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Big jump in pro se cases

April 25, 2009

Crowds of people trying to act as their own lawyers are a common and growing phenomenon in courthouses here and across the nation.


By Jerry Crimmins
Law Bulletin staff writer

The number of pro se litigants is expanding rapidly in the recession as more people face the loss of homes, eviction from apartments and lawsuits and judgments for unpaid debts.

The pro se phenomenon has become so widespread that there are talks with the Cook County court system of dedicating as much as an entire floor of the Daley Center to pro se advice desks, according to Robert A. Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation.

Stephanie Berube works at the Daley  Center Legal Advice desk in April for  those needing legal aid. The desk is located on the sixth floor in room 602 at  the Daley Center. Photo by Chris Bernacchi

Stephanie Berube works at the Daley Center Legal Advice desk in April for those needing legal aid. The desk is located on the sixth floor in room 602 at the Daley Center. Photo by Chris Bernacchi

”If you think about all the people coming in pro se every day, there’s thousands a day, I’m guessing, close to that much, including Traffic Court,” Glaves said.

Ten help desks for pro se litigants already exist in Cook County in scattered locations.

They are staffed by legal aid lawyers or, in at least one case, by employees from the office of Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans.

As a snapshot of the recession and of the pro se phenomenon, here is a sample of what’s happening in local courts.

Contract and tort non-jury section

Seven courtrooms on the 11th floor of the Daley Center are dedicated mostly to disputes over contracts, with 105,000 cases now pending, according to Associate Judge Daniel T. Gillespie, who is the assignment judge for all seven rooms.

These are ”overwhelmingly … creditor cases,” Gillespie said, filed primarily by credit card companies or collection agencies.

”Capital One is suing 14,000 defendants on the 11th floor,” Gillespie noted.

Creditor cases have tripled in Cook County in six years. The majority of defendants have no lawyers.

”Therefore,” Gillespie said, ”you could say that pro se cases have tripled.”

Pro se defendants trying to negotiate with the collectors’ lawyers are a common sight in the 11th-floor hallways.

Thousands more defendants in collection cases don’t appear at all and lose by default, said Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly, who is doing research on these courts.

The number of default judgments in these courts has increased 27 percent since 2005, Donnelly said, rising from 54,086 in 2005 to 68,536 in 2008.

Municipal Court Advice Desk

In the midst of this flood of creditor cases where most defendants have no lawyer, three legal aid attorneys in Room 602 of the Daley Center operate the Municipal Court Advice Desk.

The three can help about 25 pro se litigants a day, said Catherine A. Schneider, supervising attorney for that desk.

They turn away atleast that many because they can’t serve all who come, Schneider said.

The three lawyers are on track to help about 6,200 pro se litigants in fiscal year 2009, according to their boss, Allen C. Schwartz, executive director of the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, or CARPLS.

The number 6,200 may seem small in comparison to the flood, but it is up almost 50 percent from the era prior to March 2008, when the desk was staffed by only one lawyer and by law students from Chicago-Kent College of Law, according to the circuit court.

Pro se litigants who seek help at the municipal court desk also face debts from medical problems, personal loans and payday loans, Schneider said.

”You see people who a year ago were middle class,” noted CARPLS attorney Melissa K. Samuels, who works at this desk. ”They got laid off” or had a serious medical problem ”and suddenly they now are low income.”

The same desk also helps numerous pro ses who face eviction from apartments, plus pro ses in a variety of less common contract cases.

Supplementary proceedings and miscellaneous remedies section

The post-judgment collection court for all of the judgments rendered on the 11th floor is in the Daley Center’s Room 1401.

Here plaintiffs seek to persuade the defendants to pay the judgments or seek to garnish defendants’ wages or seize bank accounts and other assets.

”Last year we served more cases than any previous year,” observed Circuit Judge Michael B. Hyman. ”Ninety percent of the cases in our courtroom, there is at least one pro se litigating.”

Once in a while, both sides are pro se. But almost always, the debtor is pro se.

”Ninety-eight percent or so of the creditors are represented by counsel” in Room 1401, Donnelly noted.

The caseload in Room 1401 has grown from 120,000 in 2006 to at least 132,000 in 2008, or as many as 600 to 700 cases a day, Hyman said.

Donnelly said that what troubled him ”was the lack of an adversarial quality” to the proceedings. Creditors would move to freeze bank accounts or garnish wages, and ”the debtor could not make any legally coherent response.”

”People say, ‘What do I do, judge?’ ” Donnelly said.

The debtor might even have a legitimate defense of which he or she is unaware, but Donnelly noted that the judge is barred by ethical rules from becoming an advocate for the debtor.

At the request of Donnelly and his then-partner in room 1401, Associate Judge Sanjay T. Tailor, Evans and Circuit Judge E. Kenneth Wright, the presiding judge of the 1st Municipal District, arranged to have CARPLS create a new legal aid desk for Room 1401 in 2005 called the Collections Advice Desk.

Hyman, another reformer, personally rewrote most of the dozen-plus legal forms used in Room 1401 to make them easier for pro se litigants to use.

Hyman, Donnelly and Tailor are in other courtrooms now due to routine rotations. Room 1401 is now presided over by Associate Judge Patrick J. Sherlock and Circuit Judge James E. Snyder.

Collections advice desk

This desk is a cubbyhole office entered through a doorway in the wall of Room 1401.

To face the flood of 120,000 or more cases in that courtroom — 90 percent pro se — this advice desk has two staff attorneys. On Monday and Tuesday the desk also has one additional lawyer who works pro bono.

