Year End Newsletter

Dear Friends: I’m writing today, nearing the one-year anniversary of Tzedek DC’s first day of full-time operations, with an overview of what we’ve accomplished this year. This comes with a heartfelt thanks for your support of our tikkun olam (repair the world) efforts. We hope that you will consider a generous year-end gift to carry forward the work of helping DC families with an array of debt-related problems.  To donate, click here.

We’ve been inspired by the enthusiastic response to our arrival –- from the legal services community, attorneys and laws firms throughout the city, and above all the DC families seeking our help.  We’re proud to have established a solid presence in the city through our free legal services, preventative education, and policy advocacy.  For a deeper dive into these activities, just keep on reading – or scroll down here and click (on non-mobile devices) on the links to specific topics.                 

It is no cliché to say that we could never have come this far without the help of this generous community of supporters.  Along with important support from local foundations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the DC Bar Foundation, your contributions of time, talent and money have enabled us to make meaningful strides already.   In the coming year, we will continue to raise the profile of predatory lending and debt collection abuses as fundamental issues of civil rights, and to deepen the involvement of the Jewish, civil rights, legal, and civic and business communities in attacking this problem, and with a special focus on expanding our services to immigrant households.  With the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under siege, our work takes on even more urgency than ever.  Please help us level the playing field for some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

With great appreciation for your support, in all its forms,

 

Ariel Levinson-Waldman

Our Free Legal Services and Clients

We served over 160 clients, nearly 60 % of them women, including elderly widows, female heads of households, and survivors of intimate partner violence (financial abuse often accompanies emotional and physical abuse). They come to us from DC Superior Court Small Claims court each Wednesday, referrals from other legal service providers, word of mouth, and our online intake form.

Ms. J raised her hand for legal services on her first Wednesday appearance in court. She was apprehensive as she’d never worked with a lawyer before, but this time she decided to ask for help since she knew the debt that brought her to court didn’t belong to her. Ms. J was the victim of identity theft. The debt claimed against her originated in Florida, the monthly statements were sent to Florida, and all of the charges were made in Florida - even though Ms. J had never lived in Florida. Tzedek DC accompanied her to mediation, and she was able to secure a dismissal with judgement.
 
 Mr. H is the single father of a 14 year old daughter.  After a death in his family and his own medical issues, he became unable to pay his credit card bill. Once his health stabilized, he returned to work and was eager to right his credit situation. But, with a mortgage and dental bills for his daughter’s braces, he knew he couldn’t pay a lump sum. A Tzedek DC pro bono partner negotiated in mediation on his behalf. “Tzedek DC made a formidable difference to me,” he says. “I was hoping to get my total bill reduced by $200 at most, so I was amazed when they negotiated it down by almost 50%.” As an added bonus, he also got the start date postponed til January, after the holidays.
 
esan.jpg
Esan F: “Earlier this year, I found myself expecting my first child after ending an abusive relationship, forced to quit my job due to health complications and very much in debt. I fell behind in my repayment plan with Capital One and went to my [Court] hearing with no clue what to expect next.   [The Tzedek DC team] approached me in the courtroom asking if I needed legal counsel. The spark of hope I felt in that moment was fully realized as [the Tzedek DC team] handled my unique circumstances promptly and efficiently, while clearly explaining every potential option all with genuine warmth and kindness. I honestly felt as though a group of my own friends were giving me legal support. … they were able to get Capital One to [dismiss the suit for] the entire amount that I owed, which was well over $3,000…. Additionally, the team followed up with advice and referrals for the other issues I was facing. In my opinion, what the Tzedek team did was miraculous.  They played a tremendous role in helping to ensure that my daughter and I got back on the right track.” 

Short Documentary Film Featuring Our Clients

We are also grateful to the Stone Soup Docs in a Day film festival team, which selected Tzedek DC as one of five local nonprofits to be subject of a short documentary film and to Peter Edelman, Shelley Broderick and Rebecca Vallas, who, along with three of our clients  -- Lauren, Cecille, and the Amaya Family – took time on a weekend to share their stories.  See www.tzedekdc.org

 

Hear from Our Volunteers

With thanks to Venable and Steptoe & Johnson for generously providing space and sandwiches, we have trained over 35 attorneys to take on cases for us pro bono. Many are still practicing in private law firms and government agencies; others are retired. More training sessions are planned for 2018 (and thanks to Steptoe & Johnson, we now have a training by video option), so get in touch if you’d like to volunteer for an extremely rewarding experience.

