This week on In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. discusses rising unemployment and the subsequent rise in personal debt amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and how African American consumers can protect themselves, with Erika Rickard, Director of Civil Legal Modernization at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Also, a preview of next week’s program, with University of Baltimore Law School Director Michael Meyerson.
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Erika Rickard [00:00:25] I think there’s a lot of potential causes here. When we were examining this trend, we also noticed that during that same time when court cases were starting to increase, we also saw the increase in what’s called the debt buyer industry. So these are companies that purchased debts from banks or other original creditors, and then they pursue consumers to try to collect on those debts.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:00:47] Erika Rickard, Project Director Civil Legal Systems Modernization, The Pew Charitable Trust. From 1993 to 2013, a number of debt claims filed in civil courts across this country increased to the point where became the single largest share of civil court cases over that period. Particularly as people use civil courts less for other issues. An analysis conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust found out as a category that claims have largely one sided outcomes, raising troubling questions about legal proceedings and case disposition. Reports uncover how the court system has become a debt collectors tool or businesses suing consumers, many of whom show up in court without an attorney or don’t show up at all. As the COVID 19 pandemic continues to show the businesses that disrupt the national economy, experts expect the number of people facing burdensome debt default and collections will grow dramatically. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program, How Debt Collectors Are Transforming the Business of These Courts. Erika Rickard with the Pew Charitable Trusts In Black America.
Erika Rickard [00:02:03] That’s an interesting question. And what that speaks to is it would be really nice to know which policies are the most effective. But unfortunately, these cases are really flying under the radar. There’s not a lot of data about what’s actually happening. So in 38 states, we don’t have any data about the number of debt collection cases that were filed or what happened in them. So it’s really hard to tell which policies are having the greatest impact.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:02:26] From 1993 to 2013, a number of debt collection lawsuits more than doubled nationwide from less than 1.7 million to about 4 million, and consumed a growing portion of civil court dockets, rising from one in nine cases to one in four in a handful of states. The available data extended to 2018, and those figures suggest that the growth of debt collection as a share of civil court dockets has continued to outpace most other category of cases that claims were the most common type of civil court cases in nine of the 12 states, for which at least some court data was available even before the COVID 19 pandemic brought the economy to a standstill, forcing millions to lose their jobs. American household debt was on the rise, climbing $1.5 trillion between 2009 and 2019, with the unemployment rate at 14.7% at the time of this production. Household debt is expected to climb. Echo Report with the Pew Charitable Trusts recently coauthored a report entitled How Debt Collectors Are Transforming the Business of the Courts. She spoke with In Black America regarding how consumers can protect themselves and how the COVID 19 pandemic presents a critical opportunity for courts to address the challenges of debt claim cases ahead of a likely surge in filings.
Erika Rickard [00:03:56] I was a kid who grew up wanting to watch Law and Order, and I wanted to be a lawyer, and I eventually made my way to law school. And then I had to figure out what being a lawyer actually meant.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:09] And prior to working for a few charitable trusts, what were some of your other occupations?
Erika Rickard [00:04:15] I worked as an attorney and as a researcher, starting with the Attorney General’s office in Massachusetts and working as a researcher at the Harvard Access to Justice Lab.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:25] And how did we get to this point where some of the civil courts in this country have totally did a 180?
Erika Rickard [00:04:32] So it’s interesting. We’ve been looking at the trends that we see in state courts and who is using our courts and for what kinds of cases. And what we’ve seen is that over the past 30 years, debt collection lawsuits have become the single most common type of civil court case. There are now one in four civil court cases is a debt collection case.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:52] And how did we get to the point where debt collectors are now using state court, state civil courts as a tool?
Erika Rickard [00:05:00] So I think there’s a lot of potential causes here. When we were examining this trend, we also noticed that during that same time when court cases were starting to increase, we also saw the increase in what’s called the debt buyer industry. So these are companies that purchased debts from banks or other original creditors, and then they pursue consumers to try to collect on those debt.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:24] And one. Go ahead.
Erika Rickard [00:05:26] And more and more of the share of their workload has been on bringing debt collection cases in court. So we started to see a really high number of just a few companies using the courts to pursue these deaths.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:39] Now, there is no way in the half in which we have to articulate the full report. But there’s some some items that I wanted to go over with you. When a debt collector goes to court, I assume that they are representing a particular company.