The Collections Advice Desk is on track to help 3,000 pro se litigants in fiscal year 2009, according to CARPLS.

Pro ses who seek advice here are typically ”defendants whose bank accounts are frozen or wages garnished” after judgments were rendered against them in debt collection cases, according to CARPLS attorney Ashlee B. Highland.

Creditors with judgments in hand can legally get bank accounts of debtors frozen. But banks are supposed to leave certain funds exempt, such as direct deposits from Social Security or child support payments, Highland said.

”Some banks are doing it properly,” she said, while others are not.

Also, state law allows a debtor to protect up to $4,000 in what is called a ”wild card exemption.”

Pro se litigants rarely know any of this.

”My organization helps people go to court to claim those exemptions,” Highland said.

According to CARPLS, exemptions are granted in 88 percent of the bank freeze cases this desk handles. Exemptions or deductions are granted in 43 percent of the wage garnishment cases this desk handles.

Chancery Advice Desk

In 2008, Cook County had 43,876 mortgage foreclosure filings. In the first three months of this year, the county saw 13,296 more mortgage foreclosure filings.

In the Daley Center, 14 judges hear mortgage foreclosure cases, according to attorney Lorinda J. Vancura. She is supervisory attorney for the Chancery Advice Desk for pro se litigants operated by the Chicago Legal Clinic.

This desk typically can help 30 pro se litigants a day, judging by its first-quarter statistics. It has two staff attorneys and, on an average day, one additional volunteer attorney.

Together, they have helped 1,796 pro ses in the first quarter of 2009, up 18 percent from the same period in 2008.

”In recent months, the demand has expanded such that we have not been able to accommodate the large numbers..,” Vancura said. ”We routinely have two-hour wait times to see an attorney. Some days we have to close intake prior to 4 p.m. because we have hit capacity for the day.”

Located in Room 1303 of the Daley Center, this desk helps pro ses in all Chancery cases, but Vancura said the majority are foreclosures.

In 2005, she said, 65 percent of the pro se litigants at this desk wanted help with foreclosures. ”Now it’s about 90 percent.”

Small Claims Pro Se Help Desk

Surprisingly, in what may be the original pro se help desk in Cook County, founded by the chief judge in the 1970s, the number of new cases is in steep decline.

”It’s declining due to the court fees,” said Roberto Velazquez, supervisor of the desk. ”It costs a fortune to file a case these days.”

There were 1,042 new cases at this desk in 2004 but only 554 in 2008, a drop of 46 percent.

Small claims lawsuits are for ”out of pocket” damages of $1,500 or less. Claims of punitive damages and mental anguish are not heard in Small Claims Court.

The filing fee for a case with damages up to $250 is $101.

For claims claiming damages of $1,000 to $1,500, the filing fee is $159. Plus it costs $60 for the sheriff to serve papers. Serving papers by certified mail, when possible, is $11.31.

The employees at this desk work for the chief judge’s office and are not lawyers. They help pro ses with paperwork in small disputes over such things as automobile damage, the denial of unemployment benefits or tenants trying to get security deposits back.

When told the filing fees, according to Velazquez, ”Some people turn around and say, ‘Whoa, whoa. No way.’ ”

Bankruptcy Help Desk

The number of pro se litigants who got help from the Bankruptcy Desk in Room 622 of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse was up 30 percent through April 6, according to staff attorney Mary Pat Dixon.

Through April 6, 2008, the desk helped 525 visitors. In the same period this year it helped 683. The desk is operated by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

”Sometimes when I get here, people are waiting already,” Dixon said. ”I’m sure if we were open all day, people would come all day.” But the desk is open only from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Many of the pro ses ”have gone to attorneys, but they just can’t afford the attorney’s fees, or the filing fee,” Dixon said. For a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the filing fee is $299.

Among other things, the desk can help a debtor fill out an application for a waiver of the filing fee. It’s not automatic.

”We take emergencies first,” Dixon said.

One such emergency is when the foreclosure on the debtor’s home ”has progressed to the point where there is a sheriff’s sale scheduled.”

The desk can help a person file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy payment plan.

”It stops the foreclosure sale, as long as they file before the sale,” Dixon said.

”It’s nice that there’s funding for it,” Dixon said of her advice desk. ”I don’t know what people would do… People are very appreciative that this service is available to them.”

She said this pro se advice desk helps ”everybody, the court system and the clients.”

Other Downtown Advice Desks

The Expedited Child Support and Paternity Pro Se Advice Desk on the 14th floor at 32 W. Randolph St. expects to see about 1,800 people this year compared to 1,650 last year, according to Edward I. Grossman of the Chicago Legal Clinic, which operates this desk.

The Domestic Relations Self-Help Desk on the 30th floor of the Daley Center, operated by CARPLS, expects to help 5,500 pro se litigants in fiscal year 2009.

The Administrative Hearings Desk, 400 W. Superior St., Room 121, helps pro ses with cases involving building code violations, vehicle impounds and other municipal matters. With only one staff attorney, this desk operated by CARPLS, expects to help 1,000 pro ses in fiscal 2009.

These pro se help desks — and more not mentioned here — were developed in recent years through partnerships of the Chicago Bar Foundation with the Cook County Circuit Court or the U.S. courts, and with various legal aid organizations.

The CBF put almost $600,000 this year into grants for these desks, of which more than $400,000 comes from donations to the CBF and $170,000 from the circuit court.

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