Tzedek DC Volunteer Rachel Engle: “[W]hen I heard about Tzedek DC from the Jewish Community Relations Council, I just knew it was the right fit. I have been amazed by how much just having a lawyer in the room can dramatically change the outcome. It’s such a huge relief for our clients, who never expected to find legal help.”

 

Tzedek DC volunteer Lori Licata: “ …To have someone available to explain your rights – you can’t put a price on that. My client had old credit card debt that had doubled because of fines.  …I was able to get her case dismissed on hardship grounds. Such a small thing for me made all the difference in the world for her.”

 

Preventative Education and Community Outreach

We have developed and begun distributing (and are continually tailoring) Know Your Rights and other educational materials for groups ranging from UDC Community College first-year students freshmen, to hundreds of United Planning Organization (UPO) clients seeking tax preparation help. We have begun co-teaching financial literacy classes, in conjunction with our community partner the United Planning Organization. And we have initiated a partnership with Little Lights Urban Ministries to provide community legal education and offer intake at Family Services Day in the Potomac Gardens housing project in Southeast DC; nearly all participants will be low-income women.

We are also excited about a partnership with the Hispanic Bar Association, under which we will distribute in 2018 a Spanish Language Know Your Rights video and radio PSA. Our goals are to ensure that our immigrant community members facing debt and debt collection crises know how to find timely help, and especially that they know they can be represented in court without having to physically appear and experience the anxiety of immigration enforcement-related concerns.    

 

Policy Reform

Our policy work is done in conjunction with the broader legal aid and anti-poverty communities. Here, we highlights two areas of our policy reform efforts:

1. Reforming the suspension of drivers’ licenses for unpaid debt.

Following our testimony to the DC Council  -- urging members to discontinue this unfair, counterproductive, and legally problematic policy that in effect punishes poor people for being poor --a bill developed by Councilmember Elissa Silverman and co-introduced or co-sponsored by six of the 13 Councilmembers was introduced on December 5.  For more on this and the Washington Post’s coverage, click here.

We look forward to continuing our advocacy as the bill goes through the legislative process.  In this work, we are fortunate to work with a terrific pro bono team from WilmerHale, led by Tzedek DC Advisory Council Member Danielle Conley.

With the Virginia NAACP  and others, we submitted an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a case involving 900,000 Virginians whose drivers’ licenses were suspended.  

2. Reforming the rules governing debt collection litigation.

In today’s marketplace, debt buyers purchase billions of dollars of debt and attempt to collect based on spreadsheets of summary information that are frequently inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated. We are working to have the Council require that debt collectors be compelled to substantiate the information needed before suing.

 

EAT WELL, DO JUSTICE

 

TZEDEK DC'S STAFF

On February 1, we had a staff of two: myself, and Rachel Gray, who during a one year fellowship was an integral part of the creation and success of Tzedek DC before leaving in August to begin law school.   Rachel and I were soon joined by Janet Lowenthal, an experienced non-profit and development professional, writer and program evaluator.  In June, we welcomed Associate Director Sarah Hollender, a lawyer with extensive experience in civil legal aid and consumer law in particular who, along with her legal and policy work, manages our growing team of pro bono volunteers.  And in September, Elana Handelman joined the team as our Avodah Jewish Service Corps Fellow.   Elana is often the first point of contact for our clients as our intake specialist.  Full staff bios can be found at https://www.tzedekdc.org/staff/.  

 

Again, we deeply appreciate your support of Tzedek DC’s work.
Thank you for making it possible.
https://www.tzedekdc.org/donate-now/

Tzedek DC and Coalition Members File Amicus Brief in Support of Acting CFPB Director Leandra English

Agency’s Independence Is Necessary to Its Mission, Groups Say

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) independence from external political influence is crucial to the agency’s mission of protecting consumers, Tzedek DC and nine other groups told a court today in an amicus brief filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Along with Tzedek DC, the groups are Public Citizen, Americans for Financial Reform, Center for Responsible Lending, Consumer Action, National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), National Consumers League, National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (U.S. PIRG Education Fund).

In the case, Deputy CFPB Director Leandra English is seeking a preliminary injunction allowing her to serve as acting director of the CFPB while litigation over the lawful acting director – herself or U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney – proceeds. In their amicus filing, the groups explain that the public has a strong interest in English serving as the acting director while the court further considers the legal issues.

