It takes passion to build a just society.
Jonathan Harris credits his parents with planting the seeds: his mother, a union member and teacher who once served Baltimore’s west side schools, and his father, who, as a divinity student, protested the Southern Baptist Convention for its position against civil rights. One of Jonathan’s defining moments came in his first year at Duke University when he joined the burgeoning student movement to end sweatshop labor. The students demanded that the universities disclose all factories that made their collegiate apparel and used their leverage as consumers to improve workplace conditions. Then Jonathan landed a summer internship with a union in New York City working with a small team of Spanish-speaking garment workers. Their mission: to ferret out the hidden sweatshops of New York. From locked garages in Queens to gated factories in Manhattan’s garment district, they uncovered abusive businesses and identified the clothing brands that contracted for slave-like labor to yield a bigger profit.
After college, Jonathan headed first to Miami to organize low-wage immigrant workers, next to South America to coordinate an international student gathering, and then back to New York City to promote electoral reform.
As a student at CUNY School of Law, Jonathan worked to strengthen NYC’s regulations governing debt collection practices. It was apparent that many consumer debt problems were products of wage theft, unemployment, and a disappearing safety net, and vice-versa. “When workers lose jobs, they must rely on credit to pay for basic necessities, and if we are going to help people get back on their feet,” Jonathan realized, “we have to look at their economic situation in a more integrated way.” His ideas earned him a prestigious Skadden Fellowship, which he brought to the Public Justice Center in 2011.
Since then, Jonathan and his colleagues have made significant progress. Jonathan filed and argued an amicus brief in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in SunTrust Bank v. Frank J. Goldman, et. al. His brief on behalf of the PJC, Civil Justice and the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition argued that SunTrust’s attempt to claim 15% contractual attorney’s fees was grossly disproportionate to the minimal amount of fees actually incurred when obtaining a default judgment against the Goldmans. In this case, SunTrust only incurred attorney fees of $3,258.30 but wanted to collect a total of $60,206! The court awarded the lower amount, and the bank appealed, seeking larger fees. If granted, Jonathan argued, the higher fees would allow the financial interests of debt collectors to trump the integrity of the bar and the rights of consumers. The Court of Special Appeals agreed, and its published decision is a victory for homeowners who are struggling in these difficult times.
Jonathan also represented the perspective of consumers and low-wage workers during the Maryland Court of Appeals’ process to revise the Rules of Procedure governing debt buyers seeking affidavit judgments—an expedited procedure that allows judges to rule without a trial—against consumers. Debt buyers typically pay pennies on the dollar for charged-off consumer debts, and then sue in court with proof that, if it exists at all, falls far short of meeting basic evidentiary standards. The PJC and other advocates argued for a greater level of proof to provide due process and protect consumers. The Court heard us and rejected the debt buying industry’s plea to be allowed to simply use a charge-off statement as proof of the existence of the debt. The new rules require, among other things: proof of the debt’s ownership along the entire chain of title; detailed identifiers of the original account; and the terms and conditions of the account agreement if the debt buyer is seeking attorneys’ fees or interest above 6% per year. These changes will help prevent the all-too-common practice of consumers being sued by multiple debt buyers on the same alleged debt, and will ensure that the correct debt collector is suing the correct consumer on the correct credit account. Since the new rules took effect on January 1, 2012, we have seen a significant drop in new filings of debt buyer suits—a clear victory for low-income consumers.
Jonathan’s Skadden Fellowship is a perfect match with the PJC. We aim to stop the troubling practice of employers using credit reports in hiring decisions. We investigate wage theft and workplace safety claims and draw on Jonathan’s extensive knowledge of debt collection laws to help workers ethically collect on judgments against employers for unpaid wages.
It is Jonathan’s vision of a level playing field – where the rights of workers and consumers are balanced with those of employers and banks – that keeps his passion fueled. We applaud his efforts.
Thank you for building a just society.