Erika Rickard [00:05:59] That’s right. So it’ll be it may even be one attorney who is there for the day that’s representing a lot of different companies. But the different companies, banks, credit card companies, sometimes medical care providers will have a lawyer that’s representing them in court.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:12] And how does the process work? Once a debt collector is involved in collecting a debt, what does he or she need to do and must do so.
Erika Rickard [00:06:23] In order.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:24] To don’t do?
Erika Rickard [00:06:25] In order to bring a debt collection case to court. The company or the lawyer representing that company will file paperwork in the courthouse and will, in most states serve that court paperwork on the consumer. So make sure that the consumer knows about the court case. What happens next might be that the consumer might have to respond to that case in writing. Or the next step might be that both sides are in the courthouse together. So that’s what’s supposed to happen. But what usually happens in these cases is the debt collector represented by a lawyer filed the paperwork and comes to court. And in 70% of the time or more, the consumer doesn’t respond. The consumer doesn’t file the paperwork or the consumer doesn’t come to the courthouse.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:06] And I was reading in a report that most consumers aren’t aware that the debt collectors collect you for a company because they don’t recognize who the debt collector is. Is that still the case?
Erika Rickard [00:07:17] So we’re not sure that it’s the majority, but it certainly has happened where a consumer will not recognize the name of the company that’s suing them. So in the case of a debt buyer, the name of that company is different from the name of the company that where you took out the original credit card, for example. So so there have been reports of people either not receiving the court paperwork at all or receiving it and not thinking it applied to them because they didn’t recognize the name of the company suing them.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:40] As you say, that is that being looked at as far as who is the original debt holder?
Erika Rickard [00:07:46] So we have started to see states try to identify more information in their court notice. So Maryland, for example, changed some of their rules to make sure that more information was required on the court papers so people could see who it was that was doing them.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:01] Now, I also read that when one is is is notified nine times out of ten one, we just articulate that they are not familiar with the debt collector or the company that they’re suing them. But they had to take off from work, find babysitters and the amount that they owe, they can’t pay.
Erika Rickard [00:08:21] That’s right. We are seeing the kind of the additional costs on top of that debt that might be that somebody might be sued for. There’s also the costs of coming to court. So the cost of taking the time off of work, the cost of child care, and most notably, I think nine out of ten times the consumer does not have a lawyer to represent them. So they’re representing themselves if they’re participating in the case at all.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:40] And majority of the cases are settled by default judgment.
Erika Rickard [00:08:44] That’s right. So a majority of the time, 70% or more in a court that we studied, the debt collector wins almost automatically. So a default judgment means that the court doesn’t review to make sure that the right person was being sued for the right amount or that the case was filed in a timely manner.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:01] So what kind of toll does this have on the consumer as a default judgment is issued?
Erika Rickard [00:09:05] So a default judgment, even though it doesn’t come with that court review, carries the same weight as any other court order. So that means that there can be court costs, there can be attorney’s fees that get tacked on top of the original debt. And it also means that the court order gives the debt collector more avenues for pursuing the consumer for the money that is alleged to be owed. So that can mean garnishing somebody’s wages. It can mean freezing a bank account or putting a lean on someone’s property.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:31] So how convoluted are these particular policies and procedures from state to state? Is one state doing better than another state?
Erika Rickard [00:09:40] That’s an interesting question. And what that speaks to is it would be really nice to know which policies are the most effective. But unfortunately, these cases are really flying under the radar. There’s not a lot of data about what’s actually happening. So in 38 states, we don’t have any data about the number of debt collection cases that were filed or what happened in them. So it’s really hard to tell which policies are having the greatest impact without any data about the court records.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:10:07] Are there any racial disparities in these debt claims?
Erika Rickard [00:10:10] Unfortunately, yes, we have. We have observed racial disparities. One study from ProPublica a few years ago documented racial disparities and a handful of cities where they were able to look at the court records and see based on zip code and location information that even if you account for income in mostly Black neighborhoods, the default judgment rate was higher than in neighborhoods that were mostly white.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:10:33] Can we talk about code in force collection? How does that work?
Erika Rickard [00:10:37] So court enforced collection is the idea that a court order provides some additional leverage that’s provided by the government for debt collectors to then approach someone’s employer or to approach someone’s bank. Armed with that court judgments, a private debt can then become the subject of government enforcement, and that in addition to wage garnishment and seizing of assets, there’s one more avenue that’s perhaps the most extreme, which is civil arrest. So in 44 states, there is a law on the books that would permit a civil arrest for for contempt of court, for failure to comply with a court order. In this case, the court ordered judgment against the consumer.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:11:19] What made you all take up this particular study?
