Easton native Antonia Cuffee has joined Mid-Shore Pro Bono to help area residents facing debt and foreclosure crises. A six-month University of Maryland School of Law J.D. Fellowship is sponsoring her work with the local agency. Mid-Shore Pro Bono provides civil legal assistance to low-income individuals in Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline, Talbot and Dorchester counties.
Having graduated from the university last May, this new attorney already brings welcome consumer protection experience to the organization, according to Executive Director Sandy Brown. A member of the school’s Public Interest Law Project, Cuffee also has worked with Civil Justice on Maryland’s Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project, and with Baltimore’s Community Law Center and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.
Cuffee says that she is happy to be helping the low-income residents of her home town and the Mid Shore on debt and foreclosure issues that until recently have been addressed by few area resources. Her work will be part of an added focus for Mid-Shore Pro Bono. In conjunction with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, the agency has been participating in the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project since 2009. Mid-Shore Pro Bono now will be partnering again with the Resource Center in its Consumer Protection Project, encouraging more local lawyers to receive the free training available to those willing to volunteer in defending individuals in debt-buyer cases.
“When people are in debt, they are always scared,” Cuffee explains. That fear may make them vulnerable to predatory credit relief companies that may charge illegal up-front fees and end up leaving their targets no better off than they were before. In addition to representing clients in court, she sees part of her mission as empowering people through education about their rights and the services available to them.
Many debt-buying cases are for unsecured amounts less than five thousand dollars, keeping the matters in the District Courts, rather than the Circuit Courts, where there may be more stringent review of the documentation of debt ownership. Individuals sometimes may not realize that they are being sued for a debt that has already been paid or that was covered in a prior bankruptcy proceeding.
With the lower courts being inundated with small debt collection cases, notes Cuffee, they frequently do not have time to scrutinize the details as carefully as in the higher courts. Confused and frightened by a debt collector’s intimidation, some individuals may not know they may challenge the collector’s lawsuit. According to the Pro Bono Resource Center, “The problem…is that the plaintiff often has insufficient reliable documentation regarding the debt…In many instances, if a challenge is presented, the case is dismissed or judgment is denied.”
Cuffee’s advice to those facing debt collectors or foreclosure is to confront the problem early. “Don’t be scared,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to open the mail. Talk to someone as soon as possible. The problem is not going to go away if you ignore it.” By talking with the creditor, people may be able to make arrangements to pay off the debt over a longer period with lower payments. Credit counselors can offer assistance.
Cuffee also recommends keeping good records of every interaction with the creditor or debt collector. “Keep notes on conversations, especially if you feel threatened,” she emphasizes. Save correspondence, keep records of dates and times of calls, and note any threats or abusive language. “Debt collectors can be held legally accountable for what they threaten over the phone,” she adds.
With the debt-buying epidemic in Maryland, Mid-Shore Pro Bono’s Brown welcomes the assistance Cuffee brings to those reaching out to her agency for help. “I am so grateful and delighted to have her joining us,” said Brown. “Antonia is a valuable resource for our organization and our clients.”
Those who would like legal assistance in dealing with debt collectors may call Mid-Shore Pro Bono at 410-690-8128 to schedule a consultation at its weekly clinic. More information may be found on its website, www.midshoreprobono.org.