Monthly Archives: February 2009

Legal Aid obtains back benefits, saves home from foreclosure

Legal Aid staff attorney Nicole Jassie

Legal Aid staff attorney Nicole Jassie

Baltimore Administrative Law Unit staff attorney Nicole Jassie helped a client get nearly $11,000 in back unemployment benefits as the result of an appeal (which had originally been denied before the client came to Legal Aid). Nicole wrote a legal memo and made an oral argument to the Board of Appeals, resulting in a favorable decision.

“It was really important because my client, as a result of losing her job, was not receiving any unemployment–and not being able to find a new job, was also about to lose her home,” Jassie said. “Unfortunately, because the client had no income and had used up all her savings, she was not eligible for any of these programs assisting with foreclosure.”

After the hearing, the client told Jassie that her house would be foreclosed at the end of January if she didn’t pay the more than $1,000 that was due. “Fortunately, she received her check December 20, 2008 and so she will be able to make it,” Jassie said. “In fact, as a result of the legal victory in the unemployment case, she is now receiving additional payments under the Extended Unemployment Compensation program for an additional 20 weeks.”

Concern over a new wave of mortgage fraud

On Saturday, a Washington Post article about a new mortgage fraud task announced by the Maryland U.S. attorney quoted Maryland Legal Aid’s Kathleen Skullney.  With governments stretched for resources and federal aid flooding the economy, criminals will become more active, Skullney warned. “We are very concerned about the fraud that is already out there, but we are also concerned about a new wave of fraud that will inevitably flow from the money made available by way of mortgage rescue efforts,” said Skullney, director of the Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project at Legal Aid.

To read the article, click here.

Are Maryland agencies that serve the poor ready to handle the stimulus influx?

petersabonis2Acting chief counsel Peter Sabonis was interviewed today on WYPR-FM’s Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast about President Obama’s stimulus package and whether agencies that serve low-income Marylanders are ready for the influx of federal funds. “We’re seeing a state human resources infrastructure … that’s skeletal at times,” Sabonis said. “We’ve seen a steady decline over the last seven years in the number of state workers … as the number of problems increase–long waits, documents lost, supervisors not returning phone calls.”  Sabonis also talked about food stamp recertification, a routine process that usually allows for smooth transitions as people reapply for the benefit every six months. “But those transitions aren’t there anymore,” Sabonis said. “There aren’t enough [state] workers. Our clients have to rob Peter to pay Paul, they pull out money meant to pay utilities and use it to buy groceries, they start using food pantries. Our clients have to scramble. If there’s more of a demand on the system, we’re going to see if the state infrastructure, which is already weakened, can handle it.” To hear the interview, click here (scroll down to February 20).

Legal Aid helps people cope with the economic downturn

Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project staff attorney Kathleen Skullney

Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project staff attorney Kathleen Skullney

Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project staff attorney Kathleen Skullney made a return appearance on WYPR-FM’s Midday show today. The topic: Coping with Recession. “People feel like they can’thave one more piece of bad news,” Skullney said about Legal Aid clients at risk of losing their homes. “They can’t pay the mortgage, think nothing can be done and put off asking for help.” Skullney told host Dan Rodricks that listeners battered by the recession need to be practical. “Capture your financial picture on paper,” she recommended. “It’s an essential part of the solution that brings another focus, shifts the fears and anxieties and makes it possible to talk about alternatives to foreclosure.” Skullney was joined on the program by University of Maryland School of Social Work professor Jodi Jacobson.

State job cuts endanger stimulus aid

petersabonis2Nearly eight years of job cuts in critical state agencies that serve low-income Marylanders will make it more difficult for federal stimulus aid to do the intended job, writes Maryland Legal Aid acting chief counsel Peter Sabonis in a Baltimore Sun op-ed.  “The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute examined the change in full-time state positions from the start of the freeze in 2001 until 2008 and found that those two departments lost 1,333 and 1,042 full-time positions respectively–more than twice as many as any other agency,” Sabonis wrote. “This is no surprise to us at Maryland Legal Aid. As we represent the unemployed and the working poor during this recession, we’ve seen the effects of a skeletal state infrastructure. Eligibility documents are lost by local Department of Social Service workers; phone calls are not returned; waiting rooms are crowded; supervisors and managers are unavailable; and mistakes are increasing.” To read the entire column, click here.

Louise Carwell appears on WYPR-FM’s “Midday” talk show

Legal Aid Housing/Consumer Law Unit senior attorney Louise Carwell

Legal Aid Housing/Consumer Law Unit senior attorney Louise Carwell

Yesterday’s Midday show on WYPR-FM, hosted by Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, featured Maryland Legal Aid senior attorney Louise Carwell, who talked about the plight of low-income people victimized by hospital debt collection practices. “We’ve always seen Legal Aid clients sued by hospitals for bills they don’t owe,” Carwell said. “We find individuals covered by Medical Assistance who get billed by hospitals. It’s a problem between the hospital and Medical Assistance, but they go after the patients.” Also on the program was Sun reporter James Drew, co-author of “In Their Debt,” a series on hospital debt collection practices that ran late last year. The series found that hospitals filed more than 132,000 lawsuits against their patients from 2003 to mid-2008, collected more than $100 million through judgments and imposed more than 8,000 property liens across the state, even though hospitals’ costs of providing free and unpaid care are supposed to be covered in the rates they charge. Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, also appeared on yesterday’s show.

Homeowners get tools to fight foreclosure

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Maryland’s top court has adopted new foreclosure procedure rules that requires lenders to notify homeowners and any guarantors that a foreclosure action has been filed. “For the first time, the door to the courthouse is now open to homeowners in foreclosure,” said Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project attorney Kathleen Skullney. “The thousands of Marylanders caught in the shoddy, negligent, or outright fraudulent mortgage products that have thrown them into default will be able to raise any illegalities in the process or the underlying loan as defenses to the foreclosure.

“Equally important, these homeowners no longer be barred by their inability to post a bond,” Skullney continued. “Furthermore, the homeowner can ask the court to stay the foreclosure if the property is involved in any collateral court proceeding, such as divorce. These are significant changes that go a long way toward balancing the foreclosure procedure, which by definition is ‘equitable’ in nature. These changes bring equity much closer to reality.”

The Court of Appeals voted yesterday to adopt the changes as proposed and made the effective date May 1.

There are several significant changes, including expanded definitions and notification requirements aimed at tenants. The most important and exciting change is the addition of new Rule 14-211 which allows any interested party to raise legal defenses to the foreclosure sale in a motion to stay/dismiss. The legal defenses include challenges to the validity of the loan or right to accelerate, or a collateral proceeding that involves the property. The rule also allows for limited discovery and does away with the onerous bond requirement for posting the entire amount of the debt.

Another small, but important change is the requirement that “occupants” get notices of the proceeding and sale. “This is the first time in Maryland that the plight of innocent tenants in a foreclosed property is procedurally recognized,” Skullney said. “At the very least, tenants will be able to avoid being thrown out of their homes without warning.”

The changes specific to foreclosure are identified as Category 1 in the 160th Rules Committee Report which can be found on the Judiciary website.