Erika Rickard [00:11:23] So we’re starting from the position of thinking about courts and how courts can better interact with people who are trying to use them today. So we’re looking at how you can modernize courts, thinking about the fact that today’s modern court user is usually somebody who doesn’t have a lawyer. So we were looking at which kinds of cases are really being brought either by people without lawyers or against people without lawyers. And what we found was that the most common type of court case is brought by a business with a lawyer against an individual who doesn’t have a lawyer.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:11:53] If you’re just joining us, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and you’re listening to In Black America from KUT Radio. And I’m speaking with Erika Rickard, director of the Civil Legal System Modernization Project at the Pew Charitable Trust and author of coauthor of How Debt Collectors Are Transforming the Business of State Courts. Erika, what should one, if they’re consumer, receive a notice that they’re being sued by a debt collector?
Erika Rickard [00:12:19] So our research focuses primarily on what states can do. But for consumers, there are some good resources out there. So one one resource is the Federal Trade Commission, which has a website for consumers about how to respond to debt collectors in court and out of court. And that’s consumer.FTC.gov.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:12:37] I also read that there is a service or something to the to the point of suing service. What is that sewer service?
Erika Rickard [00:12:48] So there have been a couple of states that have investigated cases of what’s called sewer service, which means where instead of serving somebody you may have seen on TV, folks say, you know, you’ve been served and that’s personal service where you get handed court papers. A lot of times in states you’ll see you’ll have service by mail where someone can mail the court papers to you. And sewer service is the idea that the plaintiff or the process server is just throwing your court papers in the sewer. While it may not be literal, the idea that in some cases folks are not actually receiving the court papers. Whether that’s intentional or simply because the wrong address was the address that received the court papers.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:29] So are debt collecters obligated to actually send it to the correct address or there’s just like a paper mill. We just send it out. And if it if it is received fine and if it doesn’t, it still fine.
Erika Rickard [00:13:42] It depends on the state. So some states have different requirements for how you serve a consumer in a debt collection case. But there are some states where you can serve by mailing to the last known address. So that’s not a guarantee that the person still lives there or that the person actually receives the court papers.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:58] Was the data readily available for you all through Texas research?
Erika Rickard [00:14:03] So what we did was we looked at each state puts out an annual statistical report about all the statistics about their court cases, and we looked at each one for several years leading up to 2018. And what we found was that while almost all states do report something about their case loads, very, very few actually report about debt collection cases, or only 12 states that report anything about debt collection cases in their most recent court reports. And of those 12, very few of them actually report on default judgment rates or on debt collection cases across the state. In fact, Texas was the only state that we found that reported on all kinds of outcomes, including defaults for all kinds of cases, including debt all across the state, from the lowest dollar to the highest dollar.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:14:49] Now, with the downturn of the economy and I understand that a lot of individuals are, you know, using their credit cards and some are maxing them out, what do you foresee in the immediate and far future?
Erika Rickard [00:15:04] So much of the data in our report reflects a time when the economy was strong, but debt collection lawsuits were still continuing to grow. So now, as we’re seeing unprecedented job losses and families in financial distress, we can’t predict the future, but we can certainly anticipate that there are going to be continue to be more debt collection cases.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:15:23] How are some of these debt collectors able to secure stimulus checks.
Erika Rickard [00:15:28] Stimulus checks is an interesting issue. So stimulus checks from the from the CARES Act and kind of intended for household expenses right now in response to the pandemic. But those are just one more form, one more asset that people have that they might put into their bank account. And if a debt collector has an existing court order against someone, a judgment against someone, they can use that judgment in many states to free someone’s bank account and collect on that stimulus check or other assets.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:15:55] What has been the reaction thus far from the justice system regarding you all’s research?
Erika Rickard [00:16:02] Regarding the report that’s come up?
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:04] Yes.
Erika Rickard [00:16:04] So we’ve been sharing the report with judicial leaders and policymakers. We have received kind of a lot of interest from state leaders, including state leaders in Texas and Michigan. And some of the folks in the judiciary are actually included in in our research that actually contributed to it. So what we’ve seen is that while judicial folks who are on the ground, court personnel who are dealing with these cases every day, might have been aware of what’s happening in these cases. By and large, state policymakers and other leaders are just now starting to pay attention to these kinds of cases as we’re seeing the response to the pandemic and thinking about courts reopening now is really a time when more state leaders are starting to take notice of what’s happening in their state courts.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:47] What would you our three step approach in analyzing the debt collection lawsuits?
