Amid massive funding cuts, Clay's legal aid office attempts to meet thriving demand

Article Courtesy of The Florida Times-Union

By Teresa Stepzinski 

Published September 11, 2014 


GREEN COVE SPRINGS -- Annetta Chavarin worked hard and always paid her bills even when it wasn’t easy. The Middleburg mother is disabled by diabetes and her 14-year-old son is critically ill with an incurable condition that’s landed him in the hospital and required a half-dozen surgeries.

When her son was hospitalized in August 2011, Chavarin notified her mortgage carrier she would be late with that month’s payment and tried to establish a payment plan. She submitted all the necessary paperwork to the mortgage carrier, made up the late payment then kept current with subsequent ones.


“They foreclosed on me without any notice … all [because of] one late payment that I made up,” said Chavarin, whose husband works for a pizza restaurant. The couple couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. Frustrated and scared by the prospect of losing the family’s home of 20 years, they turned to Clay County Legal Aid, which accepted the case.

Last month, the three-year legal battle waged on behalf of Chavarin and her family by Clay legal aid managing attorney Gloria Einstein ended in victory.

“We would be without our home if it wasn’t for Ms. Einstein. She worked really hard for us. I don’t know what I would have done without legal aid,” Chavarin told the Times-Union.

Managing attorney Gloria Einstein (left) greets client Annetta Chavarin at the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid office in the Clay County Courthouse in Green Cove Springs.

Chavarin isn’t alone. She typifies many Clay County residents turning to legal aid for help, especially in foreclosure cases lingering from the recession.

“Our clients aren’t the stereotype of people who don’t work, don’t care and don’t pay. Anyone can get caught in these systems and need help,” Einstein said.

The nonprofit offers civil legal services in many areas including foreclosure and debt collection defense, mortgage rescue and landlord-tenant issues, family law, elder law, health and public benefits and consumer law. Based in Duval County, the agency has a branch office in St. Johns County as well as Clay. A network of local attorneys, working pro bono, assist legal aid staff serving residents in 17 Northeast Florida counties.

“… Legal aid is the lawyer for the people,” said James Kowalski, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “The need has never been greater than it is right now at what everybody else is thinking is the end of the recession.”

Einstein’s office mirrors her passion for legal aid and commitment to the clients the organization serve. Stacks of case files, legal briefs and law books cover pretty much every inch of her desk.

Amid family photos and sharing a prominent place near a painting of wildflowers by her mother, a framed print depicting the scales of justice with a passage from the Fifth Book of Moses in elegant script, hangs on the wall where Einstein can see both easily from her desk.

“Justice, Justice, Shalt Thou Pursue,” reads the passage. It is Deuteronomy 16:20.

“I won’t be here for forever. So, I’m actually thinking about giving [the passage] to my successor in the office. Because to me, it just belongs here,” said Einstein, managing attorney for Clay office of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
“Our clients aren’t the stereotype of people who don’t work, don’t care and don’t pay. Anyone can get caught in these systems and need help.”

Gloria Einstein, Clay County Legal Aid

An attorney since 1978, Einstein has devoted her career to serving legal aid clients. She worked with legal aid in Georgia for a dozen years before joining Jacksonville Area Legal Aid in 1990 and serving as managing attorney in the Clay office for most of that time.

“It is what I went to law school to do,” Einstein said. “Being a lawyer, you are giving so much of your mind, your personality and your strength to your client, that legal aid is just want I wanted to do.”

Clients change, need remains

The week of Aug. 25 was busy for Einstein. She had six trials and two court hearings on the court docket. Her colleagues also were busy.

The need for legal aid has always been there. But their clients have changed over the years.

“What we’ve seen most recently, that has really struck me, is the newly poor,” Kowalski said of clients who had good-paying jobs before the economy tanked, creating a ripple effect that plunged many into a financial tailspin.

People lost their jobs and burned through their savings. Ultimately they couldn’t pay their mortgages or other bills. If they could find jobs, typically it didn’t pay as much or have the benefits as the one they lost. Add in a health or family crisis and a bad situation got worse for people.

“A lot of people never would have been legal aid clients until 2008,” Einstein said of the implosion of the housing industry that hit Clay hard.

“We suddenly had this explosion of people who were our clients who really needed help right away. Some of them have gotten back on their feet. Some of them have improved themselves and take the time to get a more advanced certification or degree. And some of them just can’t make the adjustment, yet,” she said.

Einstein is among three attorneys and two support staff in Clay. Their case load varies. It peaked at 410 cases in 2011, but now it averages about 240 cases a year, she said.

“It’s decreased over the whole program since 2011 because we had a 20 percent reduction in force then. And there are fewer foreclosures being filed now,” Einstein said.

Fewer attorneys means fewer cases being handled.