“The CFPB’s independence is critical to its effectiveness in protecting our client community of low-income D.C. residents, who often face debt, credit and predatory lending crises, as well as unjust debt collection activities,” said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, president and director-counsel of Tzedek DC. “The Bureau, to say the least, should not be run by a member of the president’s Cabinet. The court should act to ensure compliance with Congress’s intent in Dodd-Frank of having an independent CFPB.”

The organizations’ amicus brief is here.

Tzedek DC supports bill introduced in DC Council to end automatic suspension of low-income drivers’ licenses for unpaid debts

Contact: Sarah Hollender, sh@tzedekdc.org

Washington, D.C., December 7, 2017 — D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman earlier this week introduced legislation that would end the automatic suspension of low-income residents’ driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of tickets and certain kinds of court debt. The Driver’s License Revocation Fairness Amendment Act of 2017 would end the city’s current practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay debts as low as $100 from parking tickets, traffic tickets, or certain court judgments.

Existing District law allows the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to suspend a person’s driver’s license for any unpaid government-issued ticket over $100, only reinstating the license once the bill, including any added fees, is paid. The legislation introduced this week aims to protect lower-income residents and working families who are not able to pay the ticket by setting income limits for license suspensions, reinstating licenses for eligible residents, and ending license suspensions as a tool for private debt collection.

Including Councilmember Silverman, six of the thirteen DC Councilmembers co-introduced or co-sponsored the bill. Co-introducers included At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso was a co-sponsor. The bill was referred to the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

Ariel Levinson-Waldman, President and Director-Counsel of Tzedek DC, said:

“Suspending DC residents’ driver’s licenses for nonpayment of debt is unfair, counter-productive, and legally problematic.  Tzedek DC thanks Councilmember Silverman and each of her Council colleagues working to advance the changes embodied in the bill.  We will continue to work with the Council and our coalition partners in advocating for these protections. 

It is time to end this irrational and harmful practice. Suspending low-income DC residents’ licenses makes them less able to afford their debt, and, importantly, increases their risk of exposure to criminal charges for driving without a license when they must drive a car for critical life tasks.  Not surprisingly, many low-income DC residents are arrested and charged for driving without a license, a criminal charge that carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine for the first offense.  Suspension doesn’t just perpetuate poverty.  It criminalizes it.” 

***

For links to further background on the issue of drivers license suspension reform:

Tzedek DC hosted the inaugural Eat Well, Do Justice event on September 25, 2017

Tzedek DC held its first community event – and the Kugel was delicious!

September 25, 2017

On Monday, September 25 over 300 people packed the new UDC Student Center for Tzedek DC’s inaugural Eat Well, Do Justice! Celebrity Chef Kugel Cook-off. Through the generosity of the community, Tzedek DC raised over $110,000 to help fund their work advocating for DC residents facing debt-related crises.

The night was successful in raising critical funding oxygen, but also was great fun for all who attended. We ate some great kugel from some of DC’s top culinary talents—thanks to Washington Post Deputy Food Editor Bonnie Benwick’s leadership in putting the roster of chefs together:

Kyle Bailey of The Salt Line 

Mike Friedman of Red Hen and All Purpose

Danny Lee of Mandu and Chiko

Alex Levin of the Schlow Restaurant Group

[Pati Jinich of “Pati’s Mexican Table” who was scheduled to attend needed to be with family in Mexico City dealing with the effects of the earthquakes and had to miss this year’s event]

Alex Levin’s entry - Savta’s kugel, beat out spirited and tasty entries from the other three chefs winning the popular vote and the hearts and stomachs of the judges. Check out the article about the winning kugel on the Washington Post website.

We also thank a terrific set of guest judges:

The witty (and very tall!) David Gregory ,
food writer extraordinaire Joan Nathan
DC Bar leader AnnaMaria Steward, who dove in to her first kugel experience with her trademark gusto and humor
wonderful legal and kugel maven Marna Tucker

The judges are pictured below with the competing chefs.  A fuller set of event photos, courtesy of Jeffrey Baker Photography, can be found here.

Eat Well Do Justice! co-chairs Courtney Weiner, June Kress and Laura Kumin were instrumental in making the night a success from check in to check out. They did a masterful job turning Courtney’s inspired idea into a wonderful gathering for the community and a chance to share how special this first year of work has been for Tzedek DC. Their work was supported by a strong Host Committee and 58 event sponsors including members of the legal, civic, Jewish and corporate communities.  Thank you to all our attendees, sponsors, supporters and volunteers who made the evening memorable. 