Erika Rickard [00:16:53] So first, we looked at the existing literature and other studies that others have conducted about debt collection cases and about civil caseload trends more broadly. And then we conducted our own research on the individual state level reporting. And then we also conducted interviews and met with folks who represent consumer advocates, who represent creditors and financial institutions and who represent the courts.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:18] With this report, what do you want to see the outcome? What kind of outcome do you want to eventually see?
Erika Rickard [00:17:24] We’ve seen a handful of states that have taken some initial steps, and what we’re trying to share through the report is some initial steps that other states can take, too. And those three steps are states can track and report on debt collection data. They can review their policies and they can modernize the processes between courts and court users.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:42] And I would assume that consumers need to become more savvy when such notices are presented to them and don’t go to court without an attorney.
Erika Rickard [00:17:54] Our goal here is for all parties to know about cases, to be able to actively participate in cases, whether they’re filing them or whether our case is filed against them, and then to receive a ruling that is based on the facts of the case.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:18:06] And how long it takes you all to put this report together.
Erika Rickard [00:18:10] We’ve been working on this report for several months. This is mostly data that comes from prior to this is all data that comes from prior to the pandemic and was vetted by the research team at Pew.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:18:21] Do you see any best practices going forward by debt collecting companies? Well, going to still do what they do.
Erika Rickard [00:18:28] So what we were focused on was how courts are responding when debt collectors are filing cases in court and when consumers are or aren’t participating. What is it that courts and other state leaders can do.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:18:40] To find a common?
Erika Rickard [00:18:41] Jerrica I would encourage folks to take a look at the report at Pew Trust. Scott, Oregon Modern Legal.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:18:46] Eco Record Project Director, Civil Legal Systems Modernization. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Next week on In Black America, we take a look at the Fannie Angelos Program for Excellence at the University of Baltimore School of Law with its director, Michael Meyerson. The program is a collaboration between the University of Baltimore School of Law and Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities. The program prefer HBCU students who gain admissions to law school and continue to support them so that they can excel and thrive in law school. African-Americans make up only 1.77% of law firm partners and 3.95% of law firm associates. African-American women make up only 0.6 4% of law firm partners and 2.25% of law firm associates. The following is an excerpt of next week’s conversation.
Erika Rickard [00:19:46] Sunny in the mid 1990s I and a colleague sort of created this program. But I’ll be honest, it took about 15 years to do it right. I thought originally all you have to do is sort of open a door and then life is fine. What I learned over the years was how much it took to level the playing field, because the motto of the program is that we’re not a diversity program. We’re a talent search. Because if you find talent and level the playing field, diversity happens. So what we found is the other thing to be constitutional at the state University, we had to be race neutral. And so we went to historically Black colleges, which are by long race neutral, though in the state of Maryland, overwhelmingly African-American, not entirely, but overwhelmingly. And we went to the fourth schools and we started recruiting people. And from there, we finally figured out in large ways how to really identify those who were not only academically talented but kind of personally motivated. And then we’ve spent time with them working to both explain the system and then get them ready for the LSAT, which gets them into law school, the entrance exam. And then we found that’s not enough cause in law school, when you’re going from a predominantly African-American community to a predominantly white institution, there are still lots of obstacles. There’s institutional racism, there’s individual, and of course then there’s the world of environment and life that people have to sort of deal with. And then we learned after they graduate that’s not enough, because they’re going from a predominantly white institution to an overwhelmingly white profession. And if you look at the numbers of African-Americans who are like in law firms and partners, it is it’s it’s virtually Jim Crow level. And so we we now have a system where we’re sort of working to support and mentor people throughout the process.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:45] What was the HBCU president’s immediate reaction when you all told them that you wanted to develop this program?