“Surely if we had more attorneys, we could have way more cases. Our biggest loss has been in family law,” said Einstein, noting their family law attorney recently retired.

Meanwhile, the legal issues facing their clients are more complex than in the past.

Although there has been a decrease, defending people against foreclosures by banks or home owner associations dominate the Clay case load.

“It’s mostly foreclosures … some consumer collections, Social Security and public benefits. And there are some wills and directives that we do for senior citizens and for people with serious illnesses. If we had a family law attorney, it would be a big chunk of our work as well,” Einstein said.

Einstein emphasized their clients aren’t deadbeats. To be eligible for legal aid, an applicant must meet a series of requirements, including having a workable plan to get out of that debt, she said.

“Most of those who don’t pay, can’t pay. But there are many others who want to pay but who are prevented just by the procedures that the banks or the [mortgage] servicers have adopted,” she said, noting the complex and convoluted procedures dominating the mortgage industry in recent years. Complicating the matter is no one with those companies knows the whole situation or has the authority to resolve it without going to court.

Chavarin’s case illustrates the problem.

“At the time they filed against her, Mrs. Chavarin was paying every month and they were keeping the money. Months later, they started returning her checks. And we had two more cases in 2012 just like that. And in one, unfortunately, the lady passed away. The people were paying every month and [the mortgage company] still sued them,” Einstein said.

Home owner association cases can be even more complex. Under a little-known statute, once a homeowner misses a single payment, the association then can take all the subsequent payments for fees and costs such as $50 every time they write a letter to the person. And the interest rate is 18 percent, she said.

The homeowner might think he/she is all caught up, or might not even realize they are behind, until the foreclosure notice lands on their doorstep, Einstein said.

“As far as the HOA is concerned, you are behind five years because all the other payments you have been faithfully making have been hijacked into their fees and costs and interests,” Einstein said.

Sheree Nelson-Manrique, a 72-year-old widow, faced foreclosure on her longtime Orange Park home because of an error by her condominium association. Nelson-Manrique’s paid her dues on time each month. However, the management company had put her payments into someone else’s account. Nelson-Manrique didn’t know of or find out about that mistake until the condo association sent her a letter saying it was foreclosing on her home.

“I knew I had paid them,” said Nelson-Manrique, who had a local attorney who used her bank statements to prove she made the payments via checks. That should have of ended the matter. But it didn’t. The condo association sued Nelson-Manrique anyway and put a lien on her home.

Nelson-Manrique, who is on a fixed income, didn’t have enough money to hire the original attorney again. So, she went to legal aid where Einstein took her case after first verifying Nelson-Manrique’s documentation of payments. It took several months, but Einstein, aided by the original attorney who agreed to work pro bono, ultimately convinced the condo association to really investigate. The condo association found Nelson-Manrique’s payments and dropped its lawsuit against her.

“Ms. Einstein stood up for me. She was really great and helped me out,” Nelson-Manrique said. “I would recommend her and legal aid to anyone. They really care.”

Perfect storm of funding cuts

State and some local funding cuts threaten their ability to help those with the greatest need for their services, Kowalski said.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed state funding for legal aid earlier this year — making Florida one of three states in the nation that doesn’t provide such funding. Meanwhile, the city of Jacksonville has steadily reduced its funding for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid — from $747,110 in 2005-06 to zero in 2013-14. Another financial blow is the projected loss of funding from The Florida Bar Foundation, a historically major contributor, Kowalski said.

On Sept. 1, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid began closing its Clay and Duval office one day a week. Those employees will be furloughed at least one day every week through 2015. Legal aid also cut staff salaries by 20 percent. Its board has authorized layoffs, and the suspension of employee retirement matching, Kowalski said.

Clay County’s tentative 2014-15 budget includes $142,729 for legal aid, which is a 1.5 percent increase from the current $140,619. The Clay Commission’s funding has held steady at about that same level since 2010-11, commission auditor Mike Price said.

Earlier this year, the commission also provided office space inside the Clay County Courthouse for legal aid to help it be more accessible to county residents. That space was an additional supplement Clay provided to the agency, said Kowlaski, noting Clay and the St. Johns County Commission have a long history of supporting legal aid.

“I think what we see with Clay is an engaged County Commission, certainly an engaged county manager, who are looking for ways to help us in a time of very tight county budgets,” Kowalski said. “You’ve got a county commission in St. Johns and Clay that have at least helped funding even in the face of declining revenue – opposite of Duval and highly opposite of Rick Scott.”

Kowalski also said St. Johns County Legal Aid will remain fully staffed and open five days a week.

Although Clay Commission funding remains intact for the legal aid office there, the overall loss of state funding hurts, Einstein said.

“I’ve been through a lot of legal services crises since 1978, but this may be worse because every avenue is simultaneously drying up. It is very scary,” Einstein said.