Last month, a South Bronx pastor and a national nonprofit filed a lawsuit in the Manhattan courtroom against the New York Attorney General’s Office in an effort to challenge laws that prevent low-income New Yorkers from seeking free legal advice in debt-collection lawsuits.
That legal effort by pastor John Udo-Okon and Upsolve — an organization that helps low-income and working-class families access legal and financial assistance — is starting to gain steam. Five groups, including the NAACP and The Institute for Justice, have filed amicus briefs in support of the legal effort. An amicus brief is a legal filing, where parties try to “help” the court reach its decision by offering facts, analysis or perspective that the parties to the case have not.
New York’s rules governing the unauthorized practice of law, prevent people who aren’t lawyers from providing such “individualized” advice on responding to lawsuits, the initial court filing said.
“There is a civil rights injustice that New York is committing against the lowest income communities by violating their civil rights and their human rights,” said Rohan Pavuluri, CEO and co-founder of Upsolve. “The promise of America is that people should be able to access certain rights under the law and as long New York continues to commit this injustice against low-income New Yorkers restricting their ability to get free legal advice from a trained community-based advocate, we will never keep the promise of equal rights under the law.”
The backing from the five amicus parties, which also includes The National Center for Access to Justice, a joint filing from 25 law professors and Professor Rebecca Sandefur is a rarity, as only 0.1% of civil cases a year in district court receive any amicus briefs.
The NAACP in its brief said the “unnecessarily broad” unauthorized practice rules “significantly limit the scope of the aid” that the leading national civil rights organization can offer to debt collection defendants. Additionally, they believe the outcome of the case “will have profound civil rights implications for NAACP members and for the NAACP’s institutional interest in redressing injustice and inequality.”
Pavuluri told the Bronx Times that the backing of groups like NAACP is a positive step that their landmark case could help low-income New York — who are often the target of debt collection action — to be equipped with free and “individualized” legal advice.
An estimated 90% of Americans sued for their debt receive no legal representation, often due to indigency. In the suit, claimants state that debt collection actions are the most common kind of lawsuit in New York.
Under New York’s law, Udo-Okon, who offers such legal services and advice to his South Bronx clientele, would be banned from doing so and levied with criminal misdemeanor prosecution and civil penalties under the law. Upsolve also argues that applying state rules prohibiting unauthorized law practice to its planned access to justice program would violate its rights under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
According to Upsolve, an estimated 70 million Americans have debt in collections, and each year, roughly 4 million of these Americans are sued for their debt, often for debt that they don’t actually owe or for the wrong amounts.
Attorney General Letitia James is named as a lead defendant in the case, and officials from the Attorney General’s Office did not respond to request for comment by publication.
Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.