Here are some links to stories about the night:

Bisnow DC

DC Bar: Kugels for a Good Cause

Jewish Food Experience Talks Kugels and with Eat Well chefs

UDC David A. Clarke School of Law: School News

DC Bar's write up of the event

Watch out for news in the coming months about the 2018 Eat Well, Do Justice!

eatwell.png

 

Tzedek DC, the Virginia NAACP, and Coalition Partners File Brief in Opposition to Drivers’ Licenses Being Suspended for Unpaid Debts

Washington, D.C., August 16, 2017– Tzedek DC, the Virginia NAACP, and coalition partners today submitted an amicus brief in a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit arising out of the dismissal by the lower court of a class action complaint filed on behalf of over 900,000 Virginians whose drivers’ licenses were suspended.  Virginia, like the District of Columbia – where Tzedek DC’s legal and ongoing policy reform work on behalf of low-income DC residents with debt related issues is focused – currently suspends driver’s licenses when traffic tickets and court debt are unpaid, without any inquiry into the ability of the person with the driver’s license to pay traffic-related debts and the often accompanying late fees and penalties.

The brief details how, for many, the loss of a driver’s license means “a loss of a reliable way of meeting one’s basic needs such as transporting oneself or family members to work, to critical medical appointments, taking children to school and shopping for food.”  It argues that the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses in Virginia for non-payment of debt both has a disparate impact on  African-Americans and violates the Constitution’s due process and equal protection principles.

Tzedek DC in its first seven months of operations has, along with financial literacy work and legal work representing over 70 individuals being sued or threatened in debt cases, filed coalition amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, DC Circuit, and now the Fourth Circuit, related to debt and consumer  issues.  

Ariel Levinson-Waldman, President and Director-Counsel of Tzedek DC, commented: “As the brief notes, our client communities have a substantial interest in ensuring that the rules governing drivers’ licenses comply with constitutional requirements and basic principles of fairness. We believe that suspending drivers’ licenses in debt matters, especially with no inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay, is not only constitutionally dubious but also unfair and counter-productive public policy. In effect, it punishes the poor for being poor.”  

Contact: Sarah Hollender, sh@tzedekdc.org

Tzedek DC and coalition partners send letter to D.C. Council supporting legislation to protect residents against debt collection abuses

Washington, D.C., July 13, 2017 - Tzedek DC and coalition partners have sent a letter to the Council of the District of Columbia urging the Council to move forward with key legislation to protect residents from debt collection lawsuit abuses.  The letter notes that debt collection tactics used against District residents are of particular concern given the civil rights and racial justice aspects of the issues surrounding debt collection lawsuits: as a 2016 report by Pro Publica concluded:Black communities are hit much harder by debt collection lawsuits than white ones, even in places where black households and white households have similar incomes.   The full letter is here: Debt Buying Limitation Amendment Act of 2017 Support Letter

Tzedek DC Receives 2017 Access to Justice Grant from DC Bar Foundation

Washington, D.C., April 25, 2017 – Tzedek DC, a non-profit consumer protection legal aid organization headquartered at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, has been awarded a 2017 Access to Justice Grant from the DC Bar Foundation, the leading funder of civil legal aid in the District of Columbia. This funding, which provides $47,000 of support for the May 1 – December 31, 2017 time period, will help Tzedek DC fund a full-time staff attorney to further its mission of safeguarding the rights low-income DC residents facing debt-related legal problems. The DC Bar Foundation’s announcement noted that “Tzedek DC received new funding to assist low-income DC residents in debt-related legal matters. Tzedek DC will help DC residents avoid the effects of a negative court judgment and bad credit report, such as losing their driver’s license, seizure of their bank account, impossible payment plans, and the inability to obtain employment. Tzedek DC will also conduct community outreach by partnering with the United Planning Organization…” The Foundation’s full announcement can be found here: https://dcbarfoundation.org/grants/our-grantees/

Tzedek DC Launches as First Legal Services Group Organized by Washington Jewish Community

 Tzedek DC, the first non-profit legal services organization sponsored by the Washington Jewish community, is now a full-time public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, announced Katherine “Shelley” Broderick, Dean of the School of Law, and Tzedek DC’s Board Chair Irvin Nathan.

Tzedek DC Launches as Center at UDC To Serve People Facing Debt-Related Legal Crises

Tzedek DC, a non-profit organization with the mission of safeguarding the rights of low-income DC residents facing often unjust debt collection lawsuits and other predatory consumer crises, is now a full-time public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, announced Katherine “Shelley” Broderick, Dean of the School of Law, and Tzedek DC’s Board Chair Irvin Nathan.