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Latest Tzedek DC Court Victory Illustrates UDC Law’s Outsize Impact in the D.C. Community

Tuesday, August 6, 2019  
Posted by: UDC Law Staff
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Group photo of Dean Renée Hutchins,
Rhonda, and Ariel Levinson-Waldman
UDC Law Dean Renée Hutchins meets with Rhonda and Tzedek DC’s President and Director-Counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman.

When longtime Ward 5 resident Rhonda learned that a D.C. Superior Court hearing on her debt collection case was imminent, she was unsure where to turn. Rhonda – who is studying toward her bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia – had spent the past two years in and out of medical treatment for the serious injuries she suffered as a result of a car accident. The injuries Rhonda sustained, combined with the gauntlet of doctors’ appointments and physical therapy sessions required for her full recovery, had put her out of a job and exhausted her savings. But when Rhonda explained her situation to the creditor, they made no accommodation for her situation. Instead, the creditor filed a $10,000 debt collection proceeding in D.C. Superior Court.

But as a former paralegal, Rhonda knew the dangers of facing the creditor’s hard-charging lawyer without legal support. While thousands of low-income District residents face debt-related legal crises each year, many respondents in debt collection proceedings are unrepresented in the D.C. courts because of the high cost of legal services. The few respondents who do secure counsel enjoy a success rate above 90%, dramatically better results than respondents who appear pro se.

The search for a lawyer led Rhonda to the New York Avenue office of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP), a nonprofit law firm providing free legal information, advice, and representation to low-income D.C. residents on civil legal matters. There she met with an attorney in the program’s Economic Security Unit named John K. Blake. While talking through Rhonda’s options at the upcoming D.C. Superior Court hearing, Rhonda learned that John attended the University of the District of Columbia as well. After graduating magna cum laude from the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law), John was named a Howard C. Westwood Fellow at NLSP, where he provides legal advice and representation in consumer law, public benefits, and housing law matters as a Staff Attorney in the organization’s Economic Security Unit.

With Rhonda’s court hearing just days away, John knew time was of the essence. He drafted a motion to dismiss and recommended that, for oral argument, Rhonda retain the District’s leading pro bono provider of debt-related legal services to low-income D.C. residents, Tzedek DC – an independent public interest law center at the law school that works to safeguard the rights of low-income District residents through direct representation, community legal education, and policy advocacy combatting illegal debt collection practices and consumer protections problems such as identity theft and predatory lending.

Rhonda had heard from other District residents and UDC students about the high-quality legal support provided by the law school and its affiliated programs, so she enthusiastically accepted John’s advice. With no time to lose, John referred Rhonda to Tzedek DC’s President and Director-Counsel Ariel Levinson-Waldman, who agreed to represent Rhonda at the D.C. Superior Court hearing just three days away. Working over the weekend to prepare the best possible case, Levinson-Waldman – who is also an Adjunct Professor at UDC Law – faced down the creditor’s lawyer at oral argument on the motion, successfully persuading the judge to grant Rhonda’s motion to dismiss because of the creditor’s failure to comply with various rules. Rhonda is now protected by the statute of limitations as a result, preventing any future attempts by the creditor to collect her alleged debt.

Rhonda credits Tzedek DC and UDC Law’s close-knit legal services community with the win, saying “I could not have prevailed without this support. Y'all know how to argue the law! Thanks to your prowess, justice was definitely served. I am so happy that Ariel and John believed in me as well as my case and stood by my side. Being unemployed after my recent accident, these services were truly a blessing and one I will never forget.”

Rhonda’s success story is just one of the many legal victories secured by Tzedek DC since its 2017 launch. While mentoring and supervising over two dozen UDC Law students, in the two and a half years since its launch, Tzedek DC has provided free legal help to over 800 clients, with the average full representation case yielding over $1,000 in client savings, equal to more than two weeks wages at the current minimum wage.


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