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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Volunteer Helps Client Deal with Consumer Debt


By Alison Ponder Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Fellow, VLSP


The Volunteer Legal Service Program’s (VLSP) Consumer Project and its dedicated volunteers work hard to assist those who are struggling with consumer debt and its effects. It is frequently consumer debt– often medical debt, student loan debt or credit card debt used to pay for basic living expenses – that pulls people into the spiral of poverty.

In 2010, a credit card company sued Jeanine Morales* regarding an alleged unpaid debt. Jeanine is a disabled woman whose sole source of income each month is $845 in Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Jeanine had no idea that she had been sued by the credit card company because she was never served with a summons and complaint. As a result, Jeanine did not respond to the lawsuit and a default judgment was subsequently obtained by the credit card company in March 2010.

It was not until approximately one year later, in March 2011, that Jeanine discovered the judgment. At that time, the judgment-creditor levied the bank account of her brother, John. John is a former employee of the National Park Service who was forced to leave his post due to health problems. John’s only income, which comprised his entire life’s savings, was his accrued pension money he had received from National Park Service at the end of his service. It was this pension money, $17,000 in total, which the credit card company wrongfully took from John’s account in an attempt to satisfy the judgment it had obtained against Jeanine.

The Morales’ did not discover this target on John’s account until it was too late to challenge the bank account levy. Jeanine and John thought that John’s entire life savings was gone forever. However, Jeanine sought assistance through VLSP’s Consumer Project to determine whether her family had any recourse to challenge this wrongful action. Through the project, VLSP volunteer Kevin Sullivan agreed to provide pro bono representation to Jeanine. Sullivan drafted a motion to set aside the default judgment obtained by the credit card company and to quash the bank account levy. This motion was based on the fact that Jeanine had no notice of the lawsuit and the funds in John Morales’ savings account were not the property of Jeanine Morales. The credit card company would not agree to stipulate to set aside the default and to return the $17,000 belonging to John. The company filed its opposition to Sullivan’s motion, however, a judge of the Superior Court of San Francisco ruled in favor of Jeanine and ordered that the company return the levied funds to John.

Thank you to Kevin Sullivan for this incredible outcome!

To learn how you get involved with VLSP’s Consumer Project, please email

*Client’s name has been changed.

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