Debtor's Purgatory 

People who can't afford to hire an attorney have virtually no chance in court against well-heeled lawyers for banks and debt collection companies.

Page 5 of 5

"Did you open an account with Washington Mutual and use the card to make purchases?"

Martinez nodded. "Yes," she said, meekly.

"Is the issue today that you can't afford to pay?"

"Yes."

"Do you live ... [on] Gatter Drive in Antioch, California?"

"At that time, yes."

"Did you receive credit card statements there?"

"Yes."

"I have no further questions, Your Honor."

Austin turned to Martinez, who launched into a long monologue about her credit card statements. The interest suddenly spiked when the bank name changed from Washington Mutual to Chase, she said. Then interest piled higher after it changed again, from Chase to Cache. There were charges on the bill that she said weren't hers — a $600 line item for a Blockbuster video store in Texas, and another $300 purchase from the Cheesecake Factory. She'd tried to contest them, called various bank representatives, and attempted to negotiate a payment plan with the collection agency. Nothing worked. "Interes, interes, interes," Martinez chanted, slipping back into Spanish. Her daughter blinked.

Austin began his speech. "I see a lot of people in this same situation," he said patiently. "Have you talked to anyone about the possibility of bankruptcy?" Then he leafed through the bank statements from Cache with a quizzical expression. Nieves ground a stiletto into the floor uncomfortably.

"All of these bills are in Spanish," Austin said, addressing Nieves.

"Okay," she said, sounding flustered. "There's a bill of sale and a redacted loan schedule," she added, "and it shows the purchase from Chase."

"That's not enough to authenticate the record," Austin countered. "I can't figure out what's interest and what's not."

Martinez stiffened, realizing her case had taken an unexpected turn.

Austin turned to Nieves again. "When I have these cases, I go through all the bills," he explained. "I'm not able to do that here. Everything's in Spanish. None of these are admissible."

He paused as Nieves fluttered through her own notes, searching for a proper rebuttal. She said nothing. Her client was still waiting outside.

"I understand your position," Austin said, then paused a beat. "I enter judgment in favor of the defendant."

In five minutes of brittle questioning, Martinez' entire debt had been scrubbed clean. She'd experienced a twist of fortune that seldom happens in Austin's courtroom; he'd say later that at least 90 percent of cases result either in settlements, bankruptcies, or plaintiff wins. "This was just an unusual fact situation," he explained. The collection agency didn't have its paperwork together — which is surprisingly common, but hard to detect without a lawyer. Martinez got lucky.

For a moment, mother and daughter sat in stunned silence. Then they rose and shuffled out of the courtroom, arm in arm. They had a long drive back to Stockton, and a root canal to pay for.

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