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This is a story about a pro bono case in small claims court. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s a story of a damaged human trying to survive. It’s a story of a justice system that too often hits hardest against the most unfortunate people in our society. But it’s also a story of how persistence and attention to detail can make a legal case turn on a dime – and make a real difference in someone’s life.
This story takes place several years ago, when I was just a young attorney fresh out of law school who decided to try some pro bono work, figuring that I could pick up some trial experience and expand my legal knowledge while doing some good in my city.
I went to the legal assistance organization Philadelphia VIP and was matched with a debt collection case that they said would be a good fit for what I was seeking. Representing a defendant in a small-claims collection suit is a pretty long way from my typical fare; I’m usually found working on behalf of plaintiffs in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases.
I rode my bike deep into South Philly to meet my client, an unfailingly pleasant woman who’d suffered through a mental breakdown and a divorce, then lost her job. Her only source of income was disability checks, so there was no way she could pay her debt, and now she was panicking over the notice she’d received to appear in municipal court.
Philadelphia VIP connected me with an attorney experienced in debt collection cases, who suggested that I serve notice to the creditor’s corporate designee to provide documentation and testimony verifying the validity of the debt. Since these designees are often involved in hundreds of other lawsuits – typically against people who don’t have attorneys – there was a chance the document request would create enough of a burden that they wouldn’t show up for the hearing. So that‘s what I did, but it didn’t go as I’d hoped; they responded promptly, sending along a document verifying the debt.
When the hearing date arrived, I went looking for the creditor’s attorney. The room was filled with debtors who had no lawyers present, and I watched as many of them made deals with the lawyers for their creditors. I found my opponent as he was finishing up with someone else and took him aside to explain that my client had no money and no job, so there was no way they’d ever be able to collect against her. But he said he couldn’t drop it, particularly because he’d brought the corporate representative with him, just as I’d requested.
At this point, I knew that it would be virtually impossible to win this case. Everything was in place for them to confirm the debt and get a judgment entered against my client. Nonetheless, I put on my best poker face and told him,
Okay, I’m gonna fight it.
So we fought it. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing in front of the municipal court judge, making my first and (to this point) only appearance there. It was immediately apparent that the judge favored creditors in these cases; she was shooting down all my attempts to derail their case. But I stood tall, insisting that they still haven’t verified the debt’s legitimacy – so the judge motioned toward the representative and said, “That’s what he’s for.”
At this point, the representative got sworn in. He stated his name – for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him Gary Jones – and began answering questions from opposing counsel. This was it; with the debt being verified, there wasn’t much I could do.
But I said I was going to fight it, and I wasn’t about to stop until the final order. So I looked down at the only piece of paper I’d brought with me: the one-page complaint that included a verification of the debt and allegations– signed by “Henry Cook” and dated a month back.
I stood up like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning, and cut in. “Your honor, this man should at least say his job title and what he does, because he is not Henry Cook, the person who signed the complaint.”
The next moment is burned into my memory for all time: “Henry Cook?” Mr. Jones blurted out. “He hasn’t worked here in years!”
Never before – except on TV – have I seen a case that seemed so certain crumble so quickly. Just like that, the evidence of the debt had become inadmissible, and the judge promptly threw out the case, leaving my client practically jumping for joy when the news came in.
Of course, that left me wondering whether other people had been victimized in the same way, so I scoured the docket for similar cases around the same time and found several other faulty verifications with Henry Cook’s name on them as well as other complaints erroneously filed. Next thing I knew, I was an attorney just months out of law school pitching a potential class-action suit to some of Philadelphia’s largest law firms (which was quite a confidence booster) – but that’s a story for another day.
Although this was just a pro bono case in small claims court, it offers a lesson – and a warning – to those who practice in every area of the law. Take nothing as a given. No case is predetermined. And even a single detail can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Jordan Strokovsky is a trial lawyer and founder of Strokovsky LLC, where he handles catastrophic injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, premises liability, birth injury and trucking cases. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.