By Kathy Para JBA Pro Bono committee chair
There is a place for legal expertise that can be used for low-income clients in pro bono representation, including but not limited to real estate, contracts, employment, bankruptcy, family law, immigration, wills, advance directives, landlord/tenant and consumer related issues.
In recent cases, attorneys Tom Harper and Taylor King provided volunteer bankruptcy and employment expertise to give their clients a fresh start and a reason to be hopeful.
Harper’s client was a restaurant employee who gave notice that she was leaving her job. Her employer refused to pay her last paychecks and instead withheld the wages to cover rent on the employee’s apartment.
The client/employee is from Thailand and moved to Jacksonville to become the chief cook for a Thai restaurant. The owner located an apartment for the employee and controlled the lease. The employee paid the monthly rent on time. When she gave her notice, she offered to stay on in the apartment and continue to pay the monthly rent.
However, the restaurant owner asked the apartment manager to evict her and the employer withheld from her restaurant wages an amount that would cover the last month’s rent plus one month’s rent which was assessed as a cancellation fee on the apartment lease for $1,450.
Harper submitted a complaint in small claims court. At the prehearing, the case was mediated and the employer agreed to pay about $2,450 to the employee. The extra $1,000 received paid all the employee’s court costs and the cost for an interpreter ($140) at mediation.
“This is a common problem with smaller employers. I receive calls every month, but many employees do not want to come up with $250 to file in small claims and have the complaint served on their employer. When they do, most settle at the prehearing because the employer has to hire a lawyer who normally recommends to pay the worker. There were possible overtime claims here and attorney’s fees available, but we chose to take the $2,450 and move on,” said Harper.
“Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has form complaints for employees to use in small claims court and I am glad to supervise the process. It is always a rewarding experience to help those in need,” he added.
In this case, it was important to the employee to collect her wages and handle her obligations under the lease separately and without having an eviction on her record. The employer’s actions jeopardized both her short-term and long-term financial and housing stability.
Though not a large amount of money, it clearly was money that mattered to her and the steps taken by the employer had the potential of long-term negative impact. By insisting on fair and clear dealings, Harper helped his client start on her new employment chapter without the burden of lost wages and a recorded eviction action.
King’s client was in need of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
A middle-aged woman with disabilities, she had experienced periods of unemployment during which she incurred medical bills and credit card debt, and had received notice from the IRS that she owed some back taxes.
King determined that she qualified under the means test and that she didn’t have assets that she could lose in a Chapter 7 action. After client meetings, thorough document preparation and research on transferring assets in the past two years, King filed the case.
Since his client thought she might get a small income tax refund for the current year, he was careful to file the bankruptcy documents prior to the filing of her tax return.
Although the court denied the request for waiver of filing fee, it did allow a manageable payment plan. In about 10 hours of work, King gave his client a fresh start and a reason to be hopeful. She was relieved from some extremely burdensome debt and can move into her future with a clean slate.
“She survives on a limited disability income and had a variety of debts that she clearly could not afford to pay. She had worked intermittently when she could, but at the time of filing was only receiving disability income. I honestly am not sure how she got by with only the disability income and managed to pay her rent every month,” said King.
When asked what he gained from the experience, King said, “My client was very kind, patient and appreciative. Her case was relatively straightforward. It’s nice to know you helped out someone that is struggling and really needs the help and appreciates it.”
King practices at Mickler & Mickler, primarily serving as debtor’s counsel in Chapter 7, 11, 12 and 13 cases. The firm also handles complex bankruptcy litigation and consumer finance litigation.
King said that not every case is the same, but more often than not pro bono clients are appreciative of the work done for them and also much in need of assistance.
“Sometimes they need practical guidance as much as they need legal advice. As far as managing pro bono work on top of a busy work schedule, it also helps that in most cases the clients are very understanding of your schedule and do not abuse the privilege of their attorney working for free,” he said.
The Jacksonville Bar Association appreciates the work of Harper and King and the hundreds of other attorneys throughout Northeast Florida who are involved in pro bono representation.