by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
The Consumer Protection Law Committee of The Florida Bar recognized its first honorees as the “Consumer Protection Lawyer of the Year” and two of the three are from Jacksonville.
The award is designed to recognize the work and dedication of a Florida lawyer who has shown success, commitment and passion in the practice of consumer protection law.
April Charney and James “Jim” Kowalski Jr. in Jacksonville are two of the three honorees. They are joined by Margery Golant of Boca Raton.
Both Charney and Kowalski said they hoped it would bring more attention to the quality of work being done in Florida, the foreclosure crisis and the need for funding for civil services.
“I’m honored to be recognized by The Florida Bar and I am happy they chose to focus on foreclosures,” said Kowalski, who was disappointed that civil services fees were recently cut from the state budget by Gov. Rick Scott.
“I feel it’s inappropriate for Gov. Scott to veto funding for civil services at the same time the funding from The Florida Bar Foundation is going down because of the dip in attorneys’ trust funds accounts,” he said.
Kowalski doesn’t see the foreclosure problem subsiding any time soon.
“You have this need that is ever increasing, an economy that does not appear to be improving, and the end of the foreclosure dockets across the state and you have a bad time to cut legal aid budgets,” said Kowalski, who was honored in 2009 with The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award for the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
Charney was also worried about the future of foreclosures.
“The recognition comes at a time of great compromise and distress,” said Charney, who was recognized as the National Association of Consumer Advocates 2006 “National Consumer Lawyer of the Year.”
“I feel honored, and honored for JALA. Without them, no one would know my name,” she said.
Charney started working for the Predatory Lending Unit of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid in 2004 after leaving Gulf Coast Legal Services in Sarasota.
“When I left Sarasota, I already started to see the overwhelming numbers of foreclosure cases coming in the door,” said Charney, who has also traveled the country training lawyers in foreclosure defense.
“I came up here to focus on predatory lending cases, but couldn’t focus on that with the number of foreclosure cases that we had,” she said.
Though she also doesn’t see a recovery in the foreclosure crisis, Charney has noticed that people are realizing that they aren’t good for business.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that foreclosures are a failed business model,” said Charney. “I couldn’t pinpoint a date for a recovery, but all the pressures are on. All the legal, social and political pressures are on to stop foreclosures, to show there has to be some other way.”
She credits the work of consumer lawyers such as Kowalski and Golant for revealing the fraud and “robo-signing” practices that were a part of the lending industry.
“This is why they share this award with me because they are leaders and champions pushing this agenda every step, and it’s a big push,” said Charney. “And it’s a very heavy lift.”
The Consumer Protection Law Committee’s mission is to educate consumers and Bar members about consumer protection laws and current issues through such means as public outreach events, public service messages, CLE programs, consumer publications, nonpartisan technical assistance memoranda on proposed legislation, and providing expert resources to The Florida Bar, the judiciary, and the Legislature.
The awards will be presented at committee awards reception June 24 at The Florida Bar Convention in Orlando.