Erika Rickard [00:21:54] Well, on one level, it was sort of like, you know, go have at it. I think that part of the problem with institutions is that they’re nervous about sharing. And I think, you know, rightfully so. A lot of the HP CEOs are not very trust, you know, don’t have a lot of instant trust in a predominantly white law school. I think over the years, we’ve proven the most important thing and this is, by the way, touched on sort of it’s a side note, but it’s I think it’s relevant to me. The biggest problem with affirmative action programs is how many of them are built on disrespect. Will lower standards will overlook this. We don’t really expect quality if people don’t do well with. Well, of course, what do you expect? And that’s always I mean, it’s a lie, but I think it’s a real poison. So the program we run is all based on the absolute confidence that the students we are finding are either as good or in most cases better than the students still be competing with at the law school and in the profession at large. And the institutions we’re working with, we treat with respect because what they are accomplishing is so extraordinary. And over time, when you treat people with respect, they begin to believe it, that you actually do respect them. And so that’s become a whole lot better.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:23:07] I know this is an abstract type of conclusion, but how do you all decide which students that you all select with you all help? These individuals can actually make it.
Erika Rickard [00:23:22] First of all, it’s an art, not a science. And I, I don’t swear where I’d good at it or I’m not good at it. So one of the things I’ve learned is a program like. Like what? Like mine. You learn humility early and often. So one is that you you over time you identify certain traits. For example, if you don’t take personal responsibility for your failures, if you always blame others, it’s really hard to self improve. So that sort of thing. Second, if you don’t believe that you should help others, that you can work as a team. The program isn’t right for you because what we’ve learned is that it’s the community that makes people strong. So you have to accept that. And finally, I don’t do the selection process myself. We have not just other faculty members, but we have people from the program who are incredibly protective of both the both the the the the program and and sort of the the students who come in. And so they have to know because, you know, we don’t by 2001 of the things about a program any program that wants to make change like this is I think you have to recognize that, you know, you’re not going to be perfect. But we’ve gotten better over time. And, you know, basically you also you always, you know, fight the last war. So if one year you realize that you don’t have a sense of community, then the next year you put extra effort when you interview and. Talk to people and then you bring them in to work on the basic skills. You know, again, and this year, I mean, we have a really good group, so I’m feeling better. But it’s still it’s still personalities.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:24:56] Is there any certain number of students that you all matriculate through this program every year?
Erika Rickard [00:25:01] Well, it’s an interesting point, because the other thing is because there are so few programs that are predominantly white law schools reaching down to collaborate with historically Black colleges and do it in such a holistic way. I mean, there are a lot of programs like help people with the with the with the LCT. But the idea of working with them from sort of the beginning and throughout in a very tense and personal way is unusual.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:28] How important is it that these students buy into you was formed in preparation for the outset?
Erika Rickard [00:25:37] It’s extraordinarily important because first of all, the LCT is aa1 of a kind exam. In many ways, it’s extraordinarily culturally biased. I mean, part of it is like math games. And if you haven’t done these logic games, you’re clueless. Stunning how many students don’t have any background and sort of just taking standardized tests at all. In fact, one of the things in the program is that the four HBCUs, not one of them, had a test prep prep program. The wealthier colleges in Maryland. University of Maryland had, you know, paid for students to take these courses. And I’m going to these historically Black colleges. Not one of them is offering a prep course. So, you know, you just sort of start out having to explain to people we have a new motto, which is that new problems require new tools. And so they if they don’t accept that, if they’re not willing to learn new tools, if they don’t, then then I don’t see how people can do it. And here’s the other thing. What we’ve discovered is even if they are lucky enough to get a decent score on the LCT, if they’re not willing to learn from others, they’re doomed to fail. I mean, because no one’s that smart. And eventually you’re going to need to learn from those who are, you know, who want to help you, who want who have been there before. And it’s the other thing is, especially if you’re an African American entering a white law profession, you need mentors. It’s a hostile world out there. And you might as well learn from those who have fought the battles. I mean, you know, I mean, the beginning of wisdom is letting you learn from other people’s mistakes.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:15] How do you condense this particular program? I guess Let me let me let me back up. When you all finally select a particular candidate and what you of college is that individual in.
Erika Rickard [00:27:27] It’s usually juniors or seniors. And what we do is we have to two different paths for them. We take eight and we call them scholars.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:38] Michael Emerson, the DLA Piper, professor of law and director of the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence, the University of Baltimore School of Law. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as a future In Black America programs, email us at In Black America@KUT.org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Facebook. You can hear previous programs online at kutx.org. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
Announcer [00:28:31] CD copies of this program are available and may be purchased by writing to In Black America CD’s, KUT Radio, 300 West Dean Keeton St, Austin, TX 78712. This has been a production of KUT Radio.