ordered by the court. Upon further investigation, our attorney learned that the payday lender had no assets of record and had gone out of business.
Here’s where our attorney really got creative. With Ms. Green’s and the pro bono attorney’s blessing, she negotiated a deal with the payday lender owner in which he would release 39 judgments, totaling $21,844, that he had previously obtained against other poor debtors in the area who had been trapped in the vicious cycle of debt created by payday loans’ exorbitant interest rates, in exchange for releasing the judgment against his company. Ms. Green’s generosity, and the generosity of the pro bono attorney, turned what amounted to a bad debt into an unexpected blessing for 39 other local residents who had been likewise victimized by the payday lender!